What Did Jane Austen Think About Motherhood | Pt 2.3

In part one of this series, I covered the births of Jane Austen and her seven siblings, and the childcare strategies of her parents in 18th century England. Across the five chapters of part two, I will show that Jane’s attitudes about marriage were shaped– not by her desire to become a published author– but by her observations of motherhood, particularly pregnancy and childbirth. As a result, she set her standards for a spouse so high that they prevented her from marrying, but not necessarily from becoming a mother. 

In this chapter, we will learn what Jane Austen thought about motherhood, and more specifically, what distinguished a good mother from a bad mother. In addition to her family letters in their historical and economic contexts, I will focus heavily on how Jane represented mothers and motherhood in each of her novels, and how the novel itself may provide mothering to its readers.

Table of Contents

About Jane Austen

Just in case you don’t know, Jane Austen was an early 19th century English novelist, author of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), plus Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817). She never married and died at the age of 41 following an unknown, but highly speculated about, illness. 

Motherhood vs Mothering

To understand what Jane thought about motherhood, I needed to figure out what I think about motherhood. My mental images of motherhood are of the physical labour of caring for babies, feeding and bathing, pacing the floor with an inconsolable newborn, dressing, spit up, blowouts, redressing, and snuggles, and the changes thereof as a baby grows into a child.

But in Jane Austen’s era and social class, ideas about motherhood were very different. It might help to break down motherhood into mothering (that physical labour) and the mothers (the people producing the babies). Motherhood is the supergroup, while mothers exist within it and sometimes take part in mothering, they aren’t always the same person, and in Jane Austen’s society, especially for infants, they usually weren’t. 

Here’s a Venn diagram, because why not?

Infant Care

As discussed in previous chapters, the women of Janes’s social circle were expected to get married and have babies every one to two years. Babies and children would have been a perpetual, ubiquitous feature of every home. Jane wrote in a letter about the fertility of her friends and family: 

“I am quite tired of so many children.”

(March 23, 1817, Jane to Fanny Austen-Knight, Letter 84) 

Yet, there is very little in Jane’s letters and novels about mothers physically caring for infants. Why? Because infant care was delegated to servants. In the first part of this series, we learned that Jane’s parents had all of their babies fostered out within a few weeks or months of birth until they could walk and talk. However, by the time Jane’s generation was having children, that practice had gone out of fashion. Infants were being brought up in the home but mothers of Austen’s class and higher weren’t expected to provide all of their care. The fashionable ideal of the time was a mother who was seen to provide as much care as possible, particularly physical affection and breastfeeding, but without getting her hands or clothes dirty. But what is socially fashionable isn’t necessarily what Jane agreed with, and in fact, it often wasn’t.

Because infant care is so rarely mentioned in her letters or novels, it’s hard to know what Jane thought about the roles of mothers during infancy, but there are some hints.


Maternal breastfeeding was a contentious issue at the time, many people considered mothers who didn’t breastfeed unnatural and selfish; while being seen to breastfeed, whatever one’s actual childcare set up, was very trendy.

Gillray, James. Feb 15, 1796. The Fashionable Mama. British Museum.

Jane doesn’t seem to have an opinion about other mothers breastfeeding or not, she doesn’t really comment on the practice in letters or in her books, aside from the mention of confinements and “nursing” ageing a woman in a letter to her unmarried niece Fanny, 

“And then, by not beginning the business of mothering quite so early in life, you will be young in Constitution, spirits, figure, & countenance, while Mrs. Wm. Hammond is growing old by confinements and nursing.”

(March 13, 1817, Jane to Fanny, Brabourne Letter 83, omitted) 

Of course, “nursing” had a few different meanings, sometimes it just meant intensive care of another person, for example in Persuasion when a little boy is seriously injured in a fall from a tree, he is described as a sick child in need of nursing.

When Jane imagined herself as a mother, she alluded to breastfeeding as “sucking”. 

“No, indeed, I am never too busy to think of S. and S. I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child; and I am much obliged to you for your inquiries.”

(April 25 1811, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 56)

Mrs Frank Austen (Mary), who was expecting her first baby in 1807, asked Jane to ask Cass to observe Mrs Edward Austen feeding her new baby: 

“Mary will be obliged to you to take notice how often Elizabeth nurses her baby in the course of twenty-four hours, how often it is fed, and with what.”

Feb 20, 1807, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 38) 

I find this really interesting: first, the fact that Mrs Frank Austen doesn’t know when or what to feed her baby, either she wasn’t planning to breastfeed or she didn’t think breastfeeding was exclusive to other foods. And secondly, Mrs Frank Austen was consulting Mrs Edward Austen instead of asking her mother-in-law, who was living with her and had breastfed at least Cass for three months, and instead of consulting any of the new books on the subject, which were often written by men.


When her sister-in-law, another Mary, Mrs James Austen’s first baby was around two months old, he had his own nurse that co-slept with him, as Jane described to her sister Cass, when she stayed at Mary’s parent’s house: 

“Martha [Mary’s sister, Jane’s best friend] kindly made room for me in her bed, which was the shut-up one in the new nursery. Nurse and the child slept upon the floor, and there we all were in some confusion and great comfort.”

(Jan 8, 1799, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 16)

The nurse may have been a wet nurse but it’s possible that she was a dry nurse (I’m making that term up) who was expected to bring the baby to Mrs James in the night if he required feeding, or he may have been weaned onto pap and/or wasn’t being fed overnight (which was a common recommendation).

Many years later, when helping to arrange accommodation for her brother Charles’ family at Godmersham, Jane tells Cass:

“By her own desire, Mrs Fanny [Charles’ wife] is to be put in the room next the nursery, her baby in a little bed by her”

(Oct 14 1813, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 66) 

The fact that Jane points out Mrs Charles Austen’s preference in the letter tells me that Jane had intended to have mother and baby sleeping separately and to have the Godmersham nursery staff manage nighttime care for Fanny’s youngest, who would have been at least ten months old at the time. Perhaps mother and child had grown accustomed to sleeping in close proximity to facilitate night feeds, or just because they often lived aboard ship in close quarters for Charles’ work in the Navy. Whatever the case, it was an aberration in how things were expected to be from Jane’s perspective. As I’ll get into later in the section on discipline, this was months after Jane criticized her brother and sister-in-law’s management of their children and perhaps Jane was pointing out these sleeping arrangements to her sister with a nod to how Mrs Fanny was spoiling her children. 


Jane lived in the era when infant and child care advice was shifting from the laywomen’s realm to that of medical experts, which were almost always men. Jane mocks the trend in Sense and Sensibility regarding Mrs Jennings’ daughter, Charlotte (Mrs Palmer) who is characterized as a kind but stupid and reactionary woman. During Charlotte’s lying-in, her mother cares for her, and one evening reports to her guests: 

“I found Charlotte quite in a fuss about the child. She was sure it was very ill– it cried, and fretted, and was all over pimples. So I looked at it directly, and ‘Lord! my dear,’ says I, ‘it is nothing in the world but the red gum;’ and nurse said just the same. But Charlotte, she would not be satisfied, so Mr Donavan was sent for; […] and as soon as ever he saw the child, he said just the same as we did, that it was nothing in the world but red-gum, and then Charlotte was easy.”

Mrs Jennings, Sense & Sensibility, Ch 37

The experience of both Charlotte’s mother and the woman she hired to care for her baby weren’t adequate, a ridiculous new mom must have a physician’s opinion, even if he says the exact same thing. For the record, Red Gum is from the old English “reed gounde”; Anglo-Saxon red + gund matter, pus, you might know it as baby acne.

Baby Clothes

There are a few mentions of baby clothes in Jane’s letters and novels. It was long before ready-to-wear clothes and only a generation or so since baby clothes had taken over from swaddling bands. Women made (or had made), were gifted or collected baby clothes during their engagements or first pregnancies. 

Jane forwards instructions to Cass from the expectant Mrs Frank Austen, regarding her yet-to-be-born baby’s clothes. 

“Mrs. FA has had a very agreeable letter from Mrs Dickson […] and desires her not to provide her self with a christening dress, […] and she means to defer making any of the caps as long as she can, in hope of having Mrs D’s present in time to be serviceable as a pattern. She desires me to tell you that the gowns were cut out before your letter arrived. But that they are long enough for Caroline [b. 1805, 2yo]”

(Jan 7, 1807, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 36) 

Notice that gowns intended for a newborn were large enough to fit a two-year-old, Regency baby clothes were made to last.

A little over a year after Cass’s fiance died, Jane asks her: 

“Dame Tilbury’s daughter has lain in. Shall I give her any of your baby clothes?”

(Oct 27 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 9) 

Without knowing what Cass thought, this comes off as a bit insensitive, Jane just assuming that her sister had given up any hope of becoming a wife and mother at such a young age. Perhaps Jane didn’t feel that baby clothes were sentimental though I wonder how Cass felt about it.

In her novel Emma, Jane writes of the pleasure a sentimental mother, Mrs Weston, had seeing her baby outgrowing its newborn clothes, 

“Mrs Weston with her baby on her knee, indulging in such reflections [on Emma’s marriage], was one of the happiest women in the world. If anything could increase her delight, it was perceiving that the baby would soon have outgrown its first set of caps.”

Emma, Ch 53

Being Silly

Speaking of sentimental mothers, Jane disapproved of mothers being “silly” i.e. overly proud of their infants, both because of the underlying vanity it exposed and because it hints at a mother who will spoil her child. In real life, Jane reported to Cass about Mrs James Austen’s apparent improvement in this area when her baby was a few months old:

“Mary grows rather more reasonable about her childs beauty, and says that she does not think him really handsome.”

(Jan 8, 1799, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 16) 

And much later, after her friend Harriot had her first baby, she noted with approval: 

“Harriot’s fondness for her [baby] seems just what is amiable and natural, and not foolish.”

(June 20th, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 40)

But don’t mistake Jane’s attitude, she didn’t think babies were ugly, she described Harriot’s baby to Cass, comparing her to their brother Frank’s firstborn: 

“I saw their little girl and very small and very pretty she is. Her features are as delicate as Mary Janes, with nice dark eyes; and if she had Mary Jane’s fine color she would be quite complete.” 

(June 20th, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 40)

And she criticizes the character of Mr Palmer in Sense and Sensibility for not recognizing the individuality of infants, even his own child. 

“Mr Palmer maintained the common, but unfatherly opinion among his sex, of all infants being alike; and though [his wife] could plainly perceive at different times the most striking resemblance between this baby and everyone of his relations on both sides, there was no convincing his father of it; not persuading him to believe that it was not exactly like every other baby of the same age; nor could he even be acknowledged the simple proposition of its being the finest child in the world.”

(Sense & Sensibility, Ch 36)

There is a large dose of sass in this passage, “most striking resemblance […] everyone of his relations on both sides” and  “the simple proposition of its being the finest child in the world” again. Jane is poking fun at mothers, such as the stupid Mrs Palmer, who are very silly about their babies.

Holding babies

The only characters in her novels seen to be holding their babies are characters who are silly about or expected to spoil their children, for example, Mrs Palmer in Sense and Sensibility and Mrs Weston in Emma. I suspect Jane would disapprove of modern-day attachment parenting and certainly babywearing but this doesn’t mean she disapproved of actively engaged mothers, at least after infancy. Perhaps Jane held similar attitudes as her parents, that infants weren’t worth a lot of quality time until they were rational creatures: walking and talking and could start their education. 

Good Mothers

In her real life, Jane considered her sister-in-law Elizabeth, Mrs Edward Austen, not just a good mother but the ideal mother, she could even make lying-in seem enviable to Jane (primarily because she was rich). Elizabeth’s daughter, Fanny, started writing letters to her former governess Dorothy Chapman in 1803 when Fanny was just 10 years old, based on them, Deborah Kaplan wrote of Elizabeth Austen:  

“In the next five years her mother would bear four more [babies], while she also planned her children’s meals, nursed them through illnesses, chose and helped to make their clothes, supplied them with elegant entertainments, shaped their manners, and presided over their schooling. Elizabeth Austen educated her children when they were very young.”

(Deborah Kaplan, Jane Austen Among Women)

Elizabeth sounds like one of those too-perfect Instagram moms but consider that at ten years old Fanny already had a former governess. Elizabeth Austen took a very active role in the care of her children but she also had a lot of help with childcare, and not just with childcare but with housekeeping and personal care because she was rich (just like those too-perfect Instagram moms).

As Jane later admitted about another situation, 

“Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked.”

(Jane to Cass, March 23, 1817, Jocelyn Harris, What Jane Saw

 She tried to find cracks in the perfect mother facade, writing to her sister Cass: 

“I cannot discover, even through Fanny, that her mother is fatigued by her attendance on the children.”

(June 15 1808, Jane to Fanny Austen-Knight, Brabourne Letter 37) 

As a rich woman, Elizabeth Austen had options, she could have done the posher equivalent of what her mother-in-law Mrs Austen did: hire a wet nurse and banish her offspring to the nursery until they were “rational”, just before sending them off to school. It was Elizabeth making the choice to be as involved as possible in her children’s education that made her a good mom in Jane’s eyes. 

Moral Education

Providing education was the most important aspect of motherhood according to Jane Austen, not just any education but a moral education. It goes beyond ABCs and 123s, in fact, it is very similar to what someone today learns in high-quality therapy.

I found J Mark Halstead’s modern definition of a moral education:

“Moral education may be defined as helping children and young people to acquire a set of beliefs and values regarding what is right and wrong. This set of beliefs guides their intentions, attitudes and behaviors towards others and their environment. Moral education also helps children develop the disposition to act in accordance with such beliefs and values. More fundamentally, it encourages children to reflect on how they should behave and what sort of people they should be. For many people, these questions are linked to religious belief, but moral education programs treat religion and morality as conceptually distinct.”

(J Mark Halstead, 2010 edition, The Encyclopedia of Cross-Cultural School Psychology)

While Jane was religious, her father and eldest brother were clergymen (and another brother changed careers to become one later in life), her idea of moral education was separate from religion. That distinction wasn’t unusual during the Enlightenment era. Maria Edgeworth, a contemporary and favourite author of Jane Austen, wrote Practical Education in 1798, which advised avoiding politics and religion in its principles of teaching children (and wouldn’t the world be a better place if this principle stuck?). Maria’s focus was on making education effective by ensuring that it wasn’t boring or too fatiguing for children. 

Mothers were expected to provide a moral education because of the presumption that mothers loved and cared more for their children than anyone else combined with the presumption that love for a child will make them love you in return, thereby making them more receptive to learning. But most of us, including Jane, recognized that mothers loving their children more than anyone else wasn’t a universal truth. Perhaps even more so when and where marriage and motherhood weren’t a matter of choice.

The goal of a sound moral education is long-term happiness and fulfilment of the pupil’s highest potential for the benefit of themselves, their family, and even their community. It was wealth that made education the primary duty of motherhood possible, and necessary. As part of a wealthy family, the physical labour of mothers and children was not necessary, leading to excessive leisure. Wealth and excessive leisure breed corruption, therefore instilling strong morals from a young age was intended to prevent the higher classes from harming the lower class people they had power and influence over. For example, when Jane’s character Emma, whose mother died when she was young, openly mocked an older, poorer, albeit ridiculous member of their social circle, Miss Bates, her brother-in-law Mr Knightly chastises her: 

“She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. […] To have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her– and before her niece, too– and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.”

Emma, Ch 43

When a moral education is lacking the harm ripples out from the individual through their community. The higher one’s status, the larger one’s influence, and the more important one’s morals become. This was the social sphere that Jane was writing about and for.


A big part of moral education is instilling discipline. When older children are poorly disciplined, Jane doesn’t fault the child’s personality or nature, but rather the parents for not doing their job. When her brother Charles and his wife left their girls at Godmersham for a month, Jane wrote to her brother Frank; 

“Charles’s little girls were with us about a month, & had so endeared themselves that we were quite sorry to have them go. We have the pleasure however of hearing that they are thought very much improved at home – Harriet in health, Cassy in manners. The latter ought to be a very nice Child – Nature has done enough for her – but Method has been wanting:- we thought her very much improved ourselves, but to have Papa & Mama think her so too was very essential to our contentment. – She will really be a very pleasing Child, if they will only exert themselves a little. – Harriet is a truely sweet-tempered little Darling. -”

(July 3, 1813, Jane to Frank, BL Add MS 41180)

“Nature has done enough for her- but method has been wanting” — “If they will only exert themselves a little.” It’s not Cassy’s fault that Cassy is a brat, it’s her parents’ laziness. 

While Jane promotes a language-based, persuasion and observation, method of teaching children how to behave, she doesn’t discount the utility of physical discipline. For example, physically restraining or removing a child from a situation, in the novel Persuasion

A few days after her nephew, Charles Musgrove falls from a tree, the heroine Ann was taking care of him as he convalesced on the sofa while Mr Hayter (neighbour and cousin of the Musgroves) and Captain Wentworth were waiting for the others: 

“The younger boy, a remarkable stout, forward child, of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, and went straight to the sofa to see what was going on, and put in his claim to any thing good that might be giving away.” 

“There being nothing to be eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him teaze his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him– ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.” 

“‘Walter,’ said she, ‘get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.’” 

“Walter,’ cried Charles Hayter, ‘why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.’” 

“But not a bit did Walter stir.” 

“In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.” 


“She had a strong impression of [Charles Hayter] having said, in a vext tone of voice, after Captain Wentworth’s interference, ‘You ought to have minded me, Walter; I told you not to teaze your aunt;’ and could comprehend his regretting that Captain Wentworth should do what he ought to have done himself.”

Persuasion, Ch 10

When persuasion fails, then it is time for action. The future ineffectual father, Mr Hayter, failed to make a physical effort to relieve Anne and discipline Walter. But Captain Wentworth did what needed to be done without more verbal warnings, Walter had enough opportunity to listen and didn’t, he needed to be made to obey. This is a hero in Jane’s eyes: a disciplinarian.

Jane even seems to approve of corporal punishments, like whipping. Corporal punishment is only mentioned once in Jane’s letters, and possibly in jest (but I find that people who joke about the corporal punishment of children often approve of its use, you know that old festering chestnut of “my parents spanked me and I turned out okay” uh-huhhhhhhh, color me skeptical).

Jane wrote:

“Little Edward was breeched yesterday for good and all, and was whipped into the bargain.”

(Sept 1, 1796, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 4)

I discussed breeching in part one, when little boys are taken out of the petticoats of early childhood and put into breeches or trousers, at an average age of seven but the Austens seem to do it earlier, the Edward mentioned here was only two to three years old and his uncle, Henry, was breeched when he was around four years old.

But the whipping is the focus here: was he being a brat about wearing trousers and so was “whipped” to get him to comply? There was a tradition stretching back into the Middle Ages (in England at least) to have children stand as legal witnesses. To ensure they would remember the event if called about it later, someone would slap or scare the child to use the trauma to form long-term memory. But why do it for a breeching? Doesn’t really make sense to me, so I think it was more that little Edward was being a brat and his parents’ solution was corporal punishment and Jane approved enough to make light of it in her letter home. Or perhaps whipping a child after their breaching was a family tradition, like birthday spankings. 

Bad Mothers

None of us chose our mother and for the most part, mothers don’t choose to fail in their duties to educate their children. But as Jane understood from life and conveyed in her novels, it happens all the time, as she wrote, it’s “the fate of thousands” (Emma, ch 53). In Jane’s view, bad mothers were commonplace and good mothers were like “truly accomplished” women to Mr Darcy.

If one believes they are sharing in “the fate of thousands,” what can be done? Find another source of moral education. As we’ll see in the novel examples, mothers are replaceable and Jane doesn’t limit the role of replacement mothers to mothers, or to women, or even to people.

Men were capable of, and often necessary to, provide moral education. In Jane’s family, her father provided education to his children and other (male) pupils. He also seemed to be a source of moral education based on this letter to his 14-year-old son Frank as he was setting off on his naval career:

“Your behavior, as a member of society, to the individuals around you may be also of great importance to your future well-doing, and certainly will to your present happiness and comfort. You may either by a contemptuous, unkind and selfish manner create disgust and dislike; or by affability, good humour and compliance, become the object of esteem and affection; which of these very opposite paths ‘tis your interest to pursue I need not say.”

(Dec 1788, Rev George Austen to Frank Austen, Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers

The fact that Jane’s father felt it necessary to write this letter to Frank, raises the question of whether he felt his wife had been a bad mother, insofar as failing to provide moral education. And if he felt that way, what must Jane had thought about her mother?

For example, Jane considered shyness a “moral disease,”

“What is become of all the shyness in the world? Moral as well as natural diseases disappear in the progress of time, and new ones take their place. Shyness and the sweating sickness have given way to confidence and paralytic complaints.”

(Feb 8, 1807, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 37)

Shyness was moral disease Jane suffered from as a child; she compared a child visitor to her own awkward behaviour as a child: 

“[a young visitor] is a nice, natural, open-hearted, affectionate girl, with all the ready civility which one sees in the best children in the present day; so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment and shame.”

(February 8, 1807, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 37)

And it wasn’t just Jane who felt that Jane was an awkward or strange kid, her cousin Philadelphia Walter wrote: 

“The youngest (Jane) is very like her brother Henry, not at all pretty & very prim, unlike a girl of twelve”

“The more I see of Cassandra the more I admire [her] — Jane is whimsical & affected.”

(1788 July 23, Phila Walter to James Walter, AFP) 

Mrs Austen tried to send Cass away to school at ten years old, but Jane, the badly behaved child, flipped out until Mrs Austen accommodated her tantrums (instead of using the opportunity to teach discipline) and sent her to school with Cass at seven years old. Did Jane think her own mother was a bad mother? Failed in her primary duty? I think yes. Not because Mrs Austen was a monster or anything, but because Jane thought that the majority of mothers were bad mothers insofar as failing to provide a moral education, and to raise well-behaved, open, honest, self-aware, moral children.  

Let’s shift gears and look at some examples from each of Jane’s novels: 

Novel Mothers

In all of her novels, Jane mentions the quality of her characters’ educations, moral and academic, presumed to be the responsibility of their mother. However, Jane shows us that even the best mothers may not be able to provide their children with a moral education if they are dead and even well-intentioned, loving, living mothers may not do a good job of it, let alone the selfish or stupid ones.

A heroine wouldn’t be a heroine in a Jane Austen novel unless they received a moral education along the way– that is the real plot of her novels– not the getting hitched bit. In fact, it is only through receiving or acting upon a sound moral education that her characters make good marriages (and of course not all of her characters make good marriages, only the heroines and their heroes).

Sense and Sensibility

Mrs Dashwood’s teenage daughter had long since surpassed her in sense: 

“Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.”

Sense & Sensibility, Ch 1

It would be impossible for Mrs Dashwood to provide moral education to Elinor having not learned herself, and Mrs Dashwood only exacerbates Marianne’s moral failings: 

“Elinor saw, with concern, the excess of her sister’s sensibility; but by Mrs Dashwood it was valued and cherished. They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.” 

Sense & Sensibility, Ch 1

When they move to Devonshire, they meet Sir and Lady Middleton, the latter couldn’t even approach moral education because there was no attempt at discipline for their children:

 “Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources. Lady Middleton had the advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round, while Sir John’s independent employments were in existence only half the time.”

“Lady Middleton seemed to be roused to enjoyment only by the entrance of her four noisy children after dinner, who pulled her about, tore her clothes, and put an end to every kind of discourse except what related to themselves.”

Sense & Sensibility, Ch 7

And Lady Middleton was blind to the fact that she was spoiling her horribly behaved children. When the Miss Steeles visit Lady Middleton, they try to ingratiate themselves to her by complimenting her little monsters: 

“Fortunately for those who pay their court through such foibles, a fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow anything; and the excessive affection and endurance of the Miss Steeles towards her offspring, were viewed therefore by Lady Middleton without the smallest surprise or distrust. She saw with maternal complacency all the impertinent encroachments and mischievous tricks to which her cousins submitted. She watched their sashes untied, their hair pulled about their ears, their work-bags searched, and their knives and scissors stolen away, and felt no doubts of its being a reciprocal enjoyment.”

Sense & Sensibility, Ch 21

Of course, Jane always finds the humor: when Lady Middleton’s three-year-old gets scratched by a pin, chaos ensues:

“[the child] was seated in her mother’s lap, covered with kisses, her wound bathed with lavender water by one of the Miss Steeles, who was on her knees to attend her, and her mouth stuffed with sugar-plums by the other. With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise to cease crying.”   

Sense & Sensibility, Ch 21

What kind of morals is that little terror learning? 

For Marianne, instead of her mother, it was the influence of her sister’s sense, the experience of heartbreak and betrayal, and surviving a life-threatening illness that provided her with a moral education and it completely changes her worldview.

“Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.”

Sense & Sensibility, Ch 50

Then and only then was she ready to make a good marriage to Colonel Brandon. 

Pride and Prejudice

Mrs Bennet loved her daughters but was too stupid and preoccupied with securing her own comfort (through getting her daughters hitched) to provide a decent moral education: 

“She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”

Pride & Prejudice, Ch 1

And later in the novel, Elizabeth has a conversation about her and her sisters’ education with Lady Catherine de Bourgh:

Do your sisters play and sing?”

“One of them does.”

“Why did not all you learn? — You ought all to have learned. […] Do you draw?”

“No, not at all.” 

“What, none of you?”

“Not one.”

“That is very strange. But I suppose you had no opportunity. Your mother should have taken you to town every spring for the benefit of the masters.”

“My mother would have had no objection, but my father hates London.”

“Has your governess left you?”

“We never had any governess.”

“No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! — I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave o your education.”

Elizabeth could hardly help smiling, as she assured her that had not been the case.

“Then, who taught you? Who attended to you? Without a governess you must have been neglected.”

“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.” 

“Aye, no doubt; but that is what a governess will prevent, and if I had been known to your mother, I should have advised her most strenuously to engage one. I always say that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it.”

Pride & Prejudice, Ch 29

Lady Catherine is higher class and considerably wealthier than the Bennets, and while she assumed the Bennet sisters’ education would be organized by their mother, she insists that it was the governess’s responsibility to oversee it. But because Mrs. Bennet was so laissez-faire about her daughters’ education, Elizabeth admits that her parents were neglectful in their duties. The results are dysfunctional interpersonal relationships: the eldest is too shy and too trusting, Elizabeth is too willful and presumptuous, Mary too severe and obtuse, and the two youngest are practically out of control, with the youngest of all nearly ruining the family’s reputation and destroying her own life through her elopement with a gold-digging, repeat-offending ephebophile. 

It was Elizabeth’s experiences (learning the errors of her presumptions) as well as Darcy’s own moral education refresher of getting rejected and told off by Elizabeth that led not just them but also Jane and Mr Bingley to the altar and preserved the reputation and future comfort of the entire Bennet family. 

Northanger Abbey

Catherine Moreland’s mother was “a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper.” She spent three gruelling months teaching Catherine, our heroine in training, to repeat the Beggar’s Petition. However, she didn’t insist on her daughters being accomplished and allowed them to give up and/or shirk lessons and was eventually overwhelmed by the number of children she produced.

“Mrs Moreland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children every thing they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves”

“Writing and accounts she was taught by her father; French by her mother: her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons whenever she could.”  

Northanger Abbey, Vol 1 Ch 1

As Catherine entered adolescence she started to become interested in reading… but not the kind of reading that would promote learning.

“[…] provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all.” 

Northanger Abbey, Vol 1 Ch 1

Catherine Morland’s moral education came from Mr Tilney, who she meets in Bath while visiting with her Uncle and Aunt. After Catherine admits her suspicions about his father murdering his mother, a suspicion inspired by the trash novels she was reading, Mr Tilney gives her a sharp reality check: 

“Dear Miss Moreland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you– Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

Northanger Abbey, Vol 2 Ch 9

“The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done. Most grievously was she humbled. Most bitterly did she cry. […] Her folly, which now seemed even criminal, was all exposed”

Northanger Abbey, Vol 2 Ch 10

Mr Tilney was the source of Catherine’s redirection towards a moral education, the hero to our heroine, who just so happens to be a clergyman, a similar situation happens in Mansfield Park. The situation, a male character (the hero) telling the heroine off for her moral failings, causing a sharp redirection, also occurs in Emma. 

Mansfield Park

The heroine of Mansfield Park, Fanny (whose mother married to disoblige her family) is sent off at ten years old to her rich aunt, whose own daughters had a governess and were taught by an instructress as well as “proper masters”. Her cousins thought that Fanny, who “could read, work, and write, but she had been taught nothing more” was “prodigiously stupid” for not knowing geography and music but Jane lets the readers know that:  

“it is not very wonderful that with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility.”

Mansfield Park, Ch 2

Jane believed that moral education was more important, more foundational, than book smarts and accomplishments; and once again, Jane believes that it is their mother’s job to provide it but…  

“To the education of her daughters, Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to any inconvenience”

Mansfield Park, Ch 2

With a nod to Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education, Sir Thomas tries to get his young adult son and heir, Tom, to change his profligate ways, but he fails because “his father had made a most tiresome piece of work of it” (MP Ch3). But the father was only having to intervene because his wife, Tom’s mother, failed in her maternal duties to provide a moral education.

If Fanny’s guardians (Aunts and Uncle), the “instructress”, and those proper masters were incapable of providing a moral education, then who would? Again, it is the eventual romantic interest, the hero, her cousin Edmund, an aspiring clergyman, who provided a moral education for Fanny when they were both still children. 

“[Edmund’s] attentions were otherwise of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures. He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading, which, properly directed, must be an education in itself. Miss Lee taught her French, and heard her read the daily portion of History; but he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgement; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise. In return for such services she loved him better than anybody in the world except [her brother] William; her heart was divided between the two.”

Mansfield Park, Ch 2

It is through her moral education that Fanny recognized the red flags with regards to Mr Henry Crawford, and the moral rectitude to stick to her principles in refusing to marry him. Whereas her expensively educated and accomplished cousin Maria intentionally married an idiot for his money while carrying on an affair with said Mr Crawford. Multiple people’s lives were damaged by the refusal or inability of Lady Bertram to provide her daughters with a moral education. 


In the novel Emma, the titular heroine lost her mother when she was very young and then was raised by her governess Miss Taylor, who, along with her father, spoiled her. 

“Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.”

“Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away […] Emma doing just what she liked, highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgement, but directed chiefly by her own.”

“The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.”

Emma, Ch 1

The lack of a moral education’s primary threat was in interfering with Emma’s “many enjoyments”. Moral education is about ensuring lifelong happiness and contentment, even if it temporarily reduces the pleasures of childhood in the learning. It was Mr Knightley (brother-in-law, neighbour, and eventual romantic interest) who took on the role of providing moral education to Emma throughout her childhood and more so as she became a young adult.

After Miss Taylor has become Mrs Weston and then becomes a mother herself, Mr Knightly raises his concerns to Emma:

“‘She will indulge her even more than she did you, and believe that she does not indulge at all. It will be the only difference.’ 

‘Poor child!’ cried Emma; ‘at that rate what will become of her?’

‘Nothing very bad. The fate of thousands. She will be disagreeable in infancy, and correct herself as she grows older.”

Emma, Ch 53

Mr Knightly, really Jane, believes that mothers may be ignorant that they are over-indulging their children and that people can self-correct even if spoiled as children. 

As mentioned in the discipline section, Mr Knightly calls Emma out after she publicly humiliates one of the party, Miss Bates, who had been born into a more comfortable situation as a rector’s daughter but now faced destitution if not for the support of the community, the community that Emma was effectively the head of due to her wealth. Like Catherine Morland’s scolding by Mr Tilney, which provided a sharp redirection of her behaviour and thinking towards more moral ends, which leads to marriage between heroine and hero; so too does Mr Knightly’s reproach of Emma. 

“Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do; a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible.” 

Emma, Ch 43

Because Emma was so spoiled and used to getting her way, she argued with Mr Knightly, leading to the passage in the discipline section about Miss Bates’s situation and Emma’s influence over others. And then he continued, 

“This is not pleasant to you, Emma– and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will– I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.” 

Emma, Ch 43

As Emma went home,

“She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed– almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcefully struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it in her heart. […] Time did not compose her. As she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more. She never had been so depressed.”

Emma, Ch 43

To think that, had Mrs Wetson made more of an effort to educate Emma when she was Miss Taylor, Emma may have been spared such violent feelings, Miss Bates might have been spared such abuse, among the others afflicted by Emma’s behaviour. When Mr Knightly shares his concerns about little Anna Weston getting spoiled, Emma hopes that the little one can be spared. 

“‘I was very often influenced rightly by you– oftener than I would own at the time. I am very sure you did me good. And if poor little Anna Weston is to be spoiled, it will be the greatest humanity in you to do as much for her as you have done for me.” 

Emma, Ch 53

And as with other heroines whose heroes provide them with the moral education that a mother (or mother-figure) could or would not, Emma marries Mr Knightly. 


The Musgrove boys, Charles and Walter, around five and two years old, are notoriously badly behaved, but no one, certainly not their mother, will take responsibility as Jane explains: 

“As to the management of their children, [Mr Charles Musgrove’s] theory was much better than his wife’s, and his practice not so bad– ‘I could manage them very well, if it were not for Mary’s interference,’– was what Anne often heard him say, and had a good deal of faith in; but when listening in turn to Mary’s reproach of ‘Charles spoils the children so that I cannot get them into any order,’’ — she never had the smallest temptation to say, ‘Very true.’”

Persuasion, Ch 6

“Mary’s declaration was, ‘I hate sending the children to the Great House, though their grandmamma is always wanting to see them, for she humours and indulges them to such a degree, and gives them so much trash and sweet things, that they are sure to come back sick and cross for the rest of the day.’

Persuasion, Ch 6

“– And Mrs Musgrove took the first opportunity of being alone with Anne, to say, ‘Oh! Miss Anne, I cannot help wishing Mrs Charles had a little of your method with those children. They are quite different creatures with you! But to be sure, in general they are so spoilt! It is a pity you cannot put your sister in the way of managing them. They are as fine healthy children as ever were seen, poor little dears, without partiality; but Mrs Charles knows no more how they should be treated!– Bless me, how troublesome they are sometimes!– I assure you, Miss Anne, it prevents my wishing to see them at our house so often as I otherwise should. I believe Mrs Charles is not quite pleased with my not inviting them oftener; but you know it is very bad to have children with one, that one is obliged to be checking every moment; ‘don’t do this, and don’t do that;’– or that one can only keep in tolerable order by more cake than is good for them.’”

Persuasion, Ch 6

They are quite different creatures with their Aunt Ann because they recognize her as having unconditional love for them and that she has their best interest in mind, something they do not get from their mother.

Of course, Grandma Musgrove has little room to talk. Her children are grown, but the signs of a failed moral education, therefore bad mothering, are clear: Charles made a bad marriage. And of course, there was her other son, Poor Richard, the only character I am aware of Jane calling a dick.

“The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross two years before.” 

“He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor richard,’ been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”

Persuasion, Ch 6

One of Mrs Musgrove’s young daughters was so impulsive and willful that she suffers a great fall that could have killed her was a very hard bit of moral education which changes her as profoundly as Marianne was changed… and leads to marriage. Yet while Mrs Musgrove is a bad but loving mother, we see that Mrs Charles Musgrove is a bad and selfish mother. When little Charles is convalescing after his fall, with a broken collarbone and spinal injury, his father decides he’s going out for dinner at his parents’ house, the Jane justifies his actions:

“The child was to be kept in bed, and amused as quietly as possible; but what was there for a father to do? This was quite a female case, and it would be highly absurd in him, who could be of no use at home, to shut himself up.”

Persuasion, Ch 7

Mary is jealous that she doesn’t get to go, and based on modern attitudes, makes a decent case that it’s sexist that she should be expected to stay home while the boy’s father can go out. But that wasn’t how Jane, the heroine Ann, or her original audience saw it.

Ann tries to make peace and give her sister a hint: 

 “indeed, Mary, I cannot wonder at your husband. Nursing does not belong to a man, it is not his province. A sick child is always the mother’s property, her own feelings generally make it so.” 

Persuasion, Ch 7

Then we get to the real issue: Mary Musgrove has raised a child with so little discipline or respect for her that she cannot stand to be alone with him even when he’s badly injured. And if even his mother can’t stand to be alone with him…  other people can’t either, just like Lady Middleton’s children. 

“I hope I am as fond of my child as any mother– but I do not know that I am of any more use in the sick-room than Charles, for I cannot be always scolding and teazing a poor child when it is ill; and you saw, this morning, that if I told him to keep quiet, he was sure to begin kicking about. I have not nerves for the sort of thing.” 

Persuasion, Ch 7

Notice that Mary “hopes” but does not “know,” and doesn’t “feel” it. But it goes beyond that, the family is wholly dysfunctional: Charles and Mary don’t care about each other or their children, only about themselves: a reason for and a symptom of, not just of a failed moral education, but of a bad marriage (topic for next time!).

Yet Mary and Anne had the same mother, who was a good person and attempted to provide a moral education:

“Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; […] and though not the very happiest being in the world herself, had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life, and make it no matter of indifference to her when she was called on to quit them. — Three girls, the two eldest sixteen and fourteen, was an awful legacy for a mother to bequeath; an awful charge rather, to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father. She had, however, one very intimate friend [Lady Russell], a sensible, deserving woman, who had been brought, by strong attachment to herself, to settle close by her, in the village of Kellynch; and on her kindness and advice, Lady Elliot mainly relied for the best help and maintenance of the good principles and instruction which she had been anxiously giving her daughters.” 

Persuasion, Ch 1

Yet even the influence of 16, 14, 12 years in the lives of her daughters, nor the continued “best help and maintenance of the good principles and instruction” of Lady Russell was enough to ensure the eldest and youngest girls’ moral education. The bad influence of their conceited, silly father certainly didn’t help and we can see how Lady Russell’s preference for Ann may have been the reason for Anne’s superior moral sense: 

“Lady Russell loved them all; but it was only in Anne that she could fancy the mother to revive again.”

Persuasion, Ch 6

It was certainly the preference and trust between Anne and Lady Russell that made Lady Russell’s advice against marrying Wentworth as a teenager accepted by Anne in spite of her own feelings. It was Anne learning to trust herself, her own morals, and to act on them, and Wentworth learning to forgive that led them back to each other. 


Jane thought that motherhood was about providing an education to one’s children, most importantly a moral education: shaping manners, instilling values, self-knowledge and discipline that helped children live with other people, find happiness and fulfil their highest potential. Like her parents before her, Jane didn’t see the utility in beginning a child’s education until they were rational, that is, after infancy. However, she did believe that bad habits or moral failings of the mother could be observed in her behaviour towards her baby: too much holding, and too much praise, ultimately resulting in spoiling the child. But Jane felt that women, experienced mothers and nurses were the real experts on infant care and health, not male doctors. 

The best mothers were fond of their babies but allowed servants to manage the intensive daily care of infants, freeing the mother to see to her older children’s needs. The ideal mother of Jane’s social circle was her sister-in-law Elizabeth Austen who was wealthy enough to have options in childcare but chose to be involved in everything from menu planning to making their clothes to providing “elegant entertainments”, and of course, seeing to their education– and did so without showing fatigue, even while constantly pregnant– though always with the help of extensive household and nursery staff. 

Wealth was necessary to Jane’s ideas about motherhood, it was being wealthy that made education a higher priority than the physical labour of mothers and children in the household. Having wealth made moral education important as higher class people had influence over the lives and livelihoods of others, they had a responsibility to behave morally and a propensity to be corrupted by their wealth. 

According to Jane, good mothers were rare, while bad mothers were commonplace and varied, some simply never received a moral education themselves. Some bad mothers are loving but ignorant or self-deceiving about spoiling their children, such as Lady Middleton or Miss Taylor/Mrs Weston or simply overwhelmed by the number of children they produce, such as Mrs Morland. While some bad mothers are selfish women who care more for their own comfort and interests than the future “well-doing” (as Jane Austen’s father put it) of their children, such as Lady Bertram, Mrs Bennet, or Mrs Charles Musgrove.

Moral education, though the primary duty of motherhood, was too important to be the exclusive province of biological mothers, as mothers had a tendency to die prematurely, often through childbirth (as Elizabeth Austen, Mrs Frank Austen and Mrs Charles Austen did) and because so few mothers got the education of their children right. Jane believed that children who were badly behaved, or even shy or awkward, pointed to deficits in their education; it was the fault of their parents, particularly their mothers, and not the children themselves. 

Jane’s novels describe the many ways that children are deprived of their education and the consequences thereof– but also how her heroines and heroes go about getting that education. In Jane’s mind, mothers are replaceable, motherhood is not limited to biological mothers, to women, or even to people: other women, men, life experience, and even reading novels can provide a moral education when mothers fail. In Jane’s novels, it is the attainment of a moral education that allows her heroines and heroes to find good marriages. 

But what is a good marriage according to Jane Austen? And why didn’t she marry? That’s the subject of the next chapter in this series: What did Jane Austen think about Marriage? 

What do you think of motherhood? Do you think there is a primary duty of motherhood? Are mothers replaceable? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! 

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Austen-Leigh, Richard Arthur. 1942. The Austen Family Papers 1704-1856. Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co.

Halstead, J Mark. 2010. “Moral Education” in Clauss-Ehlers, C.S. (eds) Encyclopedia of Cross-Cultural School Psychology. Boston, MA: Springer. pp 630–631

Hubback, J.H. & Edith. 1906. Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. London: John Lane Company. Google Books/Internet Archive.

Jane Austen’s Letters:

  • Woolsey, Sarah Chauncy. Feb 12, 2013 “The Letters of Jane Austen Selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Brabourne.” Project Gutenberg.
  • And the Brabourne edition on Pemberly.com

Kaplan, Deborah. 2019. Jane Austen Among Women. John Hopkins University Press, Project Muse.

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