Prepared by member Jenny.
Our little visitor has just left us…highly pleased with her – she is a nice, natural, openhearted, affectionate girl with the ready civility…of the best present day children – so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment and shame. (Letter to Cassandra 8 February, 1807.)
Austen appears to have agreed strongly with the philosopher, John Locke, (1632-1734) concerning the basic goals of the education of children as being those of virtue, wisdom, breeding and learning. One important manifestation of virtue was seen as doing one’s duty as we see with Anne Elliot, involving good manners and genuine consideration for others.
Locke believed it was vital for a parent to understand the child’s nature in order to improve it. Parents should neither intimidate nor overindulge their children.
According to Barbara Horwitz, Austen supports these principles in her novels by illustrating them with her characters, especially the controlling Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Middleton, the spoiling mother. Undoubtedly however, Austen clearly believed that self-knowledge was key, as we see with Elizabeth Bennet.
In her novels, Austen covers the whole gamut of children from birth to late teenagers in families ranging in size from one to fourteen. She also includes adults who behave like children, Sir Walter Elliot being an example.
Of the teenagers, only Fanny Price, Frederica Vernon in Lady Susan and Marianne Dashwood play major roles. Fanny and Frederica have to endure unmerciful bullying from overbearing relations, but both stand their ground when it comes to marriage. Marianne is entirely beguiled by the predatory Willoughby, as is her mother.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine beguiled by Gothic novels, has to learn to tell the difference between those who speak the truth and those who do not.
Wickham succeeded in beguiling Georgiana Darcy, Lydia Bennet and Eliza Brandon. He even beguiles Elizabeth Bennet briefly. As a rogue he was very good at telling young women what they wanted to hear.
Eliza and Georgiana are both orphans as is Jane Fairfax. Those hired to act as parents are unsatisfactory and unreliable whereas Jane’s foster family, the Campbells, are better than many parents depicted in the novels. Loneliness would appear to make them more vulnerable to seduction or something close to it.
Horwitz points out that “all mothers in the novels are highly imperfect” with the Lady Middleton’s children demonstrating her grave deficiencies.
Mostly children in the novels are used to demonstrate adult personalities as in the case of Emma Watson when she dances with the rejected and dejected ten-year-old Charles Blake. The much younger Walter Musgrove serves to show Anne Elliot that Captain Wentworth does not completely disregard her.
The class system played an enormous role in determining the treatment of children in Regency times. Some theorists maintained children were full of original sin which needed to be severely trained out of them, others that they were innocent born with a blank slate.
Many poor unwanted children living on the streets were treated little better than animals. Chimney sweeps used three- to four-year-olds as chimney boys to climb inside narrow sections. Upper class children on the other hand, especially heirs, were educated to read and write from a very early age. Apparently, John Stuart Mill learned to read and write from ages three to four and had read Herodotus and Plato by age eight. His father was very punitive. Small private schools were often run by clergymen like Mr. George Austen. Austen, herself, uses the examples of the Ferrars sons to suggest the differences between these types of schools. Robert attended the Westminster School which produced someone much more confident but a fool compared to Edward who attended a small private school.
Some have wondered whether Austen liked children but her biographers, Nokes and Tomalin, think she did, citing examples of the time she spent helping a niece to write novels and accounts of entertaining and game playing.
Her nephew, Austen-Leigh describes her as a “general favourite with children.”
There is a tendency to overlook children in the novels because most of their appearances are cameo. Yet they all have clearly delineated characters, are varied and believable. Once again Austen demonstrates both her powers of observation and mastery of storytelling.
- Austen-Leigh, James Edward. Memoir of Jane Austen. Century Hutchinson 1987.
- Horwitz, Barbara. Women’s Education During the Regency: Jane Austen’s Quiet Rebellion. JASNA 1994.
- Kerrigan, Michael ed. The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen. London: Fourth Estate, 1996.
- Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, 1997
- Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Children. Author interview and review. Jane Austen in Vermont, 2010.
- Scheinman, Tea. A Guide to Jane Austen’s Children, JASNA, 2018.
- Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.
- Wordsworth, William. Ode of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood. 1804.
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