Young Jane Austen: On Being ‘Farmed Out’ As a Baby

Here is a picture of a mystery.

"In the Village." Illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in Lisa Pliscou's "Young Jane Austen."

“In the Village.” Illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in “Young Jane Austen.”

It is a fanciful illustration of Jane Austen at around age one.

When Jane was four months old, she was given into the care of a village family, as had been her older siblings. She remained there for a year or so. Austen family lore assures us that her parents visited every day, and that the chief caretaker, Nanny Littleworth, was a “good woman.”

Mrs. Austen is said to have been the instigator in this matter, rather than it being an initiative of both parents. She may have “farmed out” her babies because it was the practice of her aristocratic relatives and she was determined to maintain this tradition. She may have done it because it made her exceedingly busy life easier: she managed a household consisting not only of her own large family, but one that also included the boys who boarded there as pupils of Mr. Austen’s. There may have been other reasons that we can’t even guess at.

I recently came across this quote from Senator Bernie Sanders: “Psychologists tell us that the years 0–4 are the most important in terms of a human being’s intellectual and emotional development.” Neuroscientists and educators have a lot to say about the critical importance of this developmental stage, too. And those of us who are parents know this very well, simply by observation.

So how did Jane, as an infant, react to this sudden removal from home? How did she look back upon it as an adult?

We’ll never know. No letters survive in which her feelings or recollections about this interval in her early life are mentioned.

In my research for Young Jane Austen, I read many biographies, both old and new, and I was surprised by how differently it’s discussed — or ignored.

In Jane Austen: Her Life, Park Honan writes with an approval that’s authoritative and summational:

Park Honan

Jane was “trained to
love the out-of doors,”
says Austen biographer
Park Honan approvingly.

“When living with ‘a good woman at Deane,’ as Cassy had, Jane would wear loose and light clothing, and have fresh air and exercise. The more enlightened theories of Locke and Rousseau about letting infants enjoy sunny days in unrestricting dresses and smocks had taken hold. Jane was trained to love the out-of-doors, and by April, when ready for a bonnet and petticoats, she was a fine little person.”

Jane’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his Memoir of Jane Austen, says: “It would certainly seem from the results that it was a wholesome and invigorating system.”

In this he is echoed by Jane Aiken Hodge, who comments cheerfully and briskly: “As a system, it seems to have worked admirably.”

George Holbert Tucker in Jane Austen the Woman and Jon Spence in Becoming Jane Austen say nothing; Paula Byrne in The Real Jane Austen says only, “All the Austen children were nursed with a neighbouring family, the Littleworths, returning home when they were toddlers.”

But Carol Shields takes another tack, saying that “it can be imagined that the abrupt shift from mother’s breast to alien household made a profound emotional impact on the child.”

And it is Claire Tomalin, in Jane Austen: A Life, who dwells on this most darkly, and at greater length:

“A baby of fourteen weeks will be firmly attached to her mother, and to be transferred to a strange person and

Claire Tomalin

Jane’s mother, Claire Tomalin says, “did not see herself as doing anything cruel or unusual.”

environment can only be a painful experience. The idea that this was an exile or an abandonment would not have occurred to Mrs. Austen; bonding between mother and child is a largely modern concept, and babies were handed about freely. It does not mean they did not suffer, both in going and in coming back.”

In Young Jane Austen, have I solved the question in my own mind? No, for it is an impenetrable mystery; I merely state the facts as best we know them, quoting briefly from among these extraordinarily divergent perspectives.

However, if you were to ask me if I’ve picked a “side,” then I would tell you with conviction that young children are more than — referring back to Austen-Leigh and to Hodge — components of a “system.” And while I don’t necessarily agree with Claire Tomalin that “bonding between mother and child is a largely modern concept,” I am inclined to think that she’s onto something.

It can be difficult to stretch our empathetic imagination so far back into the past, but I feel I’m on firm ground in saying that at no time in her life was Jane Austen an abstract, inanimate cog in a system. In all stages of her life, she was a living, breathing, sensitive, feeling person — just as we all are.

This excerpted post appears with the kind permission of Babblings of a Bookworm, where it was originally published.