website to find out more about the book I was particularly struck by a snippet on there which mentioned that Jane Austen had been sent to live with a family in the village as an infant. I know this wasn't particularly unusual for the times but as a mother myself, it seems a completely unnatural situation!
Lisa has written us a blog post on the 'farming out' of babies, and there's an opportunity for one of you to win a copy of the book too. So without further ado, I'll pass over to Lisa.
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Here is a picture of a mystery.
|“In the Village,” by |
in Young Jane Austen.
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.
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.”
|James Edward Austen-Leigh|
“A wholesome and invigorating
system,” wrote Jane’s nephew
James, many years later.
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.”
Jane’s mother, Claire Tomalin says,
“did not see herself as doing
anything cruel or unusual.”
“A baby of fourteen weeks will be firmly attached to her mother, and to be transferred to a strange person and 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.
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Lisa Pliscou is an acclaimed author of both fiction and nonfiction — funny, thought-provoking, educational, inspiring — for adults and children, with a highlight on the coming-of-age experience.
Her work has been praised by the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, the Associated Press, The Horn Book, and other media.
Her forthcoming book, Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer, is a biography for adults that’s sure to intrigue anyone interested in Jane Austen, in writing and the creative process, and in the triumph of the artistic spirit.
“Like the very best of books, Young Jane Austen exists well beyond labels,” says Beth Kephart. “It is an empathetic biography and an empathic search, a reflection on a singular person and an engaging, universal treatise on creative fervor.”
Also coming next year is a new edition of Lisa’s first novel, Higher Education, praised by David Foster Wallace, Mary Robison, Tara Altebrando, and others, with a new afterword by Jeff Gomez.
As well as being an author, Lisa worked for many years “on the inside” in the publishing field. After graduating with honors from Harvard University with a degree in English and American Literature and Language, she went on to employment in top-tier publishing houses in NYC, including Random House and the Penguin Group, where she served as managing editor of the adult division at Viking Penguin and as a senior editor for Viking Children’s Books. She’s also been a longtime independent editor, and helped create and manage courses at Stanford University’s innovative, world-renowned publishing program.
A native Californian who’s lived all over the country, Lisa has recently returned to her home state, settling happily in the Sacramento area with her family.
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Lisa has very kindly offered to give away a print copy of this beautiful book to a commenter on this post. The giveaway is open to international entrants and the closing date is Tuesday 21 April 2015. Please can you leave a way for me to contact you (email address/twitter handle etc) should you win. Please note this giveaway has now closed.
Edited to add: You can get a bonus entry for commenting on my review of the book.
Many thanks to Lisa for this fascinating guest post and the generous giveaway!