Friday, 10 April 2015

Guest Post and Giveaway - Young Jane Austen: On Being “Farmed Out” As a Baby by Lisa Pliscou


Young Jane Austen by Lisa Pliscou
Today I'm pleased to welcome author Lisa Pliscou, who has written a book called 'Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer', focusing particularly on Austen's early life, which is due out this month, on the 20 April. When I looked at Lisa's 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 Massimo Mongiardo  in Young Jane Austen
“In the Village,” 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.


Park Honan, author of Jane Austen: Her Life
Park Honan
Jane was “trained to
love the out-of doors,”
says Austen biographer
Park Honan approvingly
In Jane Austen: Her Life, Park Honan writes with an approval that’s authoritative and summational:

“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, nephew of Austen and author of A Memoir of Jane Austen
James Edward Austen-Leigh
“A wholesome and invigorating
system,” wrote Jane’s nephew
James, many years later.

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.”


Author of Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin
Claire Tomalin
Jane’s mother, Claire Tomalin says,
“did not see herself as doing
anything cruel or unusual.”

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 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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Author of Young Jane Austen, Lisa Pliscou
About the Author:

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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Book Cover: Young Jane Austen by Lisa Pliscou
Giveaway!

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!

51 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. This book sounds really interesting. I'd like to read it very much. Finger crossed. ;)

    Sorry, I had to delete my first comment because I forgot to leave my e-mail address:
    gabrielladiariodipensieripersi(at)gmail(dot)com

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    1. Yes, it's an area that isn't looked at in much depth in many biographies, so it'll be interesting to learn something about that period of Austen's life.

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    2. Good luck in the giveaway, Gabriella!

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    3. Joy, I'd be honored to sign your copy! Can you PM me so I can give you my address? Thanks so much!

      On another note, it's very sad to read about your nephew. One can only wonder how Jane Austen reacted to a similar experience.

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  3. We had my nephew from six weeks to two years. There was no evidence at six weeks that he suffered separation. However, at two years it was far harder on me than him. He will be 31 years old tomorrow. He doesn't remember the separation, but the fact that it was done continues to haunt him. He has a distrust of his parents that has never gone away.

    I look fOrward to reading your book, Lisa.

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    1. Babies are very adaptable little creatures aren't they Joy, though it must be odd for them to be transplanted somewhere else. I know a few people who've provided foster homes for babies and the foster parents have found it very hard to give up the babies when the fostering time was up, as they're still so young they don't understand what's happening like an older child would.

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    2. Guess what I got in my mailbox? - Yep! My print copy of Lisa's book. Do you think I could mail it to her and have her autograph it? It's such a cute book. I can't wait to read it. I've others to finish first, but I will get to it soon. Thanks so much for hosting Lisa here, Ceri.

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  4. I am fascinated by this subject and certainly
    want to read your book. Thank you for the
    giveaway!
    ladysusan46(at)yahoo(dot)com

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    1. It's an interesting slant on a biography isn't it. Thanks for commenting!

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    2. I'm glad you find it fascinating too! It was my own fascination that ultimately led me to write 'Young Jane Austen' as a way of sharing this with others.

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  5. Read a few about her when she was in her twenties and after but not when she was a girl - hopefully an interesting read

    meikleblog at gmail dot com

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    1. Hi Vesper, I'm looking forward to finding out more about Austen's childhood too.

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    2. Yes, there's been so little written about this time in Jane Austen's life, Vesper, and it was how differently her biographers talked about it -- or DIDN'T talk about it -- that intrigued me.

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  6. I heard about this book before on another blog. They had a giveaway of it, too, earlier.

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    1. Hi Michelle. If I've remembered correctly, Lisa visited Austenesque Reviews a little while ago, I'm not sure where else she's made an appearance. I understand 'Young Jane Austen' may have upcoming visits to other blogs too :)

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    2. Hi Michelle! Yes, 'Young Jane Austen' will be making some more blog visits all throughout this year. I don't have a formal schedule posted on my website, but I do mention each visit in the 'media & news' section there, and on Twitter and Facebook too. Thank you for your interest!

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  7. It seems very interesting. Definitely, I'd like to read it soon :)

    Besos♥

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    1. I'm looking forward to reading it too. Thanks for your comment!

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    2. Thanks so much! Would love to know what you think of it! :)

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  8. I was really struck by this passage of the book about Jane and the others being farmed out too. Just, wow! Very enjoyable piece of writing, Lisa!

    Please don't enter me in the contest, Ceri!

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    1. Hi Sophia! I haven't read the book yet, but when I looked at Lisa's website this was the particular section that just leaped out at me, as it seems so alien to what's normally done now.

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    2. Thank you, Sophia! When I learned how immensely busy Jane's mother was, managing an enormous household and with little money to go around, it seems easy to understand how pragmatic it would have been to 'farm out' her babies. It's the psychological component that fascinates me -- and, again, how differently Jane's various biographers address this or ignore it.

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  9. Oh what an interesting angle on Jane Austens biography. A definite must-read book! As a new mother I can´t immagine having to give a way my baby, even temporarily - but I know that circumstances might require it. Still, having her sitting across from me playing it´s not imaginable she wouldn´t be here with me.

    kewinkler at gmail dot com

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    1. That was what struck me too Katrin, I can't imagine voluntarily giving up my babies unless it had been absolutely necessary. It was hard enough going back to work after maternity leave and they were aged about 9 months then! My time with them was so precious to me, and so fleeting, my two are aged 8 and nearly 6 already. Snuggle with your baby while you still can!

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    2. I certainly relate to these comments! My son's babyhood went by all too fast!

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  10. This sound like a wonderful book! Please add me to the giveaway. corrie_a_hughes@yahoo.com

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    1. Will do :) Thanks for commenting!

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    2. Thanks so much, and good luck in the giveaway!

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  11. Congratulations on your latest offering, Lisa! And what an intriguing perspective! Now I'm dying to read more...

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Joy! I'm looking forward to reading it too.

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  12. You cannot divorce people from their times. Unless you believe in a universal morality where something is always 'this' regardless of time, culture or circumstance. The Austen’s did what they did because they were who they were in the times they were living in. To judge them from a 21st century perspective doesn’t add value to the discussion – just skews it. I think Ms. Pliscou approach works best in situations such as these: merely state the facts as best we know them.

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    1. That's certainly true, Danny. It's interesting to see how the norm changes over time, the thought of people farming out their babies until they reached an 'age of reason' seems very odd by today's standards, but it was by no means unusual at the time. Thanks for commenting.

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    2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Danny. I agree that we've got to tread warily when looking at a situation from such a vast distance.

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  13. I'd love a chance to
    Win the book! Great post!

    felicialso@gmail.com

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Felicia, good luck in the giveaway.

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    2. Thanks, Felicia! Good luck!

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  14. The subject of separation is one very close to my heart and I cannot wait to read the book

    louannlajeunesse@gmail.com

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    1. I hope you enjoy it when you get to read it, LouAnn!

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    2. Thank you for your comment, LouAnn! Best of luck in the giveaway.

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  15. Wow such in depth research, thank you for bringing my attention to this book I'm always on the look out for books that can tell us more about Jane and her life :)

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    1. Hi Tamara, this was a new angle on the biography for me, I really enjoyed it.

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    2. The research was a lot of fun for me -- I liked the topic so much! Thanks for commenting, Tamara.

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  16. Staying with extended family used to be done more often than it is now, it seems. My wife Cindy used to stay all summer with her relatives in another town and only saw her parents when they could come on the weekends, and she stayed the school year with her grandmother until she was school aged for at least one year, perhaps longer. Kids love their other relatives, but there's no place like home.

    Being just a baby, Jane Austen surely didn't remember it, but that doesn't mean it didn't affect her somehow. As parents ourselves, we often wonder how our parents allowed us the freedom to ride off on our bikes or stay at friends' homes when we were really young, something we didn't allow our son to do. I guess it's just something each set of parents has to decide.

    Thanks so much for writing the book, we're interested to read all there is about our favorite author. And thank you for the opportunity to get a free paperback copy.
    noeandcindy.write @gmail.com or Instagram noes_expressions

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    1. That's very true, Noe, I think most parents just do what they feel is best in their individual circumstances, and that varies from person to person as well as changing with the times. Reading this book highlighted for me just how commonplace separation in families was - all the Austen children were away at one time or another, whether staying with rich relatives, going to school, joining the navy etc., and there were no phones or skyping, it was letter or no communication at all.

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    2. Yes, keeping in touch can be so much easier now, especially with "hangouts" or Skype. How great it is that they wrote letters back then, at least there are some of those to help us get to know Jane Austen better. Cindy has a lot of letters her grandmother and uncles wrote each other a long time ago, it's really interesting history.
      And re-reading my comment, it kind of looked like I was making you the author of this Young Jane Austen book --- I should have said thank you directly to Lisa! We appreciate her researching and compiling the book and both of you for offering the giveaway here.

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    3. Thanks for your kind words, Noe! And your comments reminded me so vividly about how much our world has changed -- although I suppose a hundred years from now, people will look back at us and marvel at how primitive our lives were. ;)

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  17. I find the premise of this book intriguing. For the past 25 years I have been teaching preschool and recently have been in a daycare setting, working with infants and toddlers occasionally. The children come in at 8 weeks and seem to have less difficulty transitioning than those that are older. The one year olds cry a great deal when transitioning classrooms and caregivers. Thank you for writing and researching this book Lisa. Thank you for the generous giveaway, Lisa and Ceri. skamper25 (at) gmail (dot) com

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    1. Hi Debbie! When my kids were younger I remember reading about separation anxiety which can be pretty acute in some children, it must seem so odd to them to be passed from one person's care to another. Thanks for commenting :)

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    2. Thanks for your kind words, Deborah Ann! You certainly have the perspective of experience in thinking about this interval in little Jane's life, and how it might have affected her. Good luck in the giveaway!

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