By Claire Tomalin
Chapter One: 1775
The winter of 1775 was a hard one. On 11 November the naturalist Gilbert White saw that the trees around his Hampshire village of Selborne had lost almost all their leaves. "Trees begin to be naked," he wrote in his diary. Fifteen miles away, higher up in the Downs, in the village of Steventon, the rector's wife was expecting the birth of her seventh child from day to day as the last leaves fell. She was thirty-six and had been married for eleven years. Four sturdy little boys ran about the parsonage and the big garden at the back, with its yard and outhouses, rising to the fields and woodland beyond. The eldest, James, at ten already showed promise as a scholar, sharing his father's taste in books, and the only daughter, Cassy, kept her mother entertained with her constant chatter as she followed her round the house and out to visit the dairy and the chickens and ducks. Cassy would be three in January. Outside Mr. Austen's study the house was seldom entirely quiet.
The November days went by and the rains set in, keeping the boys indoors; by the end of the month it was dark in the house at three in the afternoon, and dinner had to be eaten very promptly if they were to do without candles. Still no baby appeared. December came, bringing an epidemic of colds and feverish complaints. There was a sharp frost, putting ice on the ponds, enough for the boys to go sliding; then, on the 16th, White noted, "Fog, sun, sweet day."
The 16th of December was the day of Jane Austen's birth. The month's delay in her arrival inspired her father to a small joke about how he and his wife had "in old age grown such bad reckoners"; he was forty-four. The child came in the evening, he said, without much warning. There was no need for a doctor; it was rare to call one for something as routine as childbirth, and the nearest, in Basingstoke, was seven miles away over bad roads. In any case, "everything was soon happily over." They were pleased to have a second daughter, "a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny." George Austen's letter went on to talk of the prospects of a ploughing match in which he was interested, Kent against Hants for a rump of beef, weather permitting. A village rector in a remote country parish was as much a real farmer as a shepherd of souls.
The baby was immediately christened at home by her father, like all the Austen children. There would be a church ceremony later. And now winter set in in earnest. Mr. Austen's ploughing match could not take place, as snow fell steadily, thickly and persistently, drifting right up to the tops of the gates. Soon the lanes were filled and almost impassable. The poultry would not stir out of the hen house, and wild birds appeared at the kitchen door for crumbs. "Rugged, Siberian weather," wrote White, remarking that the snow formed romantic and grotesque shapes as it continued to fall and then freeze. Newborn lambs were frozen to the ground, and hares came into the gardens looking for food.
Inside the parsonage, Mrs. Austen lay upstairs in the four-poster, warmly bundled under her feather-beds, the baby in her cradle beside her, while someone else-very likely her sister-in-law Philadelphia Hancock-supervised the household, all the cleaning and cooking necessary where there were many small children, together with the extra washing for the newly delivered mother. The maids stoked the fires and boiled coppers, and when she could the washerwoman made her way from the village and toiled for a day, although laundry froze before it dried and the house was full of airing sheets and baby things. Mr. Austen might read to the children after their three o'clock dinner, but boys like to run and slide up and down stairs, and there were no carpets to dull the noise. Mrs. Austen would not be expected to set foot on the floor for two weeks at least.
Neighbours could not easily call, except for a few robust gentlemen on horseback, bringing congratulatory messages and gifts from their wives. On Christmas Eve the children laid out the traditional holly branches on the window ledges, and on Christmas morning Mr. Austen, well booted and coated, set off up the hill to his tiny, unheated stone church, St. Nicholas, hoping the light would suffice to read the lesson and serve the sacrament to those farmers and villagers who turned out to hear him. The Digweed family could be relied on, long-term tenants of the old brick manor house next to the church; Hugh Digweed farmed most of the land around Steventon and acted as squire. Then back down the hill, through the snow and silence. There were not more than thirty families living in Steventon, the single row of cottages at some distance from the parsonage; and there was neither shop nor inn.
If Aunt Philadelphia was indeed in charge, it meant their cousin Betsy was also there: grave, dark, delicately pretty Betsy, who had been born in India, where her father was even now, and where Aunt Philadelphia sometimes talked of taking her back. Betsy was fourteen, almost grown up; older than any of the Steventon children, and infinitely more sophisticated in their eyes. She lived mostly in town, meaning London. There she had her own horse, something none of the Austen boys could yet boast, and when she was not riding she was more likely to travel about in her mother's carriage than on foot. She was learning French; she had performed in a play with some other children when she was only ten; she owned a harpsichord, and four strings of pearls, a present just arrived from her father. James, Edward and even precocious four-year-old Henry watched and listened to their cousin admiringly.
When the children were allowed into their mother's room, they saw that the new baby had a round face, fat cheeks and bright dark eyes. It was agreed that she looked most like Henry, who had been the longest and finest of all the babies so far, so it is safe to assume that Jane was also long and large. Mrs. Austen fed her daughter at the breast, as she had all her children. She would not dream of going outside the house for at least a month after the birth, whatever the weather. The continuing Siberian winter did not encourage her, and when the thaw began, in February, there were floods, which still kept her in. So the baby enjoyed undivided attention, and three cosy months in the first-floor bedroom.
Then winter ended, Aunt Philadelphia and Betsy departed, and Mrs. Austen again took up her duties in the house, the dairy and the poultry yard. On 5 April, after a harsh, dark morning, the sun came out. Little Jane was well wrapped in shawls, her mother put on her pelisse and an extra shawl or two for herself, and the family processed up the lane to the church, with its great yew tree in the graveyard in which the key was kept, its ancient bells, and its two stone heads, one of a man, one of a woman, carved on each side of the pointed arch through which you entered. This was her formal, public christening. Two of her godmothers, or "sponsors," were Janes, one a Kentish aunt of her father's, the other an Oxfordshire cousin of her mother's. It is unlikely they made the difficult journeys needed to be present for the occasion, or that her godfather, another clergyman married to another of Mrs. Austen's cousins and living in Surrey, was there; it was normal for their promises to be made for them at the ceremony. As it turned out, they none of them did anything for their god-daughter; but as evidence of the great connecting web of cousins, mostly clerical, spread over the southern counties, they are a significant part of Jane Austen's story.
It is not an easy story to investigate. She herself wrote no autobiographical notes, and if she kept any diaries they did not survive her. Her sister destroyed the bulk of the letters in her possession, a niece did the same for those preserved by one of her brothers, and only a handful more have turned up from other sources. There are 160 in all, and none from her childhood; the earliest known letter was written when she was twenty. The first biographical note, written in the aftermath of her death, consisted of a few pages only, and her brother Henry, who wrote it, explained that hers was "not by any means a life of event." Nothing more was published for another fifty years, when a memoir by her nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh appeared. It confirmed Henry's view of her. "Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course." The uneventful life of Jane Austen has been the generally accepted view. Compared with writers like Dickens or her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, the course of her life does seem to run exceedingly quietly and smoothly. Jane Austen did not see her father beat her mother, and she was not sent to work in a blacking factory at the age of twelve; yet, if you stop to look closely at her childhood, it was not all quiet days at the parsonage. It was, in fact, full of events, of distress and even trauma, which left marks upon her as permanent as those of any blacking factory. That she was marked by them will become clear in the course of her story; and that she also overcame them and made them serve her purposes.
Mr. and Mrs. Austen must have hoped that this would be their last child. Her sister Jane Cooper had only two, and "has not been breeding since, so perhaps she has done," observed Mrs. Austen with interest in a letter to a sister-in-law; to have finished breeding safely was enviable. And then the Austens' financial situation was not good. George was heavily in debt, owing money on all sides, to Jane Cooper's husband among others. He had also borrowed from Mrs. Austen's brother, James Leigh-Perrot, and from his own sister Philadelphia Hancock, and, separately, from her husband. His annual income was small, around £210 from the combined tithes of Steventon and the neighbouring village of Deane. The sales of his farm produce were an important supplement to this, but not enough to keep him solvent. Three years before Jane's birth he began to take in pupils; the parsonage, with its seven bedrooms and three attics, was big enough to be turned into a small school. At the same time he sold off the last of his small capital. Just before her christening he had to borrow another £300, through the good offices of Philadelphia, from a London lawyer. His accounts show a perpetual juggling of debt repayments and new borrowings which must have made his wife extremely uneasy if she knew their full extent. The plain fact was that children cost money to launch into the world, and the Austens had enough with James, George, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis and Jane. Separate bedrooms was the usual form of birth control; but the Austens did not adopt it, and there was one more Austen baby to come.
Mrs. Austen's system of child-rearing was an unusual one. She was a well-organized woman, and her practice was to give each baby a few months at the breast as a good start-we know from her own account that it was three months in the case of Cassandra-and then hand the child over to a woman in the village to be looked after for another year or eighteen months, until it was old enough to be easily managed at home. For Jane, this handing over is most likely to have followed her christening. 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. Cobbett deplored the practice, asking, "Who has not seen these banished children, when brought and put into the arms of their mother, screaming to get from them and stretching out their little hands to get back to the arms of the nurse?" Poor village mothers were naturally glad of the extra income brought by nursing children of the gentry; a country wet nurse could earn about two shillings and sixpence a week, and even a dry nurse would be helping her own family by taking on such work. Whether Mrs. Austen found a wet nurse ready for each of her children in the village, or whether she felt they could be spoon-fed after their first few months of breast-feeding, we do not know; but she did use the word "weaning" in the case of three-month-old Cassandra, which suggests the latter. Whatever the system, there was something impersonal about it; the name of the nurse is never mentioned.
So the Austen babies were cared for in the village, fed, washed, encouraged to crawl in a cottage, taking their first steps there and learning their first words from their foster family. When they approached the age of reason and became socially acceptable, they were moved again, back to their original home. From the physical point of view the system worked very well. In an age when few families were spared the deaths of several children, the Austens did not lose a single one; in London at this time over half the children born died before they could reach the age of five, and although things were better in the country, the mortality rate was still alarmingly high. The Austen children grew up, and grew up healthy.
All the same, you have to wonder what effect Mrs. Austen's treatment had on them. In Jane's case, the emotional distance between child and mother is obvious throughout her life; and not only between child and mother. The most striking aspect of Jane's adult letters is their defensiveness. They lack tenderness towards herself as much as towards others. You are aware of the inner creature, deeply responsive and alive, but mostly you are faced with the hard shell; and sometimes a claw is put out, and a sharp nip is given to whatever offends. They are the letters of someone who does not open her heart; and in the adult who avoids intimacy you sense the child who was uncertain where to expect love or to look for security, and armoured herself against rejection.
Mrs. Austen's system made for a tidier and more easily run parsonage, and she did not see herself as doing anything cruel or unusual. She believed, along with most other people, that infants required no more than to be kept reasonably clean, reasonably warm and well fed, until their intelligence showed itself in obvious form. One of her contemporaries, also mother of a large family, wrote that she would just as soon be a stepmother as a mother: "think of being quit of their plague while they are mere vegetables, and then become mere animals." The Austen parents are said-by a grandson-to have visited the absent babies daily, at least whenever possible, and had them brought to the parsonage regularly, which may have encouraged their children to feel that they had two families and homes where they were loved. The system was certainly a good deal better than that of parents who placed their children too far away to visit, and became total strangers to them. "She sent him forth to be nursed by the robust wife of a neighbouring farmer, where, for the space of upwards of four years, he was honoured with no token from father or mother, save some casual messages, to know from time to time if the child was in health," was Henry Brooke's summary of his hero's infancy in The Fool of Quality, published in the late 1760s and recognized as a perfectly credible account.
One Austen child did not come home from his village nurse. This was the second, George, nearly ten years older than Jane; he suffered from fits and failed to develop normally. For Mrs. Austen, this was a sad repetition of her early experience with her brother Thomas. He was born when she was eight, just of an age to enjoy a baby brother; but when his backwardness was obvious, he was sent away to be cared for. George was destined for the same fate, although he was occasionally at the parsonage as a small boy. Since he was probably still in Steventon village in 1776, he may have been the first of Jane's siblings of whom she became aware. He could walk, and he was not a Down's Syndrome child, or he would not have lived so long, lacking modern medication. Because Jane knew deaf and dumb sign language as an adult— she mentioned talking "with my fingers" in a letter of 1808— it is thought he may have lacked language; it would not have stopped him joining in the village children's games.
"We have this comfort, he cannot be a bad or a wicked child," wrote his father of George, with touching Christian resignation. The Austens cared about goodness, but they also cared deeply about success; and their child-rearing system worked remarkably well, for all, with the partial exception of George, grew up tough, not given to self-pity and notable for their mutual affection and support. And even George lived to a ripe old age, cared for alongside his Uncle Thomas in another Hampshire village, Monk Sherborne; he is rarely mentioned, but survived his elder brother and his sister Jane, and was not forgotten by the others, who contributed to his upkeep. On his death certificate in 1838 he is described as a "Gentleman."
In June 1776, before Jane was six months old, her parents did absent themselves from Steventon in order to make a visit to London. Neither two-year-old Frank nor three-year-old Cass had long been promoted from the village themselves, so they may have been sent to keep their baby sister company, happy enough to return to what had been their home, and the games of the long summer days with the small Bets, Bobs and Nans from the cottages. And if Cass now saw herself as a little mother to the baby, and the baby held out her arms to Cass, it was the first stage of a deep and lifelong bond between the sisters.
Mr. and Mrs. Austen were in London partly at least to visit his sister Philadelphia and niece Betsy. While they were with them word came from India of the death of Phila's husband, Tysoe Saul Hancock. He had in fact died months earlier, in November 1775, even before the birth of Jane, but news travelled slowly, letters from India taking six months or more. Mrs. Hancock was naturally afflicted to hear of her husband's end. Worse, it appeared that he died penniless: "all his effects will not more than clear his debts here," wrote Mr. Woodman, the lawyer who advised her, and the same man who had lent George Austen money. Sadly, Hancock was little George's godfather, and now there was no hope that he would be able to contribute to the cost of his care; he had worried about the growing number of Austen children, and how the family would manage. The situation of his own wife and daughter was not, however, as bad as it appeared at first.
Three years earlier, Mr. Hancock's patron in India, the great Warren Hastings of the East India Company, on becoming Governor of Bengal, had made a gift to his god-daughter, Betsy Hancock, of £5,000; and in 1775 he doubled the sum, making Betsy an heiress-not a great one, but with enough to ensure she would find a husband. The Hancocks were sworn to secrecy about the whole matter, but the two trustees for Betsy's fortune were the lawyer, Mr. Woodman-Warren Hastings's brother-in-law-and Mrs. Hancock's brother, George Austen, who was doubtless in London partly to carry out whatever duties his trusteeship demanded.
It turned out there was not much cause for concern about Philadelphia. Quite apart from her daughter's wealth, we can see from the bank account she opened a few months later that she received £3,500 paid in by Woodman, and another sum of nearly £5,000 in the form of a "bill on Ind. Co." The opening of the account is a sign of her independence as a well-to-do widow. Her late husband had advised her to do as much earlier, but she had not complied; now she chose a different bank from the one he recommended, and deposited her money with Messrs. Hoare & Co., her brother's bankers.
The Hancocks, mother and daughter, closely bonded as single parent and single child, were free to embark on living as they pleased; and although Philadelphia was fond of her brother, and Betsy of her uncle, they had no thought of burying themselves in the English countryside. Betsy, having lost a father she hardly remembered and come into a considerable fortune, announced she was no longer to be known as Betsy. From now on she would be called Eliza. No one thought of contradicting her wishes.
Eliza Hancock is a central figure in Jane Austen's life for many reasons. She was her first cousin, and they became warmly attached to one another. Although Eliza was the senior by fourteen years, both died relatively young, and Jane outlived her by only four years, bringing the span of their lives close together. The difference was that Eliza was always an exotic, a bird of bright plumage with a story that might have come from one of the romances Jane liked to mock. Eliza was a true Austen in her fluent pen and her enjoyment of acting, music and dancing, and she had a quick ear; in other ways she was markedly different from her Austen cousins. She was incautious in marrying, and could write frivolously of her feelings or lack of them; and yet she was always a most loving daughter, and became a tenderly attentive mother.
There are some unsolved questions in the lives of both Philadelphia Hancock and her daughter, the central one being Eliza's parentage, which will be considered later. For now, in the summer of 1776, George Austen was reassured about the situation in which they found themselves, and continued to repay the money he had borrowed from his sister at the same rate. He and his wife returned to Hampshire and life went on in its usual way. For him this meant supervising the work of the farm and sales of wheat, barley and hops; teaching his older boys; performing his pastoral duties of baptism, burial, Sunday services, and keeping a kindly eye on any parishioners in need or trouble. The one exceptional event of the winter happened three days before his little daughter's first birthday, on Friday, 13 December, when, in common with every clergyman in the land, he held an extra service in Steventon church, reading out prayers against the American rebels. After which he walked down the hill to his cheerful home, whose atmosphere reminded one observer of "the liberal society, the simplicity, hospitality, & taste, which commonly prevail in different families among the delightful valleys of Switzerland."
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc
Use of this excerpt from "Jane Austen: A Biography" by Claire Tomalin may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: © 1997 by Claire Tomalin. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
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