Jane Austen’s Children?” you might ask. “But surely she didn’t have any!” There are those who might dispute this. In Kipling’s story “The Janeites” a character loudly insists that Jane “did have lawful issue in the shape o’ one son; an’ ’is name was ’Enery James” (Kipling 153-54). We could pleasantly discuss just how much Henry James inherited from his literary mother, and just how dutifully he might have observed Mother’s Day. Or, to turn to Jane Austen’s own words: she memorably called Pride and Prejudice her “own darling Child” (29 January 1813), and on that basis I could give myself free rein to discuss the six novels as her children.
But I shall be a little more prosaic and literal than that. Mainly I want to talk about Jane Austen’s children as the children in her novels. She is the mother of those, just as surely as of Henry James or her novels. Children hold a special place in her fiction, as mediators and peacemakers, as characters in their own right, and as moral tests for the adults around them. First, though, I want to spend a little time on her relation to the actual children in her life, since her experience of those surely feeds into her portrayals of children in her novels.
In his ground-breaking study Centuries of Childhood, the cultural historian Philippe Ariès told us that it took a long time for children to reach the status they have with us today. For many centuries, small children had such a tenuous hold on life that they were hardly credited with an identity: they were seldom portrayed in art (except for the Christchild, that is), and nor were their special needs taken much into account. The children who survived were regarded as small adults, expected to wear what adults wore, read what adults read, and do what adults do, as soon as possible. Even as late as the eighteenth century, when Henry Fielding was writing his most domestic novel, Amelia, he could be so inattentive as to forget the names and sexes of Amelia’s children as they grow, even though her role as wife and mother is a principal concern.
But it’s clear that Jane Austen, right from her own childhood, recognized children as distinct individuals, with their own special needs and culture and their own significant take on experience. The children in her life were as important and as fully differentiated as the adults, and almost as deserving of full attention.
When she was a child herself, the children she knew best, it seems, were the brothers closest to her in age. Cassandra, nearly three years older, must have seemed almost an adult, although as the other girl of the family she became the sibling closest to her emotionally. But Frank, a year and half older, and her little brother Charles, three-and-a-half years younger, would have been the models of childhood while she herself was still a child. With Charles Jane could feel like the “big sister,” part-way towards being a mother. And the works she as a young author dedicated to him speak to a delight in entertaining a little brother. When she was about twelve and he was about eight,1 she dedicated “Memoirs of Mr. Clifford” to him; and she surely consulted his tastes in offering a wish-fulfillment identity in Mr. Clifford:
He travelled in his Coach & Four, for he was a very rich young Man & kept a great many Carriages of which I do not recollect half. I can only remember that he had a Coach, a Chariot, a Chaise, a Landeau, a Landaulet, a Phaeton, a Gig, a Whisky, an italian Chair, a Buggy, a Curricle & a wheelbarrow. (Minor Works 43)
(Perhaps little Charles was on his way to becoming a John Thorpe!) The passage has a twentieth-century echo in a book more obviously aimed at children, Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, also written for a little boy. In this more modern tale, Jacob travels, we hear,
by car, train, bus, canoe, helicopter, ox-cart, rickshaw, stilts, dinghy, skis, submarine, flying balloon, camel, raft, dogsled, roller skates, glider and motorcycle. (Richler 27)
Jane Austen knew as well as a twentieth-century children’s author how to write so as to appeal to a little boy.
Austen’s childhood memories of her elder brother Frank find expression many years later, when she and her mother and Cassandra are moving to the cottage in Chawton; and the birth of Frank’s son recalls the childhood of the father. Jane Austen, now in her thirties, writes cheerfully in verse as she harks back to their shared childhood:
My dearest Frank, I wish you joy
Of Mary’s safety with a Boy. . .
In him, in all his ways, may we
Another Francis William see!—
Thy infant days may he inherit,
Thy warmth, nay insolence of spirit;—
We would not with one fault dispense
To weaken the resemblance. (26 July 1809)
She goes on to affectionate reminiscence about small incidents from those childhood days—his baby talk, his “curley Locks,” his terror at a braying donkey. The specificity of these memories suggests that Austen did not, like many of her contemporaries, dismiss childhood as a condition best grown out of as soon as possible. Nor was she stuck in the moral mode. She is not one to preach that children should be seen and not heard: she rejoices in the boy’s “warmth nay, insolence of spirit.”
When Austen grew up the children closest to her were her many nieces and nephews. Since she was number seven in her family, she was still a teenager when she became an aunt, and her two oldest nieces, James’s daughter Anna and Edward’s daughter Fanny, received the honor of having an early Austen work dedicated to them.
My Dear Neice
Though you are at this period not many degrees removed from Infancy [Anna was actually six weeks old], Yet trusting that you will . . . one day or another be able to read written hand, I dedicate to You the following Miscellaneous Morsels, convinced that if you seriously attend to them, You will derive from them very important Instructions, with regard to your Conduct in Life. (MW 71)
Needless to say, what follows, far from “inculcat[ing] the practice of Virtue,” is wildly nonsensical. Austen wasn’t the Conduct-Book type.
By our standards, in the eighteenth century there was very little of what we call Children’s Literature: little, that is, of what was specifically directed at children for their pleasure as opposed to their instruction, moral or educational. The innovative publisher John Newbery (1713-1767, now celebrated in the Newbery Prize for children’s books) had done much to change that, with his little books of nursery rhymes, Little Goody Two-shoes, and so on. But to a large extent children who read, read adults’ books: Jane Austen at twelve, for instance, had already read Frances Burney’s Cecilia—a big doorstep of a novel that even today’s graduate students are likely to balk at.2 But young Jane Austen, when she wrote for her nieces, provided little narratives that are surely designed to amuse the very young. Here is part of “A Tour Through Wales,” dedicated to her niece Fanny.
My Mother rode upon our little pony & Fanny & I walked by her side or rather ran, for my Mother is so fond of riding fast that She galloped all the way. . . . Fanny has taken a great many Drawings of the Country, which are very beautiful, tho’ perhaps not such exact resemblances as might be wished, from their being taken as she ran along. It would astonish you to see all the Shoes we wore out in our Tour. . . . [A]t last when they were quite gone, Mama was so kind as to lend us a pair of blue Sattin Slippers, of which we each took one and hopped home from Hereford delightfully— (MW 176)
Fanny Knight would have been too young to enjoy this when Austen first wrote it; but since one character is her namesake, the time would surely have come when she and Aunt Jane might have enacted the hopping in satin slippers together, probably collapsing in giggles in the process. Austen as a child, I suggest, already knew how to write children’s literature.
Aunt Jane became the mentor, too, to her niece and nephew when they took the pen into their own hands. Her much-quoted dictums on writing fiction—the “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” and “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory”—are written as advice on authorship to Anna and James Edward respectively (9 September 1814, 16 December 1816). The fact that she made the next generation her confidants on writing shows how close she was to them, and how much she could identify with the young, in her own extended family life.
Her letters show that she pondered the state of childhood, and noted the changes in the behavior and expectations of the child that were happening in her own lifetime. She was pleased with a little visitor left in her care one Sunday:
[S]he is now talking away at my side [she wrote to Cassandra] & examining the Treasures of my Writing-desk drawer;—very happy I beleive;—not at all shy of course. . . .—What is become of all the Shyness in the World? . . . [S]he is a nice, natural, openhearted, affectionate girl, with all the ready civility which one sees in the best Children of the present day;—so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment & shame. (8 February 1807).
Children, she saw, were becoming more expressive, more socialized, more competent to negotiate as children with adults; she liked what she saw, and sometimes represented it in her fiction. Meanwhile, which of us isn’t green with envy of that little girl’s access to “the Treasures of [Jane Austen’s] Writing-desk”!
As for Austen’s fiction: it is true that she never made a child a central character—there’s no Oliver Twist or Little Nell in her novels; and she advised Anna, “till the heroine grows up, the fun must be imperfect” (9 September 1814). Nevertheless, children abound in her novels, and her observation of them is exact, specific, and sympathetic.
I’ve always loved the bit in Northanger Abbey about young Catherine Morland at ten, before she goes into “training for a heroine” (15): “[S]he . . . loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house” (14). Now that seems to me to be the most perfect fun to be had: giddying motion for its own sake, a pure pleasure that takes no thought for tomorrow, or yesterday either. Here is all the fun of a natural funfair, without the clatter of machinery or the cost of a ticket. That passage alone tells me that Austen hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be a child. But even I wouldn’t want Catherine to be rolling down that grassy slope for the whole duration of the novel!
The Morland family is the happiest and least dysfunctional family in all the novels. (The Heywoods in Sanditon come close, but we don’t hear enough of them to know them well.) The parents have no “side” to them, the ten children are content with having “arms and legs enough for the number” (13). They all seem to be loving and affectionate. Catherine is number four, the oldest girl, with six younger brothers and sisters. Their mother has been “so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves” (15). Lady Catherine de Bourgh might not approve, but Austen seems to.
After the first chapter we hear little of the Morland family (aside from Catherine and her brother James) until Catherine’s unexpected return after her ignominious expulsion from the Abbey. But the pains of her life as adult are pleasantly soothed as she is reabsorbed into her welcoming family. The arrival of the chaise brings the whole family to the window:
[A]nd to have it stop at the sweep-gate was a pleasure to brighten every eye and occupy every fancy—a pleasure quite unlooked for by all but the two youngest children, a boy and girl of six and four years old, who expected a brother or sister in every carriage. Happy the glance that first distinguished Catherine!—Happy the voice that proclaimed the discovery! (233)
Austen too is happy to linger over this happiness and pay attention to the family dynamics as little George and Harriet vie for the honor of which recognized Catherine first.
I want to make the most of such a scene, because we don’t get much of such happy family solidarity in Sense and Sensibility!
Little Henry Dashwood and little John, William, and Annamaria Middleton are all brats of the first water. In Guardians and Angels: Parents and Children in Nineteenth-Century Literature, David Grylls states firmly that Jane Austen’s “view of parent-child relations is profoundly pre-Romantic. She reveals in her fiction little belief in the wisdom or innocence of children and what she prizes most in children is obedience and respect” (130). From what I’ve said already you can tell I’m not about to agree with Grylls. Not that, like Wordsworth, Austen saw the child as sacred, “trailing clouds of glory,” but she recognized children as distinct and valuable personalities, deserving attention and respect as adults do—and more than some adults. I suspect that Grylls’ view derives chiefly from Sense and Sensibility, since here the most visible children could indeed do with strong doses of “obedience and respect.”
Little Harry Dashwood becomes the heir to the considerable estate and fortune of old Mr. Dashwood at the expense of his aunts Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, and he does it only “by such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two or three years old; an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise” (4). If Jane Austen is ever sour, here’s the place. “‘Poor little Harry,’” as his mother calls him, would be ruined, his mother claims, by his father’s initial intention to give his half-sisters a thousand pounds apiece, and Fanny Dashwood’s arguments in his favor carry the day. But after all, he’s not to be blamed for his greedy mother.
The other brats are the Middleton children, John, William, and Annamaria. And they are certainly the kind of children who might make one feel children should be seen and not heard—or if possible, not seen either! Since the servile Lucy and Anne Steele are willing to put up with them, John and William outrageously exploit the sisters—they untie their sashes, pull their hair, empty their work-bags, and steal their scissors (120). Three-year-old Annamaria—“‘such a quiet little thing,’” her mother calls her—when slightly pricked by a pin, raises “violent screams,” and has the whole household prostrated before her, and “her mouth stuffed with sugar plums . . . . With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise to cease crying” (121).
As in the case of Harry Dashwood, however, this behavior reflects back on the over-indulgent parents rather than on the children, who are seen as “wise” in the strictly prudent sense of taking advantage. The narrator’s commentary is pretty damning of us mothers, I’m afraid: “[A] fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow any thing” (120). When indulgent parents get together, they’re even worse, it seems. You’ll remember the painful dearth of real conversation among the ladies after they retire from the dinner table at the John Dashwoods’. All they can talk about is the comparative heights of Harry Dashwood and William Middleton; and since only Harry is present, the question can’t be settled, and the issue is simply used for flattery and buttering-up (234). This is certainly the novel least sympathetic to children. But then it shows even less sympathy for their parents.
Margaret Dashwood, the thirteen-year-old younger sister of Elinor and Marianne, is not given much to do in the novel, and I confess that I was pleased that she was so much developed in Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the movie version. She was developed, however, along lines that Austen had supplied, for instance in her consuming curiosity about other people’s courtships. She is the one, for instance, who tells Elinor of the lock of hair that Willoughby takes from Marianne (60).
I won’t spend much time on Pride and Prejudice, as those five Bennet girls are all grown up, or at least past puberty. The Gardiners have children, but we don’t hear much about them. There’s a brief exchange with a young Lucas on a visit to Longbourn with his sisters, however, that I don’t want to overlook: “‘If I were as rich as Mr. Darcy,’ cried a young Lucas, ‘ . . . I would keep a pack of foxhounds, and drink a bottle of wine every day’” (20). If this young scion of the Lucas household is to inherit Lucas Lodge, no wonder Charlotte is desperate enough to marry Mr. Collins. To be the spinster sister in this household would be no joy-ride. And here it seems to me is another small dig at the injustice of the system of primogeniture. Oldest boys in this sense are already indulged by definition. Witness John Thorpe, John Dashwood, the older Brandon, and Robert Ferrars. (Robert Ferrars was accidently born after Edward, but having the elder-son mentality, he manages—financially at least—to become the elder son!)
It is in the unfinished novel we know as The Watsons that we get the most developed incident involving a child. And here there can be no doubt of Austen’s full appreciation of the child’s potential as a character. Ten-year-old Charles Blake has a fully developed subjectivity, and leaves us in no doubt of his capacity for emotion, or his ability in sustaining a demanding role in a work of fiction. You remember the incident. Emma Watson is attending her first ball in the district after her return to her impoverished father and sisters. At the ball, the Osbornes are the grand family. And Miss Osborne has promised to dance with young Charles, who is very eager, as he says, “‘to dance down every couple’” with her. When the time comes, however, Miss Osborne casually accepts an adult partner instead, and poor Charles, stood up in the very moment of his much-anticipated dance, is stricken:
If the poor little boy’s face had in it’s happiness been interesting to Emma, it was infinitely more so under this sudden reverse;—he stood the picture of disappointment, with crimson’d cheeks, quivering lips, & eyes bent on the floor. . . . Emma did not think, or reflect;—she felt & acted—. “I shall be very happy to dance with you Sir, if you like it.” said she, holding out her hand with the most unaffected good humour.—The Boy in one moment [was] restored to all his first delight. (MW 330-31)
That movement from cheerful anticipation, through loss and pain, to hope restored and happiness achieved is a brief epitome of many a full-scale novel—Northanger Abbey, for instance. Indeed, it is a simple version in itself of the recurring plot of typical musicals and romantic comedy. And Austen, far from taking the standard position that the child needs to be inured to such trials by discipline, recognizes that the simplicity and intensity of the child’s responses will make for an incident of telling poignancy.
Moreover, as elsewhere, Austen makes the treatment of the child a reliable moral test of the adult. Emma Watson’s spontaneous act of kindness towards this ten-year-old endears her not only to us but to the surrounding characters, and it may be expected to lead to her own fortunate escape from her painful circumstances—if only The Watsons were completed. Miss Osborne’s act of bad faith to little Charles becomes almost a motif in the fragment as we have it. When Emma’s awful sister-in-law Mrs. Robert Watson arrives, she has left her little daughter at home in Croydon: “‘I assure you it went very hard with Augusta to have us come away without her. I was forced to say we were only going to Church & promise to come back for her directly’” (350). We instantly know that Mrs. Robert Watson, like Miss Osborne, is a nasty piece of work.
Of another ten-year-old child, Fanny Price, we are also told, “Her feelings were very acute” (MP 14). Mansfield Park is in a sense Austen’s Jane Eyre, where our sympathies are deeply engaged in the suffering of a little girl bereft of her own people and catapulted into a house in which she feels an alien. As in Jane Eyre, we learn that childhood experience is crucial and affects the whole of life to come. In our post-Freudian world such a proposition is a truism, but at the turn of the nineteenth century so vivid a demonstration was relatively unusual. Fanny’s love and Fanny’s fate are already fixed in that moment when young Edmund kindly notices the forlorn child, rules her lines for her, and helps her send a letter to her distant brother.
At the other end of Mansfield Park we have the turbulent and chaotic Price family. Unlike Fielding, Austen pays full attention to the names, sequence, gender, and character of the numerous Price children, and to the family dynamics. In a recent novel, The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt has a fascinating angle on the large middle-class family of the nineteenth century:
Children in these families . . . were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries. . . . A man and a woman with eight, or ten, or twelve children spread their love differently. . . . Love depended on the spaces between infants, on the health of the parents, on death, on the chances of which child survived an epidemic or an accident, and which did not. There were families in which the best-loved child had died, and remained the best-loved. (29-30)
Byatt’s novel begins in the 1890s, but her insights apply interestingly to the Prices of 1810 or so. The Prices are economically challenged, and the children have fewer independent activities than later children. But Austen, within the limits of the space she allows herself, is alert to the many differences of treatment received from their parents by the numerous and sharply differentiated Price children.
There were ten of them: William, Fanny, John, Richard, Susan, Sam, Mary, Tom, Charles, and Betsey. (Think of all the spin-off novels that have yet to be written about them all!) Their ages range from about 20 to 5; so Mrs. Price, like Mrs. Morland—and with a husband often absent or drunk—must have spent most of those fifteen years pregnant, and all of them trying unsuccessfully to cope with the increasing population. “Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her,” Austen wrote of Anna’s third pregnancy (23 March 1817).
These numerous offspring are far from getting equal shares of love or attention. On Fanny’s arrival at Portsmouth, William is at once regaled, no less than four times, with the news that his ship the Thrush has left the harbor, while Fanny gets only “a stare” from a younger brother and a passing embrace from her mother; she is overlooked entirely by her father (377 ff.). This is a house where the boys command the attention—William the firstborn receiving the lion’s share. “Her daughters never had been much to [Mrs. Price],” we hear (389)—except for Betsey the youngest, who is outrageously spoilt. And then there is the lost, dead daughter, Mary, who is looked to as a sort of tutelary spirit. But even she, hallowed though she is, has left an Apple of Discord among them, in the shape of the silver knife, bequeathed to Susan but constantly appropriated by the spoilt Betsey.
The dirt, “noise, disorder, and impropriety” of the Price household could have been simply stated as a fact (388). But Austen uses the children to authenticate the disorder and bring it home. Knowing all about the complex dynamics of large families, Austen makes the Portsmouth episode the most sensuously specific of the novel.
What can poor Fanny do to clean up these Augean Stables? Austen is too realistic to show us Fanny as a Pamela Andrews, who can magically bring order out of chaos. But Fanny does pull off two successes—minor ones, to be sure, but the more convincing for that. With her own money she buys a silver knife for Betsey, and thus removes a recurring source of discord; and “in propria persona,” no less, she becomes a subscriber to the library, and begins the civilization of Susan by a course of reading (398). At last Fanny is in a position to take her own initiative instead of simply taking orders; to be influential rather than influenced. It’s a major moment in this girl’s growth. Fanny has moved towards maturity among her cousins. But it’s in her own family, among her biological parents and her brothers and sisters, that she finally gets to become a person.
The novel Emma, with Emma’s trials and triumph which occupy it, begins on the wedding night of “‘Poor Miss Taylor,’” now Mrs. Weston, and virtually culminates when “Mrs. Weston’s friends were all made happy by her safely” in the delivery of her first child (8, 461). From the beginning in late September to the culmination in late July, a decorous ten months has elapsed. By then Emma is assured of Mr. Knightley’s love, and her anxiety about being supplanted in Mrs. Weston’s affection by “a tie . . . even dearer than herself” (422) has been allayed. The time scheme of the novel is thus in harmony with woman’s biological rhythms in conception, gestation, and childbirth. And likewise children have their important though unobtrusive role to play in the action.3
It’s among Emma’s redeeming features that, like Austen herself, she is a kind and affectionate aunt. To her nephews Henry, John and George (named for their grandfather, father, and uncle), and her nieces Bella and Emma (named for their mother and aunt), she is good-humored and sensible, attentive but not indulgent. Of course there’s some irony at her expense in her determination that Mr. Knightley “must not marry!” as that would cut out little Henry from inheriting Donwell. (Here’s another Henry, like Henry Dashwood, whose inheritance becomes an excuse for other motives.) But in this case she recognizes her own self-delusion (449-50).
The John Knightley children, far from being the tentative, liminal souls of Philippe Ariès’s description, are developing firm little identities of their own; and the fact that Emma makes separate likenesses of each of them is one kind of recognition of significant identity in the little universe of Hartfield. The passage on the portraits, it seems to me, is indicative of Austen’s attention not only to individual children, but to the state of childhood itself. Children’s characteristics are studied, and their special needs are catered to. Emma’s nephews, for instance, love a story, and Jane Austen, through Emma, notes the child’s familiar requirements of a narrator to “Tell it again, and tell it the same!” “Henry and John were still asking every day for the story of Harriet and the gipsies, and still tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital” (336). Emma feeds the boys’ imaginations and her own at the same time: Having romanticized that story for them, Emma can proceed to construct the real-life romance in which the low-born maiden will marry the gracious Prince Frank who rescued her, and live happily ever after.
There are moments when the novel almost reads like a treatise on children’s behavior, as in Emma’s exchange with Mr. Woodhouse when he complains that Mr. Knightley is too boisterous with the boys:
“And then their uncle comes in, and tosses them up to the ceiling in a very frightful way!”
“But they like it, papa; there is nothing they like so much. It is such enjoyment to them, that if their uncle did not lay down the rule of their taking turns, which ever began would never give way to the other.” (81)
It’s another case of rolling down that grassy slope.
Mr. Woodhouse sees them as delicate organisms and wants to shelter them. “‘I told [Henry] knives were only made for grandpapas,’” he explains (81). But though these middle-class children are sheltered, their lower-class counterparts are early flung out into the world to fend for themselves: the little girl in the poor family Emma visits is sent out alone to fetch broth in a pitcher for her mother though even Harriet can’t walk alone about the lanes. In the gipsy episode a “child on the watch” and “a great boy” are the most active in getting money for the group (333). As in earlier times, these children are required to take on adult responsibilities. And if the Knightley children are loved and protected, their home in Brunswick Square, as Laurie Kaplan points out, being close to the Foundling Hospital, reminds us of less fortunate children (238-41).
Young Henry and John Knightley are put to use in the plot. It’s because of their stay at Hartfield that the “‘box of letters’” (347) is available for the adult machinations over the spelled-out words “Dixon” and “blunder”—which alert Mr. Knightley to the Frank and Jane secret. In the hands of adults, he finds, “These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick. It was a child’s play, chosen to conceal a deeper game” (348).
In one way the children in Emma conform to the Worsdworthian view of the child as a blessed source of wisdom: they are the peacemakers. After her quarrel with Mr. Knightley over the Harriet/Robert Martin matter, Emma wants to be friends again: she “hoped it might rather assist the restoration of friendship, that when he came into the room she had one of the children with her—the youngest, a nice little girl about eight months old, who was . . . very happy to be danced about in her aunt’s arms” (98). She’s right. Though initially grave, Mr. Knightley is soon led on “to take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity” (98). The nieces and nephews they have in common are one more strong bond between the two principals. Here Emma and Mr. Knightley may be said to have rehearsed their roles as parents together. And it is little Henry and John who bring about the fortunate union of Harriet and Robert Martin. The excursion of the John Knightley family to Astley’s, the famous equestrian exhibition and forerunner of the circus, is for the boys’ enjoyment; and while looking after young Henry in the excited crowd, it seems, Harriet clings to Robert, and emboldens him to renew his proposal. So much Mr. Knightley gathers when Robert Martin unburdens his “‘overflowing’” heart (472). Again the child mediates and disperses the obstacles to love. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Austen may have been recalling the sermon on the mount.
We meet Emma when she is on the threshold of maturity, “nearly twenty-one” (5). Her little niece, another Emma, is at eight months an image of an earlier self, and Emma exhorts her, like a benign fairy godmother: “‘Little Emma, grow up a better woman than your aunt. Be infinitely cleverer and not half so conceited’” (99). Emma is teaching herself as she playfully teaches the baby. When Mrs. Weston, who to Emma has been almost “a mother in affection” (5), delivers a little girl, Mr. Knightley assumes her mother will spoil her as she spoiled Emma, but that she will be none the worse for it. “‘I am losing all my bitterness against spoilt children, my dearest Emma,’” he tells her (461). After all, he has been in love with her since she was thirteen.
As with the baby Emma, who mediates between her uncle and her aunt and restores peace between them, little Walter Musgrove becomes a kind of electrical conductor between Anne Elliot and her estranged fiancé Captain Wentworth. When Wentworth walks back into Anne’s life, bitter and resentful at her past rejection, there is a kind of physical magnetism at work, sometimes attraction but mostly repulsion. As they sit on either side of plump Mrs. Musgrove (“no insignificant barrier”!) while she talks of her ne’er-do-well son, Anne is fairly tingling at his physical proximity: “They were actually on the same sofa . . . divided only by Mrs. Musgrove” (68). At the next physical encounter the size of the barrier has diminished to the child Walter: we can measure the approach of the principals in inches.
You remember the scene where Wentworth detaches the clinging little Walter from Anne’s back. We’ve all noticed that this physical-contact-at-one-remove is sexually charged. Let me quote David Lodge’s memorable character Professor Maurice Zapp, as he holds forth to his students about this scene:
He snatched up the text and read with feeling: “. . . she found herself in the state of being released from him. . . . Before she realized that Captain Wentworth had done it . . . he was resolutely borne away. . . . Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles with the most disordered feelings. How about that?” he concluded reverently. “If that isn’t an orgasm, what is it?” He looked up into three flabbergasted faces. (175)
Why a child? A child, human but unconscious of the zigzags of adult emotions in adult situations, can apparently mediate, simply as a physical presence, between this estranged man and woman—perhaps as a kind of emblem of the physical union of man and wife. Here though we may well hope that any child produced by Anne and Wentworth will be better behaved and less troublesome than little Walter. Poor little guy, he probably can’t help it. He was named after his grandfather Sir Walter, after all!—another small detail that shows how alert Austen remains, even with these tiny minor characters.
Persuasion is the novel that most warmly celebrates the domestic, as we are reminded in the final words about the navy, “the profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (252). The coziest domestic scene in all the novels, “a fine family-piece” that would make a perfect Christmas card, is the gathering at the Great House, where the Harville children join the young Musgroves: “On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire” (134). Such a scene is Mrs. Musgrove’s best cure for the shock of her daughter’s fall from the Cobb. Nothing, she says, is “so likely to do her good as a little quiet cheerfulness at home” (134). Like Mr. Knightley, it seems, Jane Austen has lost all her bitterness against spoilt children.
Do I hear you complain, “But I thought we were supposed to be celebrating Mothers’ Day, not Children’s”? Well, I could have talked about Jane Austen’s mothers—Lady Middleton, Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Lady Bertram, Mrs. Price . . . —but I’ve heard it said that the only good mother in Austen is a dead one! So really, I’ve preferred to talk about the children. And, after all, it is our children who have made us mothers. So on this Mothers’ Day occasion, let’s celebrate the children too.
The present essay is an occasional piece, in response to a request that I give a talk relevant to Mothers’ Day. As JASNA’s Travelling Lecturer for the West, I presented it at the inaugural Gala of the new chapter of JASNA in Fresno, California, on May 8, 2010.
1. Here I follow the conjectural dates provided by Peter Sabor for the different pieces of Austen’s early writings, in his edition of the Juvenilia (xxviii-xxvix).
2. Since this claim is disputable, I present my evidence. First, I follow Peter Sabor—rather he follows me!—in dating The Beautifull Cassandra to 1788, when Austen was twelve (see Sabor’s edition of the Juvenilia [xxviii], and my “Afterword” to The Beautifull Cassandra). Second, I believe the episode where Cassandra can’t pay the coachman derives from a similar episode in Cecilia (1782). By the time of Jack and Alice, which Sabor dates at 1790, Austen is providing a developed take-off of the masquerade scene in Cecilia.
3. This section of my paper is largely drawn from my essay “The Children in Emma,” in Persuasions 14 (1992).
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