The Jane to whom I offer my birthday wishes today is, of course, Jane Austen, whose six much beloved novels were all published during the Regency. Today is the 236th anniversary of her birthday and I would like to mark it with some remarks about the world into which she was born that long ago December day.
The day Jane Austen was born …
Jane Austen came into the world on Saturday, 16 December 1775. Most scholars believe Beethoven was born on that same day five years previously. A fellow writer, Mary Russell Mitford, was born on that same day twelve years later. Prince Leopold, who would later become the consort of Prinny’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, was born on Jane’s fifteenth birthday. Perhaps it was a portent that Jane was born on the second anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, one of the earliest incidents in the American War for Independence, as Jane herself was of a rather independent turn of mind.
Baby Jane was the seventh of eight children born to the Reverend George Austen and his wife, Cassandra and the youngest of their two daughters. She had five older brothers and one older sister, Cassandra, who had been born barely two years earlier. These two sisters, close in age, would be the closest of friends for all of Jane’s life. One more child, another son, would be born four years later, to complete this large, but close-knit family. Jane was born at her parents’ home in the rectory of the parish of Steventon, where her father held the living as Vicar. It was a busy, bustling household, for not only did the large Austen family live at the rectory, so too were three or four boys in residence at any given time. The Reverend Austen earned extra money by boarding a few boys at the rectory while he educated them. In addition, the Austens did some farming to supplement their pantry and bring in some extra income. Such was the household into which baby Jane was born.
Though she was not to know it, baby Jane was quite a lucky little girl, for by the time she was born in 1775, swaddling had fallen out of fashion in all but the most traditional of aristocratic houses. Families of the lesser gentry, such as the Austens, would not have swaddled their babies for well over a decade. Swaddling was the practice of tightly wrapping an infant in several constricting layers of cloth, usually linen. It is mentioned in the Bible and was probably in use since prehistoric times. The intent was to keep the infant warm and to ensure the child’s limbs would grow straight, but these tight wrappings severely restricted the baby’s freedom of movement. By the Age of Enlightenment, so many rational people had been severely criticising the practice that it was slowly being abandoned in England and eventually on the Continent as well. When she was born, Jane’s first garments were probably the all-important linen tail clout, known in England today as a nappy, a diaper in the US. Over that would come the robe, a front-opening gown of cotton or linen, with a full long skirt and a close-fitting bodice, typically fastened with ribbons or ties. The skirt of the baby’s robe would be several inches longer than the baby, to help protect her tiny feet from drafts. On her head she would have worn a small, close-fitting linen cap, over which she would have worn a biggin, a fuller, larger linen cap which would be tied beneath her chin. Since she was born less than a week before winter began, she would also have been wrapped in a bed, a rectangle of woven wool. She would have been laid down at one end of the bed, it would have been wrapped around her small body, and then its long length, which extended well beyond her feet would have been folded up to cover her, essentially enveloping her in a woolen sack. But these garments were not particularly restrictive and she could have waved her little arms and kicked her little legs as much as she liked.
Though records show that the winter of 1775 – 1776 in England was reasonably mild, churches in England at this time were not heated and could be quite cold and drafty in the winter. It may be that Jane’s parents did not wish to expose their new babe to such conditions, as she was not christened until the spring, on 5 April 1776. It is also possible this delay was due to the fact that Jane, like her siblings, was put out to a wet nurse within a few weeks of her birth. Jane’s wet-nurse was Elizabeth Littlewood, and it is believed that she kept Jane with her, caring for her in her home, for between twelve to eighteen months. Though today most people would find this practice odd, even cold-hearted, it was very common in eighteenth-century England. Mrs. Austen put out all her children to a wet nurse soon after they were born. She may have done this in part because she was the wife of the Vicar and felt it was her responsibility to help some of the women of the parish. Service as a wet nurse was one of the few ways a woman who had lost an infant could make a little extra money, and perhaps have some small emotional consolation for their loss. Mrs. Austen may have put her children out to wet-nurses more as a means of aiding such women in the parish than because she had no wish to care for her children herself. Regardless of the reason, baby Jane left her home soon after her birth, probably sometime after the New Year, and would not return permanently to the bosom of her family until she was nearly two years old.
The intrepid explorer, James Cook, had returned from his second voyage around the world in July of 1775. But by December, much of the news and talk in England at the time of Jane’s birth was of the early days of the war being waged in the American Colonies, where the colonists were fighting for their independence from Britain. King George III was in his fourteenth year on the British throne and was still popular with most of his people. He had yet to show the signs of the madness which would eventually render him unfit to rule. King Louis XVI of France, recently turned twenty-one, was in the second year of his reign. He was still popular with his people, though less so with Britain, as his government was actively supporting the rebels in the American colonies. But there were no open hostilities between Britain and France in December of 1775.
An interesting coincidence occurred on 16 December 1775, the day Jane Austen was born. On that very same day, Richard Arkwright was granted a patent on his new and improved carding engine, which automated the laborious process of preparing raw cotton for spinning into thread for weaving. Jane herself, through her father, was descended from a family of textile producers. Though in her case, woolen manufacturers who had risen to the level of the lower gentry by the time her father was born. Arkwright’s carding engine was one of the most important developments of the early years of the Industrial Revolution, which had its roots in the mechanization of textile production.
Jane Austen was born into interesting times, into a world which was expanding, due to the global explorations of Cook and others, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, and just as Britain’s American colonies had united to fight for their independence. In her lifetime, she would see that fight won, she would see the end of the French monarchy and the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. She would also make a contribution to that changing world for which many of us owe her a great debt of gratitude. She wrote and published six delightful novels which centered around the lives and loves of ordinary people who were hardly involved in the grand events which were swirling around them. Though the success of her novels was modest in her lifetime, their popularity increased when they were reprinted in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, they were so popular, they have not been out of print since. That popularity had the effect of encouraging nineteenth-century publishers to accept novels written by women, who eventually took over the genre which came to be known as the silver fork novel. Our romance novels of today are the direct descendants of the silver fork novels, which might not have existed had it not been for the works of Jane Austen. So, thank you, dear Miss Austen, and may I wish you a very Happy 236th Birthday!