Author Interview ~ David Selwyn on ‘Jane Austen and Children’

David Selwyn had graciously offered to answer my questions about his newest book, Jane Austen and Children (Continuum, 2010).  David is the current Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, editor of the Annual JAS Report since 2001,  and author of numerous works and articles on Austen.  His previous Jane Austen and Leisure (Hambledon Continuum, 1999)) is a must-read treasure trove of social and domestic activities that Austen engaged in and referred to in her novels. His current work is another must-read that weaves the historical, the factual and the fictional world of Austen and her works, all relating to children.  I will post a review of the book in a few days [after the 16th Birthday celebration] –  but I will say now that I most highly recommend this book, and suggest that you add this to your holiday “want” list and hope it may be found under your tree on Christmas morn…!

 Welcome David! 

JAIV:  I think when reading the novels, it is so very easy to overlook the number of children and how Austen’s presents them – but after reading your book one sees indeed how many children there are in her works and their importance to the narrative – is this what prompted you to write the book? the fact that too many people really do not see?

DS:      Yes, and I was struck by the fact that nobody had written on the subject, nor as far as I knew lectured on it. 

JAIV:  Jane Austen is often said to have not been particularly fond of children – was this another main reason in writing your book? – to show that as not the case? – 

DS:      As regards the novels, it always seemed to be assumed that her world was essentially an adult one (which I suppose largely it is) and the crucial role that children play in her exploration of it had been missed. As regards her own feelings about children, nobody who reads the letters can be in any doubt as to her fondness for her nephews and nieces.

JAIV:  Did anything surprise you in your research? 

DS:      How sensible she was about the bringing up of children – but then, I suppose one ought never to be surprised by JA’s wisdom on any matter!

JAIV:  And such extensive research! – the references in her letters, other family reminiscences, all the novels and minor works, and the historical context of child rearing in the long 18th century! – how long have you been working on this? 

DS:      For some years, but the editing of JEAL’s poems (Fugitive Pieces) intervened.

JAIV:  And this book presents such a seamless weaving of this real life, historical and fictional contexts – what are your working habits, writing process to achieve this?

DS:      I re-read the novels, minor works and letters, making notes of anything relevant in notebooks (one for each text) and highlight the notes in different colours according to theme. I did this for Jane Austen and Leisure and found that it worked. You’ll notice that at this stage I don’t use a computer. I also do a lot of background reading in social history, biography etc, and make notes on those books too of course.

JAIV:  You say that Jane Austen “makes use of her children to reveal aspects of her adult characters” – what is your favorite example of this?

DS:      It is difficult to choose, because each time she does it it is so wholly convincing. Annamaria Middleton and the naughty little Musgrove boy are the funniest, and the latter creates the most delicately balanced mood of comedy and emotion in any scene with children in it; but I love the little Gardiners, whose charming behaviour shows just how children should be brought up.

JAIV:  And then secondly, that Austen uses children as a means of advancing the plot – what is the best example of this?

DS:      It would certainly have been Charles Blake in ‘The Watsons’ had JA finished the novel.

JAIV:  There is much on Mansfield Park, perhaps because unlike the other heroines [other than the quick summary of Catherine Morland’s childhood], Fanny is presented to us as a child – but you seem to write most fondly of this novel, indeed, you end your book with thoughts on Fanny and Edmund making the best parents.  Is Mansfield Park your favorite among the novels? Or is this an unfair question! [who can ever choose!]

DS:      As you say, an impossible question. Yes, I do admire MP very much (and think that Fanny is often under-rated: she knows exactly what she wants and in the end gets it); but ultimately my favourite is Emma, partly because it is surely the subtlest and cleverest novel before Henry James, and partly because I think Miss Bates is, as well as being very funny, one of the most moving examples of human goodness in any literary work – JA touches us profoundly with the portrayal of a single woman who centres all the energy of a loving heart on her mother and niece (which is why the scene at Box Hill is so truly climactic – Emma’s thoughtless crushing of such a good heart is appalling, as she herself soon realises). By the way, another thing about Miss Bates: how brilliant of JA to be able to create such a wholly imagined voice that another character (Emma) can mimic it – flannel petticoats etc. 

JAIV:  It has always “troubled” me that Jane is the only child in this Austen family with only one given name – you speak of her having two godmothers both named “Jane” – do you think this is the reason? or do you have other thoughts? 

DS:      But she wasn’t: James, George and Edward had no second names, and nor did their parents. It may well be that the habit of giving two Christian names was becoming more fashionable during this period. 

JAIV:  One of the most famous child-based scenes in Austen is in Persuasion when Captain Wentworth helps Anne by the swift removal of her troublesome nephew – why is this scene so important to the plot? 

DS:      It brings Anne and Captain Wentworth intimately close for the first time in the novel – though JA is delicate enough to depict that intimacy with the child’s hands preventing direct physical contact between them.

JAIV:  Where much of The Watsons can be seen to appear in her other works, the most marvelous piece, when Emma Watson engages young Charles Blake in the dance, is nowhere to be found anywhere else [though it has been said that Mr. Knightley’s dancing with Harriet Smith is Austen’s reworking of this scene].  Do you think Austen could have placed this somewhere in her surviving novels? 

DS:     No, I don’t think she was ever to give a child quite such individual prominence again. 

JAIV:  You start your chapter on “Parents”: “In Jane Austen’s novels the parents best suited to bringing up children are dead.”  Who of the living parents do you think are the most effective? Who the least?  

DS:      The Gardiners are far and away the best. Sir Walter Elliot (though not of course the late Lady Elliot) is a disgrace to the Baronetage in which he takes such pride!

JAIV:  You so obviously love Jane Austen!  – when did this begin for you? 

DS:      In  picking up a stray copy of Emma when I was at home ill once, when I was a (music) student. But I was also thrilled to see a real live JA MS which used to be on display in the Pump Room at Bath (it is now safely tucked away in the offices of Bath City Council); it was the ‘headache’ poem, and it was hung in a hinged frame enabling you to see the reverse, on which there was one of the versions of the ‘Gill-Gell’ verse. I remember noting in the Minor Works volume that Chapman (re-edited by Brian Southam) said that he did not know where that particular version of the Gill’ Gell poem was, and I gleefully thought to myself, ‘I do – it’s in Bath!’ I seem to remember writing to OUP, but I didn’t get a reply.

JAIV:  You say that “it is highly unlikely that Jane Austen ever read a word of Mary Wollstonecraft (though she did read the novels of her radical husband, William Godwin)” – how are you so sure she did not read Wollstonecraft, and how so sure she did read Godwin? 

DS:      This is, I concede, speculation. JA refers to Godwin in a letter and Deirdre Le Faye suggests that she ‘was probably acquainted with Caleb Williams’; I am not sure she didn’t read Hannah More, but I think it unlikely.

JAIV:  One of the many things I took from your book in its focus, its seeing all through the lens of childhood, was a pattern of new themes emerging in all the novels – for instance, the theme in Emma of unconditional love, the love parents have for children, but in Emma, this love that Emma has for her father, Miss Bates for her mother and Jane Fairfax, Mr. Knightley for Emma – i.e. as you say “the unconditional love for people who may, consciously or unconsciously, require sacrifices to be made for them.” [p.111]. What are some other themes that became clearer for you since approaching the novels from this viewpoint? 

DS:      Not so much themes as procedures, and in particular the technique of introducing children not really for their own sake but as a contrivance for some aspect of plot or characterisation – and in the process, being JA, to bring them wonderfully to life.

JAIV:  One could read your book, re-read all of Austen, and get a very lucid and valuable instruction manual for good parenting! – did you have this perception yourself before reading and studying the books through this lens? 

DS:      No, it had never occurred to me that JA could be seen in such a light until I looked closely and specifically at what she says about children and parents.

JAIV:  Your book on Jane Austen and Leisure also offered a very valuable (and very enjoyable!) contribution to an understanding of Austen in the context of social history, her reading, her novels and her life and letters – again in many instances taking a few well-placed words in Austen and giving them such meaning.  What is up next for you?? 

DS:      I hope to do some more editing for a JA Society book. What a pity that JEAL’s sister Caroline destroyed the MSS of her poems; I should like to have brought those out.    


Thank you so much David for answering all my questions!  Stay tuned for my review and a select bibliography on David Selwyn’s other Austen-related works.