Book Review ~ “Jane Austen and Children” by David Selwyn

To be at the beginning of life, one must start at the end of the novel.  For although Jane Austen concludes her books with the marriage of the hero and heroine to which the whole thrust of the narrative has been leading, and the reader rejoices in the perfect happiness of the union, in reality the best is yet to come: they will have children – procreation  being not only the natural and desirable end of marriage, but also an economic and dynastic necessity.  And those children will have their own stories…What will become of the Darcy children?…”  (Ch. 1, Confinement, p. 5)

And thus does David Selwyn begin his treatise on Jane Austen and Children (Continuum, 2010), a most enjoyable journey through the world of childhood and parenting and education and growing-up in the life of Jane Austen, and the lives of her fictional characters.  If you are perhaps one of those people who think that Jane Austen does not like children, an idea certainly fed buy such comments about women “breeding again” or the child-generated “dirt and noise” or “the two parties of Children is the cheif Evil” [Ltr. 92], or the proper child-rearing “Method has been wanting” [Ltr. 86], etc. – you need to read this book!

Selwyn takes his reader essentially through the nine ages of man [with apologies to Shakespeare] beginning with confinement and birth, through infancy, childhood, parenting, sibling relations, reading and education, and finally maturity, as Selwyn says, the “end of the novel” when the Hero and Heroine come together, after all manner of trial and tribulation, to begin their own family.

We are given a general survey of the shift in the attitudes toward children, that late eighteenth – early nineteenth century view that fell between viewing children as not just “little adults” to the Victorian view of “seen but not heard”, following Locke and Rousseau and believing children to be natural innocents.  In each chapter Selwyn seamlessly weaves pieces of Austen’s life as gleaned from her letters and scenes from all her writings – and it is masterly done, all with a historical perspective.  We see Jane as a child, as a madly composing adolescent, a loving and humorous Aunt imaginatively interacting with her nieces and nephews, and as an accomplished writer whose fictional children are far more worthy of our notice than we have previously supposed: the frolicsome Walter hanging on Anne’s neck in Persuasion; the spoiled Middletons; the noisy and undisciplined Musgroves; the grateful and engaging Charles Blake in The Watsons; the John Knightley brood in the air courtesy of their Uncle George; the dynamics of the five Bennet sisters; Henry Dashwood the center of attention for the manipulative Steele sisters; the reality-based scenes of Betsy and Susan Price at Portsmouth; and finally Fanny Price, Austen’s only heroine we see grow up from childhood, having an elegant come-out, finding true-live and ends “needing a larger home.”

In all her works, Austen uses children as “a resource for her narrative strategies” (p. 4), be that comedy, a plot device to further the action, or a means of revealing attitudes and responses of the adults around them (p. 3).  Austen’s children are easy to miss – they won’t be after reading this book – here they are brought to life, given character and meaning, and you will see what Selwyn terms “Austen’s satirical delight in children behaving in character” (p. 73)

If Austen’s fiction seems to gloss over the reality of childbirth [the exception is Sense and Sensibility’s two Elizas], her letters tell the tale of its dangers [Austen lost three sisters-in-law to death in childbirth], and Selwyn links all to the social structure of the day, the nursing of babies and swaddling practices, to child rearing theories and moralizing tracts, and governesses and Austen’s ambivalence toward them. We visit boarding schools along with Jane and her characters and we hear the voices of a number of contemporary diarists (Agnes Porter, Sophia Baker, Susan Sibbald, Elizabeth Ham and Sarah Pennington).  There is a lovely in-depth chapter on the reading materials written especially for children and Austen’s first-hand knowledge of these titles.  The discussion on sisters and brothers, those so important in Austen’s own life, and those in her fiction, for example, characters with confidants (Lizzy and Jane, Elinor and Marianne), those isolated (Fanny, Anne Elliot, Emma Watson, Mary Bennet), and those with younger sisters (Margaret Dashwood and Susan Price).  As part of the growing-up process, Selwyn uncovers much on “coming-out” as Austen herself writes of in her “Collection of Letters” [available online here] – with the emphasis here on Fanny as the only heroine to have a detailed “coming-out” party.

The chapter on “Parents” starts with the premise that “in Jane Austen’s novels the parents best suited to bringing up children are dead” (p.95) and Selwyn takes us from the historical view of parenting, through Dr. Johnson’s “Cruelty of Parental Tyranny” [shadows of Northanger Abbey] to a full discussion of the marriage debate in the 18th-century – that between the worldly concerns of wealth vs. choice of partner based on emotional love as personified in Sir Thomas and Fanny Price respectively.  Excerpts are included from James Austen’s very humorous Loiterer piece   “The Absurdity of Marrying from Affection.” (p. 207) and Dr. John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1774) [viewable at Google Books here] , and the Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1798) [Vol. III at Google Books here].  One finds that in reading all of Austen’s letters and all the works you can indeed discover a complete instruction manual for good parenting!

Jane Austen and Children appropriately ends with Selwyn’s speculation on what sort of parents her Heroes and Heroines will be, all of course based on the subtle and not-so-subtle clues that Austen has given us throughout each work – conjecturing on this is perhaps why we have so many sequels with little Darcys, Brandons, Bertrams, Knightleys, Tilneys, and Ferrars running about!

Just as in his Jane Austen and Leisure, where Selwyn analyzes the various intellectual, domestic and social pursuits of the gentry as evidenced in Austen’s world and her works, he here gives us an accessible and delightful treatise on Austen’s children, culling from her works the many quotes and references related to children and linking all to the historical context of the place of children in the long eighteenth century.  The book has extensive notes, a fine bibliography of sources on child-rearing, contemporary primary materials, children’s literature, and literary history, and several black and white illustrations.  (I did note that there are a few mixed up footnotes in chapter 3, hopefully to be corrected in the next printing).  What will this book give you? – you will never again miss the importance of Austen’s many children, peaking from behind the page, there for a set purpose to show you what great parents the Gardners are, or just to make certain you see how very selfish the John Dashwoods and the Miss Steeles are, or to see the generosity of an Emma Watson in her rescue of Charles Blake, or to feel the lack for the poor Musgrove boys having Mary for a mother, the playfulness of an otherwise conservative Mr. Knightley, and the unnerving near touch of Captain Wentworth as he relieves Anne of her burden –  thank you David Selwyn for bringing all these children to life for Austen’s many readers – you have given us all a gift!

Emma – ‘Tosses them up to the ceiling’
[by Hugh Thomson, print at Solitary Elegance]


Jane Austen and Children
Continuum, 2010
ISBN:  978-1847-250414

David Selwyn is a teacher at the Bristol School in Bristol, UK.  He has been involved with the Jane Austen Society [UK] for a number of years, has been the Chairman since 2008,  the editor of the JAS Report since 2001, and has written and edited several works on Austen.  He very graciously agreed to an “interview” about this latest work that you can find by clicking here.  See also the post on the various illustrations of Austen’s children by the Brocks and Hugh Thomson.  And finally, I append below a select bibliography of Selwyn’s writings on Jane Austen and her family.

 Select Bibliography:  

  1. Lane, Maggie, and David Selwyn, eds.  Jane Austen: A Celebration.  Manchester: Fyfield, 2000. 
  2. Selwyn, David, ed.  The Complete Poems of James Austen, Jane Austen’s Eldest Brother. Chawton: Jane Austen Society, 2003. 
  3. _____. “Consumer Goods.” Jane Austen in Context. Ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge Ed. of the Works of Jane Austen. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. 215-24. 
  4. _____, ed.  Fugitive Pieces: Trifles Light as Air: The Poems of James Edward Austen-Leigh.  Winchester: Jane Austen Society, 2006. 
  5. _____. “A Funeral at Bray, 1876.” Jane Austen Society, Collected Reports V (1998): 480-86. 
  6. _____. “Games and Play in Jane Austen’s Literary Structures.” Persuasions 23: 15-28 
  7. _____. “Incidental closures in Mansfield Park.”  [Conference on “Jane Austen and Endings”, University of London, 17 November 2007] – unpublished paper. 
  8. _____. “James Austen – Artist.” Jane Austen Society Report 1998. 157-63. 
  9. _____.  Jane Austen and Leisure.  London: Hambledon Continuum, 1999. 
  10. _____, ed.  Jane Austen: Collected poems and Verse of the Austen Family.  Manchester:  Carcanet / Jane Austen Society, 1996. 
  11. _____, ed.  Jane Austen Society Report, 2001 – present. 
  12. ­_____. “Poetry.” Jane Austen in Context. Ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge Ed. of the Works of Jane Austen. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. 59-67. 
  13. _____. “Shades of the Austens’ Friends.” Jane Austen Society Collected Reports V (2002): 134. 
  14. _____. “Some Sermons of Mr Austen.” Jane Austen Society Collected Reports V (2001): 37-38. 

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.