Gentle Readers; This post is in honor of Jane Austen’s 235th birthday. I have joined a group of bloggers in a blogfabulous celebration, and their links will sit at the bottom of this post. Leave your comments on our blogs for an opportunity to win an array of unique prizes! Copyright @Jane Austen’s World
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 during one of the harshest winters that would be recorded in recent memory in England. A premature cold wave prompted naturalist Gilbert White to observe that the trees in Selborne were looking “quite naked” as early as November 11th. Despite the cold snap, there would still be periods of mild weather. The day that Mrs. George Austen went into labor with her 7th child, White noted, “Fog, sun, sweet day.”
During the latter half of the 18th century, all but a handful of births occurred in the home, but by 1775, the practice of midwifery had changed. Physicians were rapidly taking over obstetrics, replacing the midwive and relegating her to work with only the lower classes or those who lived in areas where a doctor or even an apothecary were not available.
In fact, many women of that era gave birth without the services of a doctor or midwife. Steventon Rectory, the Austen family home, lay seven miles away from the nearest village of Basingstoke, and so on the eventful night that baby Jane was born, the Austen family did not bother to summon a physician.
Mrs. Austen gave birth to her second daughter in her own bedroom. She was attended, I surmise, by female friends and family members, such as her sister-in-law, Philadelphia, which was the tradition of the time. As a matter of course (and sisterhood), female friends and relatives helped to assist in the birth. In England, women who lay in bed while giving birth would lie in a Sims position, or on the side with their knees curled up. One historical source speculated that having a baby in bed could be a messy event and doubted that many women before the age of plastic would risk sullying their sheets and precious feather mattresses by remaining in bed during the final stages of the birth process. This made sense to me, and so I searched for alternate images.
Birthing stools or chairs with sloping backs, which allowed gravity to help pull the baby through the birth canal, had been used for centuries.
Birthing attendants also used various positions during labor, as in this 19th century image, which shows an American frontier scene, with the husband holding his wife in a half seated, half leaning position as the midwive and two female companions assisted with the birth.
No one recorded precisely how many hours Mrs. Austen took to deliver baby Jane, but one can imagine that during her labor a cozy fire warmed the bedroom on that bitterly cold night, twine and scissors lay on a nearby table, plenty of fresh water and linen rags stood at the ready, and baby linens were laid near a cradle. Jane’s birth, which was expected in November, was swift and uneventful. Soon after she entered the world, baby Jane was cleaned, dressed and placed next to her mother in bed or inside her cradle, and wrapped snugly in a long quilted gown and a mantle.
Reverend George Austen baptised his new daughter on December 17th in his home, as he had done with his other children. Then, as Mrs. Austen rested, he wrote notes announcing the birth to friends and acquaintances. For the only time in her life, he publicly called his new daughter “Jenny.” (One wonders if during private family time this nickname stuck.)
On April 5th, baby Jane was formally christened in St. Nicholas church, wearing a square-necked, sleeveless gown of fine cotton that probably opened in front. She would also have been wrapped in a pretty christening blanket.
In 1775, fewer babies were swaddled, but the practice took a long time to die off.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the medical profession recommended a less constraining form of swaddling. In this type of swaddling, often practiced by the middle classes, the infant was able to move its legs and the arms were kept free from restraints, although mothers were still advised to keep the swaddling band to support the baby’s back. Baby clothing also became more comfortable.” – Swaddling, FAQ
Babies wore linen clouts, the 18th century form of a thick cloth diaper, which was pinned with straight pins (ouch) or tied with with lacings. The clout was covered by a pilcher, a garment that offered another layer of protection. Today’s pilcher has a plastic lining to prevent urine from leaking through. (Do recall from a previous post, that the 18th century attitude towards urine was different than ours in that urea was regarded as a disinfectant.)
While Georgian attitudes towards sanitation differed from ours, parents did recognize that a baby’s tiny bald head needed extra protection in cold, drafty houses. Caps decorated with hollie point lace protected a baby’s fragile head
Tiny linen shirts and long quilted bed gowns that opened in the front and extended beyond their legs (long clothes) warmed their tender bodies. These baby linens were also decorated with hollie point lace. (Hollie point was a whitework embroidery technique that was popular in the middle ages for church lace, and that was used after the 17th century for baby garments and baby blankets.)
During this age of Industrial Revolution, ready-made baby items became more easily available and affordable. Childbed linens and baby clothes could now be purchased in shops or warehouses. Recycling of old clothes and cloths was definitely practiced, and it is without doubt that Mrs. Austen re-used Cassie’s outgrown clothes and bedlinens for baby Jane. Aside from needing a goodly number of clouts, the Austens would already possess most of the baby items their tiny daughter would need.
A day after giving birth to baby Jane, Mrs. Cassandra Austen was pronounced out of danger. Finally able to relax (even from her daily duties, which were overseen by friends or her sister-in-law, Philadelphia, perhaps) she would begin a lying in period to regain her strength. The mother, while resting during the lying in period, would be visited by her female friends, who would help look after the baby or help the mother through the grieving period (if the infant died.) This lying in period traditionally lasted a month, but for some sturdier (more impatient) mothers this period would last only a few weeks. Mothers whose infants died might not emerge for several months more. Ever the good hostess, biscuits and tea would be served to entertain visitors at set times.
Mrs. Austen would open her short gown (which fastened in front) and suckle Jane. But as with all their children, the Austens would send the new baby away to be fostered, a remarkable act of faith in a year when almost half of the more than 20,000 recorded deaths in England were those of infants. I have read articles in which a contemporary writer asserts that a Georgian parents’ grief over a child’s death was not as acute as ours, since so many infants died during that period. But much historical evidence shows that such a sweeping statement is simply not true. Georgian parents loved their children as much as today’s parents and grieved deeply for them. While they were painfully aware of the horrendous mortality rates for infants, this foreknowledge did not assuage their profound sense of loss when a child died.
Infant’s gown with removable sleeves
Despite the possibility of their child not surviving infancy, the Austens had been in the habit of sending their children away just three months after their births to “a good woman at Deane”, a village close to Steventon. Giving a child over to a wet nurse had once been a common custom, but by 1775 this habit was fading as fast for the gentry as the use of a midwife. For the first crucial months, however, Mrs. Austen would breast feed baby Jane and take care of her personally.
Baby Jane’s first winter on earth was bitter cold. Gilbert White noted that severe weather, with severe frost and snow, affected most of Europe from 9th Jan through 2nd Feb, 1776, and that the Thames was frozen for some time. A stormy February followed. The prolonged cold spell was broken by interludes of mild temperatures and melting snow, but these did not last long. Snow fall was often considerable, with frequent drifting, and daytime temperatures often dipped below freezing.
With such a prolonged cold snap, was it any wonder that the Austens kept baby Jane at Steventon until April 5th of that year? In contrast, Cassandra, who was born on January 9, 1773, had been with her foster mother for eight weeks by June 6th. While Edward-Austen Leigh wrote somewhat disapprovingly of his grandparents’ habit of fostering out their children, they must have made the right choices, for all the Austen children survived their infancy. Despite his censure, Edward observed that little Jane’s parents did not neglect her: “The infant was daily visited by one or both of its parents, and frequently brought to them at the parsonage, but the cottage [at Deane] was its home.”
Author Irene Collins in Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter, identifies “the good woman at Deane” as Elizabeth Littleworth, the wife of a farmworker at Cheesedown, located between Deane and Steventon. These country folks remained close to the Austens for years, for in 1789 Jane acted as godmother to their eldest grandchild and stood as witness to the wedding of John Littleworth’s brother. Like the Martins in Emma, the Littleworths belonged to a lower social station, and the Austens, however grateful for their services, would not have socialized as equals with them.
The Austen children stayed with the Littleworths until they started to walk and talk and could “be regarded as rational beings.” Henry returned to Steventon Rectory at fourteen months, and Cassy and Jane were returned when they reached two years of age.
When baby Jane was ready to walk and crawl (about the time when she would be returned to her family) her mother would change her out of long clothes into short clothes. Short clothes were ankle length and allowed chubby legs the freedom of movement they needed to practice toddling. Toddlers also wore clothes with “leading strings” and pudding caps, which were padded.
These caps, a sort of bumper guard, if you will, prevented injury to a toddler’s head if it fell or bumped into objects as it learned to walk (or so it was hoped).
“Like many mothers at the time, Mrs. Austen recorded her children’s progress in terms of dress. When Cassandra was taken out of her long gown and put instead into ‘petticoats’ (a frock and slip which finished at the ankles), her mother regarded it as a sign that she had left babyhood and would soon be learning to walk. From the petticoat stage, there was little change in girls’ clothing, except that the waistline of the frock went higher and the neckline lower.” – Irene Collins in Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter
Toddler Jane and her older sister Cassie also wore corsets. Yes, you read the word correctly. The tiny corsets, stiffened with cardboard, were thought to promote posture and help with walking.
Putting stays on young girls and boys was not seen as harsh, but rather as insurance that their figures would develop the correct form, with chest out and shoulders down. While boys usually wore stays only in early childhood, they were considered essential for females throughout their lives. – Philadelphia Museum of Art
Since these early days, tiny Cassy and baby Jane, barely three years apart, developed a lifelong bond. Cassy most likely played with her younger sister as she would a doll and looked over her. By all accounts, their childhood at Steventon Rectory was happy and relaxed, with the children called by pet names, eating meals at the table, and visiting friends and relatives with their parents. Luckily for the Austen children, attitude towards childhood had begun to change and children were no longer dressed or perceived to be small adults. They were allowed to dress as children and, if they did not live in dire poverty, live a relatively carefree childhood compared to the children from generations before.