Jane Austen and the Hazards of Children

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the great pleasures of having a Kindle is that I can download books for free that are in the public domain. Right now I’m reading Persuasion, by Jane Austen. The following quote made me laugh:

You know it is very bad to have children with one that one is obligated to be checking every moment; ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that;’ or that one can only keep in tolerable order by more cake than is good for them.

These words are spoken by Mrs. Musgrove, a goodnatured but inelegant character, to the protagonist, Anne. Anne is unmarried and doesn’t have children. She was pressured into turning down a suitor at the age of 19–a man she truly loved–and now, at 27, is considered faded, over the hill, and well on her way to spinsterhood.

Austen accurately shows how Anne gets pressured into a care-giving role by her somewhat flakey relatives. She becomes an unofficial nanny for her sister’s children when she visits them, because everyone assumes that is her natural role. After all, she likes the kids, and she doesn’t have a husband or suitors to take up her time.

In a poignant detail, Austen describes how Anne is always called upon to play the piano when her extended family throws parties, but is never expected to dance.

Austen never portrays Anne as whiny or bitter about her situation. And Austen never asks us to pity her. The book also includes an older childfree couple who are portrayed as content in each other’s company, socially active, and not blighted or lessened by their lack of a child.

Jane Austen wrote Persuasion relatively late in her life. I wonder if she was looking back on her own youthful crush object, Tom Lefroy. Unlike Anne, Jane was not pressured to reject Tom–instead, his family forced him to move away from her, believing their match to be financially impractical.

It’s unknown if this was a great loss that haunted Jane forever, or a mere childish dalliance that she got over fairly quickly.

Either way, it was Tom who caved to his family’s pressure, not Jane to hers. Perhaps her sympathetic portrayal of Anne, and giving Anne a second chance at love, helped Jane forgive Tom for his weakness.

Jane didn’t live a wildly unconventional or political life, but her mind was unusually free. Her family encouraged her to read, to write, to dance, and to express herself. I bet that if she were alive today, whether or not she wanted kids herself, she’d be fully supportive of those of us who are childfree by choice.

2 thoughts on “Jane Austen and the Hazards of Children

  1. So wise, well written, and so needed a comment. Jane Austen had the courage, and the wit, to say what she thought. Perhaps many others had flashes of such insight, both childless and parents, but none felt free to speak. Thanks for the bio info. The PBS special about Austen made it seem that she had done the turning down. We’ve all gained from her single life, for she had the time to write the books that we never tire of reading, watching.

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