The Austen home was warm, full of laughter and love. Perhaps I'm reading into this what I want, the way those historians do who imagine Jane to have been a rather harsh feminist, and her father to have been involved in the slave trade. But we know that in their adult years the family all genuinely respected each other, that there was a great deal of friendship and camaraderieâan enviable family to have been part of.
They had their hints of dysfunction. (Is any family without them?) James, the oldest, could be demanding and officious. Edward, not unlike his mother, developed a talent for imagining himself ill. Charming Henry had some difficulty making his way in the world, and at one point went bankrupt and lost some valuable family holdings. If Jane and Cassandra had a weakness it was that they were generally thought to have rushed into spinsterhood, hurrying themselves into middle age. But all the children remained close throughout their lives.
There were eight in all, six before Jane and one after her, all delivered with no anesthesia and remarkably with no problems. Well, perhaps there were problems with George, the second. Many people who talk about the Austen family say there were only seven children, and I think it is because they are forgetting George. We donât know exactly what was wrong with him, but he appears to have been learning disabled in some way, and had fits. Itâs possible he was deaf and dumb. The Austens sent him to live in Monk Sherborne, a neighboring village, with the same people who cared for Mrs. Austen's younger brother, who struggled with similar difficulties. The Austen parents seem to have visited George and loved him, but he was apparently not a great part of their lives.
Actually, all of the children were sent out when they were small to stay with a family in the village, after about three months of breastfeeding and careful attention. (Claire Tomalin details this in Jane Austen: A Life.) The Austens visited the babies every day during their 12- or 18-month stay with the nurse. The village is so small, itâs easy to believe that the little ones still saw their parents all the time. Though it sounds cruel to us, it seems to have been an accepted part of raising chidren then. As Tomalin points out, they did not understand the significant bond between mother and child. Perhaps even if they did understand, they would have done it anyway, as a means of survivalârunning a household, farm and school along with a growing family, without any extended family nearby, you can imagine the couple needed help.
So there they were--James, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Frank, Jane and Charles--with a mother who loved to write charming little poems and a father who could teach them all they would ever need to know of Greek and Latin.