In most of Jane Austen’s works, at one point or another, we are treated to family tableaux featuring children running about, teens minding their businesses and adults trying to hold a conversation amongst the chaos of it all. Take this scene in Persuasion, depicting the Christmas celebrations at Uppercross:
“On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. (…) Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece”.
Persuasion, Chapter XIV
We find similar scenes in Pride and Prejudice, featuring the four Gardiner children; in Emma, showing Isabella Knightley’s young family; in Mansfield Park, inside the Prices’ modest Portsmouth home; in Northanger Abbey, with glimpses of what life with nine siblings must have been like for Catherine Morland. In all cases, Austen excels at describing the chaos, affection and tensions inherent to large family gatherings.
Jane Austen’s Ideal Family
As one of eight siblings, and the aunt to over thirty nieces and nephews, Jane Austen was writing from experience. She undoubtedly witnessed many such occasions in her lifetime and was a firm believer that, when it came to family life, the more, the merrier. She even writes in the opening chapter of Northanger Abbey: “A family of ten children will always be called a fine family, where there are head and arms and legs enough for the number”.
Jane Austen’s appreciation of large families wasn’t merely driven by romantic notions of love and affection, but rather the most lauded ideal of the age. During the Regency, family networks were sources of stability and financial support in hard times, and siblings were much-needed allies. In the absence of fathers, brothers became the protectors of their sisters, as with Mr Darcy and Georgiana. Sisters, for their part, were the natural confidantes of their siblings.
Small families, particularly those with just one child, were not the norm. Justly or not, they were seen as the result of exceptional circumstances rather than an actual choice of the parents. With their focus on family life, Jane Austen’s novels provide some fascinating insights into what her contemporaries thought of single children.
Single Children as the Result of a Tragedy
Characters who are only children tend to trace their solitary existence back to family misfortune, often involving illnesses, untimely deaths and the spectre of poverty. In Emma, Jane Fairfax’s sad story begins when she becomes an orphan aged just three. She goes to live with her impoverished grandmother and aunt, and her bleak destiny is to work as a governess, eternally submitted to the whims of her masters and students with little chance of happiness.
The story of the two Elizas in Sense and Sensibility is even more pitiful. The first Eliza is an orphan kept under the guardianship of Colonel Brandon’s father. She is forced to marry Brandon’s older brother against her will and, after an unhappy marriage, she ends up divorced, ill-used by men and destitute. When Colonel Brandon eventually finds her, Eliza is dying of consumption. Her illegitimate daughter, Eliza, an only child like her mother, is doomed to repeat, at least in part, her mother’s harrowing story.
As little Eliza’s life suggests, in Austen’s novels life is particularly dificult for children born outside of marriage. They certainly appear to be at more at risk of affliction than other characters. In Emma, Harriet Smith, the natural daughter of an unknown gentleman with no siblings, risks her chance at happiness by initially rejecting good-natured Mr Martin. Luckily for her, her snubbed suitor doesn’t give up quickly, and they are married by the end of the novel.
The Poor Little Rich Girls
The young woman who, in the absence of any siblings, is the sole heir of the family fortune is another archetype in many of Austen’s novels. The most obvious example is Miss Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter in Pride and Prejudice. She is sickly and appears to be a rather pathetic character, even if she is set to inherit luxorious and magnificent Rosings. In the same novel, we encounter Miss King, who presumably has no parents or siblings, as she is under the care of her grandfather. When he dies, she inherits 10,000 pounds, and Wickham begins to court her. She avoids the misfortune of making an imprudent connection when her Liverpool-based uncle calls for her.
The wealthiest heiress in any of Jane Austen’s novels is Miss Grey of Sense and Sensibility. She is worth 50,000 pounds and is under the guardianship of the Ellisons. It is likely that her parents are dead or unable to look after her, and her considerable fortune suggests that she has no siblings to share it with. We all know what happens next: Miss Grey marries Willoughby, a man with no regard for her, and her marriage is unhappy. Had the Ellisons been better guardians, or had Miss Grey had a family of her own, she may have had a very different future.
The Solitaire Players
Austen’s novels feature a fair number of gentlemen who are not what they seem. Interestingly, quite a few of them do not appear to have much family. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby appears to have no family other than his old aunt. In Persuasion, there is no mention of any relatives of Mr Elliot’s, other than his deceased wife and Sir Walter and his daughters. Such omissions are odd in a writer so fond of depicting family relationships in great detail.
Emma‘s Frank Churchill, perhaps Austen’s biggest flirt, is an only child. His mother dies when he is just an infant, at most a toddler, and he is adopted by his uncle and aunt, the Churchills, who have no children. He grows up without siblings, although he does eventually get a little sister after his father’s second wife, Mrs Weston, has a baby.
George Wickham, the rogue most readers like to hate, also has no known siblings. Although different characters in Pride and Prejudice– Mr Darcy, Mrs Reynolds, the Pemberley housekeeper, and Wickham himself – talk about his early years, there is no mention of any brothers or sisters, and his mother is but a ghostly presence, who is said to practice “extravagance”. Perhaps she died young, maybe giving birth to another child. Growing up with an overworked father, in the company of children whose destinies were very different to his own, it is perhaps no wonder that he eventually becomes e a manipulative, depraved and cynical seducer.
One wonders what Jane Austen, with her love of large family gatherings, would think of today’s families, so different from those prevalent during her lifetime. For starters, family size has shrunk in many parts of the world. The average household in Germany and Denmark is just two people, and even countries where large family units were the norm until relatively recently, such as Mexico and Turkey, the average is only 4 individuals per household. Only children are no longer the exception, and their existence is rarely the result of a family tragedy.
Perhaps Austen would have been dismayed, but I prefer to think that she would have relished the plot possibilities of family dynamics in the XXI century.
What do you think of the descriptions of family life Jane Austen writes in her novels? Does any family particularly resonate with you?