I’m writing this in advance, but if all goes as planned, my new son will have been born two days ago (at 8:13 AM on the 27th, a healthy 22 inches long and nearly 9 and a half pounds!). As I prepare to welcome the newest member of the family, our very own Baby New Year, my mind inevitably turns to what Jane Austen had to say on the subject. Though not a mother herself, she is known to have doted on her many nieces and nephews, and the sentiments expressed in her novels regarding babies are very touching, though tinged with her typical razor sharp analysis of human behavior. While she might have some fun at the expense of those of us obsessed with our offspring, had she ever become a mother, one must suppose that she would have been an adoring one.
Emma has the most references to babies of the six novels, and it is the only one in which the babies (two of them) are fully realized creations rather than just props. They even have names! First we meet “Little Emma,” Isabella’s youngest, who acts a peacemaker between Mr. Knightley and “Big Emma” (no one tell her I called her that!). I think this scene illustrates how young children can put things in perspective, allowing us to overlook our grievances and irritations to concentrate on important things. They can even, as in the case of “Big Emma,” inspire an unaccustomed degree of humility and self-awareness:
She hoped they might now become friends again. She thought it was time to make up. Making-up indeed would not do. She certainly had not been in the wrong, and he would never own that he had. Concession must be out of the question; but it was time to appear to forget that they had ever quarrelled; and she hoped it might rather assist the restoration of friendship, that when he came into the room she had one of the children with her—the youngest, a nice little girl about eight months old, who was now making her first visit to Hartfield, and very happy to be danced about in her aunt’s arms. It did assist; for though he began with grave looks and short questions, he was soon led on to talk of them all in the usual way, and to take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity. Emma felt they were friends again; and the conviction giving her at first great satisfaction, and then a little sauciness, she could not help saying, as he was admiring the baby,
“What a comfort it is, that we think alike about our nephews and nieces. As to men and women, our opinions are sometimes very different; but with regard to these children, I observe we never disagree.”
“If you were as much guided by nature in your estimate of men and women, and as little under the power of fancy and whim in your dealings with them, as you are where these children are concerned, we might always think alike.”
“To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.”
“Yes,” said he, smiling—”and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.”
“A material difference then,” she replied—”and no doubt you were much my superior in judgment at that period of our lives; but does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?”
“Yes—a good deal nearer.”
“But still, not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently.”
“I have still the advantage of you by sixteen years’ experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child. Come, my dear Emma, let us be friends, and say no more about it. Tell your aunt, little Emma, that she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now.”
“That’s true,” she cried—”very true. Little Emma, grow up a better woman than your aunt. Be infinitely cleverer and not half so conceited.
Mrs. Weston’s friends were all made happy by her safety; and if the satisfaction of her well-doing could be increased to Emma, it was by knowing her to be the mother of a little girl. She had been decided in wishing for a Miss Weston. She would not acknowledge that it was with any view of making a match for her, hereafter, with either of Isabella’s sons; but she was convinced that a daughter would suit both father and mother best. It would be a great comfort to Mr. Weston, as he grew older–and even Mr. Weston might be growing older ten years hence–to have his fireside enlivened by the sports and the nonsense, the freaks and the fancies of a child never banished from home; and Mrs. Weston–no one could doubt that a daughter would be most to her; and it would be quite a pity that any one who so well knew how to teach, should not have their powers in exercise again.
In a society that generally valued boys more than girls, this is a strong argument in favor of the latter. Boys would, in time, be sent off to school or to learn a career, but a daughter belonged in the family home until she married. It is Mr. Woodhouse, however, through whom we receive a more timeless perspective on parenting. I can’t read the following without laughing, as it so clearly brings to mind the many alarms and terrors of being a first-time parent:
The others had been talking of the child, Mrs. Weston giving an account of a little alarm she had been under, the evening before, from the infant’s appearing not quite well. She believed she had been foolish, but it had alarmed her, and she had been within half a minute of sending for Mr. Perry. Perhaps she ought to be ashamed, but Mr. Weston had been almost as uneasy as herself.–In ten minutes, however, the child had been perfectly well again. This was her history; and particularly interesting it was to Mr. Woodhouse, who commended her very much for thinking of sending for Perry, and only regretted that she had not done it. “She should always send for Perry, if the child appeared in the slightest degree disordered, were it only for a moment. She could not be too soon alarmed, nor send for Perry too often. It was a pity, perhaps, that he had not come last night; for, though the child seemed well now, very well considering, it would probably have been better if Perry had seen it.”
I remember my pediatrician assuring me on my third pointless visit to his office that there really was no need to be alarmed by a stuffed up nose. How much time do you think poor Mr. Perry spends reassuring Mr. Woodhouse on any number of his many health alarms?
More than anything, Mrs. Weston as a new mother presents a picture of perfect domestic contentment. It is how I hope to feel (and not just appear) in the coming weeks, but if my previous child is any indication, I expect to have a more frazzled presence. I think I can trust, however, to be just as absorbed in my Jack as she is in her Anna, with very little attention for anything else:
Mrs. Weston, with her baby on her knee, indulging in such reflections as these, was one of the happiest women in the world. If any thing could increase her delight, it was perceiving that the baby would soon have outgrown its first set of caps.
The other prominently placed baby in Austen is that of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility. Unfortunately, these two are not models of domestic harmony. The baby is less a viable character and more a prop to illustrate the couple’s incongruity:
Mr. Palmer maintained the common, but unfatherly opinion among his sex, of all infants being alike; and though she could plainly perceive, at different times, the most striking resemblance between this baby and every one of his relations on both sides, there was no convincing his father of it; no persuading him to believe that it was not exactly like every other baby of the same age; nor could he even be brought to acknowledge the simple proposition of its being the finest child in the world.
However, no matter how silly the wife or dismissive the father, when it comes to that universal fear new parents have for the safety of their offspring, they have the common reaction:
He came, examined his patient, and though encouraging Miss Dashwood to expect that a very few days would restore her sister to health, yet, by pronouncing her disorder to have a putrid tendency, and allowing the word “infection” to pass his lips, gave instant alarm to Mrs. Palmer, on her baby’s account.
Call Mr. Perry!
I hope that now I have weathered six and a half years of parenthood I will not be quite such an alarmist as I was when my daughter was born. After all, I now know what to do for even the most dire sounding coughs, those terrifying head bumps, and can even handle projectile vomiting with aplomb. At least, I think I can. The number one parenting lesson I have learned is never to say never. So maybe I will find myself, once again, running to the doctors just to be assured that the horrifying symptom is perfectly normal and nothing to fear. Nothing like a newborn to turn us all into Charlotte Palmers.
Happy New Year, Janeites! It’s sure to be a memorable one in my house. Good fortune to us all in 2018!