Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising
“Of the parents who survive [in Austen’s novels] only Catherine Morland’s and Charlotte Heywood’s are unexceptionable. For the rest, Mrs. Dashwood is kind and loving but admits that she is imprudent. Most of the others are foolish (Mrs. Bennet, Lady Middleton, Lady Bertram, Sir Walter Elliot), ill-judging (Mr. Bennet, Sir Thomas Bertram), weak (Mr. Woodhouse, Mary Musgrove), over-indulgent (Mrs. Thorpe), incapacitated by circumstances (The Prices, Mr. Watson), or downright poisonous (Mrs. Ferrars, Lady Susan). They do not on the whole add up to an encouraging picture of parenthood, and in view of the fact that Jane Austen herself had exemplary parents, we can only assume that as an author she found that bad parents made for richer drama and better comedy than good ones.”
Those who are looking to take a gander at Jane Austen’s time with intense, academic vigor need look no further than Jane Austen and Children, the newest book by the great David Selwyn, a mammoth name in all things Jane Austen. On top of acting as the Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, he’s contributed to the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen and also to the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Long story short, this guy knows his stuff.
Jane Austen and Children is an expansive work, covering all aspects of the lives of children and their parents. Selwyn opens with a description of pregnancy and birth practices in the 18th and 19th centuries, which every woman everywhere should be thankful she doesn’t have to endure, and continues with the portrayal of life as a new mother. He then examines the world of the child as they grow…their clothes, toys, and games, as well as their probable sicknesses, punishments, and relationships with other children and their parents, all of which is seen through the eyes of Austen’s characters and Austen herself. The book is extraordinarily well researched, and I found myself with my jaw on the table, staring at the dizzyingly long list of references Selwyn used, both published and unpublished. Your head will positively swim when you see just how much work went into this book! Quotes from letters, books, and papers grace nearly every page, sometimes to the point of oversaturation but mostly acting as an example of the standard Mr. Selwyn has employed, one that every researcher aspires to. It’s truly remarkable!
The account of the relationships Jane Austen enjoyed with her nieces and nephews is particularly intriguing, and uses support from letters and notes penned by relatives I’d never ever heard of! Another winning portion is an analysis of the bond between Fanny Price and her brother William, in contrast with that of Anne Elliot and her insipid sister, Elizabeth. Selwyn also explores the cost of raising a child and their subsequent education, and enjoys a notable tangent into the life of a governess (with all its rather frightening variations). The book is, as you would expect, a bit dry, but not so much that it’s unreadable, either as a cover-to-cover crash course or as a chapter-by-chapter reference guide. The only noticeable flaw in Jane Austen and Children was the blatant absence of illustrations, the lack of which is only slightly alleviated by a laughable attempt on page 123. The photos are poorly printed, predictable, and (dare I say) somewhat irrelevant to the topic at hand. However, the book as a whole is an amazing piece of literature, phenomenally well-researched and more than enough to add another tick mark on David Selwyn’s list of amazing achievements. It was a breath of fresh air in many senses and took me into an interesting state of mind…I’ll call it “geeking out.” I wanted to think more, do more with Jane Austen’s characters. I wanted to meet the people who were lucky enough to live around her, sitting on the floor as she reads the real Little Goody Two Shoes story. I enjoyed this read immensely, and I think you will too!
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Jane Austen and Children, by David Selwyn
Continuum International (2010)
Hardcover (256) pages
© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose