Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
16th December, 1775, and a bitterly cold winter.
Mrs. Cassandra Austen, in the parsonage at Steventon, had been awaiting the birth of her baby since November. The cold weather and her impending ‘lying in’ might have seen her nervous, but she had the support of her family and female relatives. Thanks to the work of the Reverend Gilbert White in the neighbouring parish of Selborne, we know what the weather was like on the day of Jane Austen’s birth. White, the author of Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), thoroughly chronicled his rural environment and observed the day began foggy but later turned to sunshine.
So, little Jane came into the world during a season when hard frosts and snow drifts afflicted Hampshire, and the River Thames in London had frozen over. The baby girl survived the night and the next day her father baptised her in the parsonage. Her formal christening would not take place until April of the following year. Her mother was pronounced ‘out of danger’ and kept her daughter close to her for the next three months, suckling her, until she was ready, according to custom, to be fostered out to a wet-nurse.
Jane Austen’s baptism notice
Elizabeth Littleworth, the wife of a dairy-worker in the nearby village of Deane, took little Jane in and raised her safely through infancy. This was by no means unusual. Mrs Austen was effectively a working woman, as the wife of a clergyman. She had to resume her responsibilities, both social and domestic. The parsonage was not set up to house small children.
Local working-class women were the support system for childcare, taking in the baby and seeing them through the weaning and toddling stages until they returned to their family home aged two or three. Jane saw her parents on an almost daily basis, with visits to Steventon, and a back and forth between the households. She remained on close, friendly terms with the Littleworth family for the rest of her life and was godmother to one of their grandchildren.
St Nicholas Church, Steventon
Previously on this blog, we have looked at how the Georgians might have commemorated a birthday. This type of celebration was reserved for those with means, and the ability to keep a family calendar. Birthdays are recognised in the correspondence between Jane and her sister Cassandra:
My dearest Cassandra, I will keep this celebrated birthday by writing to you.” The exchange of letters and possibly trinkets to mark a 16th birthday or a coming of age was customary.
Perhaps, because Jane’s birthday was so close to the Christmas season the celebrations might have been combined? When you stand in the places frequented by Austen throughout her lifetime, such as Ashe House in Hampshire, or the many locations in Bath, you can imagine the socialising and festivities that took place in December. The Sydney Gardens, the Assembly Rooms, and the great Abbey church are decorated and lit up in such a way as to take you back over two centuries to the time Austen strolled and shopped and celebrated in the city.
Bath is unrivalled for seasonal shopping and celebrations and there are plenty of venues that can accommodate Christmas groups. We might not yet be able to crowd together at the end of 2021 but having an outing with close friends and family – in honour and recognition of Jane’s birthday – is possible. Visit the bookshops and stationers and treat yourself to some letter-writing supplies.
So, raise a glass of mulled wine to wish Austen a Happy Birthday on the 16th December, and fit in some Christmas shopping and sight-seeing.
Discover our guided walking tours of Jane Austen’s Bath here