Twenty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
Jane Austen’s books contain few young children, and those few are often disagreeable. While Isabella Knightley’s family in Emma and Charles Blake in The Watsons are rather endearing, only a mother could love the spoiled little Middletons in Sense and Sensibility, the excessively rambunctious junior Musgroves in Persuasion, or the noisy and quarrelsome Price siblings in Mansfield Park.
What all these portraits of children have in common is their unsentimental realism: Although Jane Austen was childless, she knew how children look and sound when they are demanding attention, insisting on staying up late, or asking for a favorite story. And she came by this knowledge honestly, via her relationships with the twenty-five nieces and nephews born in her lifetime.
Her rapport with those real-life children comes through vividly in the few surviving letters that she wrote to them, including the letter she wrote exactly 202 years ago today (#123 in Deirdre Le Faye's standard edition of Austen's correspondence) to her 10-year-old niece, Caroline Austen, the youngest child of Austen’s oldest brother, James.
Jane was in London to correct the proofs of Emma (and, soon after, to nurse her brother Henry through a sudden dangerous illness), and the family were celebrating the recent arrival of the first baby born to Caroline’s older half-sister, Anna Austen Lefroy.
“Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever You do,” Austen wrote the little girl with mock solemnity. “I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.” She keeps the joke going as she signs off, “Beleive me my dear Sister-Aunt, Yours affect[tionate]ly, J. Austen.”
The letter is charming because of the way that Austen simultaneously honors and gently mocks the self-centeredness of childhood – for Caroline, the most important thing about Anna’s baby is naturally the aunt-ly status its existence confers – while companionably implicating herself in the same self-centeredness. In the voice of that all-important aunt, it’s not hard to hear an echo of the wry, ironic outlook on human folly that we know so well from Austen’s novels.
Oct 30 2017 06:48PM by A. Marie
I've always found JA's letters to Caroline particularly captivating. (As Caroline herself noted much later, "In addressing children, she was perfect.") In addition to the gently ironic note you detect, I think that JA may have been straightforwardly doing what she could to boost a shy, plain, dowerless child's ego. And Caroline's greatest pleasure in adulthood does seem to have come from being an aunt, so she would appear to have taken her Aunt Jane's words to heart, with good effect.
Oct 30 2017 07:07PM by Deborah Yaffe
You may well be right about the ego-boosting effort. (Although Caroline presumably wasn't worrying about her dowry at age 10 -- at least, I hope not! And with the Leigh money in the background, perhaps her parents expected she wouldn't be dowerless at all, though James ended up dying too early for her to benefit.)
Oct 30 2017 08:03PM by A. Marie
OK, you got me on the issue of Caroline's dowry, since Uncle Leigh-Perrot hadn't yet kicked the bucket and Aunt L-P hadn't yet revealed the full extent of her capriciousness (I'm deliberately omitting a stronger term here). But I'm sticking to the rest of my story.
Oct 30 2017 08:21PM by Deborah Yaffe
Ha! Wasn't trying to one-up you. For all I know, poor little Caroline was worrying about her dowry already -- as we know, life was tough for women back then. . .