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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

(Un)happy childhoods

I suppose I should no longer find it bemusing when false, misleading, or completely unsubstantiated information about Jane Austen’s life turns up online, reported as fact. In just the past few months, internet headlines have informed us that Austen’s childhood home is for sale (it’s not) and that her Lake District travel diary has just been published (it hasn’t).


My latest example: A piece by host Jack Riccardi on the website of a Texas talk-radio station compares the ultra-violent California crime novelist James Ellroy to Austen, asserting, “Like the LA author, Jane had a tragic childhood (Ellroy’s mother was raped and murdered when he was little; Austen’s family was plagued with disgrace and mental illness) which probably shaped her worldview.”


Tragedy? Disgrace? Mental illness? Whose childhood are we talking about here?


You don’t have to accept the possibly sentimentalized version of Austen’s childhood portrayed in family memoirs to demur at Riccardi’s crazily extreme alternative version. And since he doesn’t offer any sourcing, it’s unclear where he’s getting his information.


If I were guessing, I’d assume “mental illness” is garbled shorthand for Austen’s older brother George, who was boarded away from his family, apparently because of a congenital cognitive impairment. “Disgrace” perhaps refers to the shoplifting arrest and trial of Austen’s aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot, although Austen was well into her twenties at the time of that embarrassing episode. Tragedy might, I suppose, be stretched to cover Austen’s childhood bout of typhus, contracted at boarding school in Southampton, which eventually led to the death of her aunt.


All in all, though, it's a far cry from losing your mother to violent crime. Indeed, by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century standards, Austen arguably had a pretty idyllic childhood: She grew to adulthood without losing either of her parents or any of her siblings, and without experiencing any substantial economic insecurity. Contrast that with the childhoods of, say, Charles Dickens (sent to work in blacking factory at age twelve while father incarcerated in debtors’ prison) or Charlotte Brontë (lost mother and two older sisters before tenth birthday), not to mention the lives of England’s numerous and unremembered poor.


To be fair, Riccardi isn’t the first to wonder about Austen’s childhood. In a 2005 article in Persuasions, after cataloging the months the very young Austen likely spent boarding with a wet nurse or away at school, the writer Linda Robinson Walker concluded, “By logic alone, we know that Jane Austen had an unhappy childhood. If her home life was happy, then she was exiled from it for three years; if her home life wasn’t happy, then it’s doubtful her childhood was either.”


Certainly, elements of Austen’s childhood don’t fit well with modern sensibilities. Exiling an intellectually disabled relative from the family home seems barbaric to us; sending very young children off to boarding school feels unspeakably cold. But absent more direct evidence of Austen’s unhappiness, Walker’s argument fails to convince me. Plenty of children with happy home lives also enjoy the time they spend at summer camp or boarding school, because life experience isn’t a zero-sum game. (Let alone the complicated question of how cultural expectations, and the historical context in which they arise, shape children's perceptions of their experience.) But even if we accept Walker’s premise, her findings fall well short of validating Riccardi’s claim that Austen’s childhood was “tragic.”


Unless a trove of previously undiscovered letters turns up, we’re never going to know for sure how Austen felt about her early years. In the meantime, however, writers really ought to do their best to master the known facts, however debated or thin on the ground, before adding to the chorus of online Austen misinformation.

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