To the casual reader, there is no sex in Jane Austen. True fans know better. But in recent years – since I became a mother myself – I have been fascinated by how Austen depicts pregnancy. When I was expecting my first child, it was like stepping through the looking glass. How had I not realised what women had been going through for thousands of years? The early months of utter exhaustion and nausea, the constant discomfort, the increasing lack of mobility culminating in the chaos of labour. And all of it having to be hidden away from the consciousness of men or indeed children. Jane Austen was never a mother and indeed none of her protagonists ever become mothers during her novels. It would have been indelicate to make too near a reference to pregnancy and Austen seems to have shied away from motherhood as a theme but every so often we catch a glimpse of a pregnant bump.
Looking at the standard family size across Austen’s novels, one must assume that a fairly constant state of pregnancy must have been the norm for the married Regency female. There are a number of households across Austen’s fiction who have an apparently infinite number of offspring. The Lucases in Pride and Prejudice are clearly very numerous, then there are the Musgroves who include so many children that Lady Russell makes a note to never visit during the school holidays again. In Northanger Abbey, Austen observes, ‘A family of ten children will always be called a fine family, where there are head and arms and legs enough for the number‘ and indeed Catherine Morland is child #4 of ten. There is also the flip side of this however with various ‘only child’ characters which would have been understood to be due to some kind of unspeakable obstetric tragedy. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are both made motherless as toddlers. Even the fact that Lady Catherine de Bourgh has but one sickly child can be taken as a symbol of aristocratic decay.
But for all that is unspoken, pregnancy does actually feature reasonably frequently within the surface narrative. Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice, a letter from Mr Collins indicates that his wife Charlotte is expecting a baby. This is significant within the text since we know that Charlotte chose to marry Mr Collins for purely financial and pragmatic reasons rather than romantic ones. Still, she is fulfilling her duties as a wife and it seems likely that she will produce the longed for male heir that Mrs Bennet was never able to provide. As a parallel, Austen notes that Mrs Bennet had been quite certain even for years after the birth of Lydia that the son and heir would one day arrive. It is a sly wink from Austen that for all that Mr Bennet is unable to respect Mrs Bennet even in public, there is still a physical connection. Here, pregnancy is a way for Austen to let the reader know that these people who do not love each other are still carrying out conjugal duties.
Sense and Sensibility also uses pregnancy to poke fun at social attitudes. Elinor observes Mr and Mrs Palmer and concludes that the former’s grumpiness stems from his growing realisation that he has married a foolish woman. Yet they have still managed to conceive a child. But Mr Palmer’s studied disinterestedness is merely a ploy for him to emphasise his masculine qualities and it latterly becomes clear that he has a softer side. Additionally, Charlotte Palmer’s pregnancy allows for an interesting comedy of manners. When she and her husband appear, her mother Mrs Jennings expresses concern that they have been travelling and that Charlotte needs rest. Mrs Jennings then states baldly that Charlotte ‘expects to be confined in February‘. This makes her roughly six months pregnant, therefore it is presumably visible. However, Regency delicacy means that this is not an appropriate topic for public discussion. The Dashwoods are a little nonplussed by Mrs Jennings’ forwardness but nod along, however Mrs Jennings’ elder daughter Lady Middleton ‘could no longer endure such a conversation‘, struggling in vain to change the subject. Just as Mrs Jennings has crossed the boundaries of politeness in her interactions with the Dashwoods, she is crossing them again here.
There is a fascinating contrast between the relationships that Mrs Jennings has with her two daughters. There is not one single incidence of Lady Middleton speaking directly to either her mother or sister. They are in the same room but they never interact. Yet Mrs Jennings has an obvious strong affection for her younger daughter. As the novel progresses, both the reader and the elder two Dashwood sisters come to recognise that despite her faults, Mrs Jennings has an incredible capacity for warmth. This is particularly displayed by the tender care she shows for Charlotte during her labour and recovery. While Austen brushes over what exactly has occurred, the implication is that Charlotte’s labour was long and difficult and that her mother is mightily relieved that she made it through in one piece. Mrs Jennings is largely absent during the Dashwoods’ London visit because she is caring for her daughter. We also get little glimpses of the lady’s delight in her new grandchild. Later in the novel, the reader is privy to Mrs Jennings’ thoughts as she considers Mrs Dashwood’s prospective grief at the potential loss of Marianne very much through the prism of her own recent fears for Charlotte. The reader has been taken on a real journey with Mrs Jennings’ character development. She has not changed a jot from the beginning of the novel to the end but rather we have come to appreciate her. The apparent delicacy of characters such as Lady Middleton is exposed as coldness while Mrs Jennings’ initial abrasiveness is exposed as unabashed empathy for her fellow men. Mrs Jennings is old enough, wise enough and – crucially – independently wealthy enough to speak her mind and she has a strong feeling for her fellow woman. Whether she is glaring at John Willoughby in a ballroom or tramping fearlessly into the labour room, Mrs Jennings transcends all social situations and invariably kicks arse.
Of course, the respectable Mrs Charlotte Palmer is not the only pregnant woman in Sense and Sensibility. There is another who we never see. Hidden from the eyes of polite society, the younger Eliza has been knocked up by Willoughby. Eliza’s very existence is the subject of scandal, with Mrs Jennings explaining to Elinor that she believes Eliza to be Colonel Brandon’s natural daughter. This is another public remark which causes Lady Middleton excessive cringing. Colonel Brandon denies this charge but I myself am not so sure. Whatever the case, Eliza is a teenager who ran off with Willoughby at sixteen years old. There is something deeply distasteful that Willoughby put the blame for this whole episode on Eliza, even to the extent that Elinor felt some sympathy for him. The result of the whole business however was that Willoughby abandoned her, his aunt disinherited him when he refused to make an honest woman of the poor girl and so poor old Willoughby had to marry an heiress instead of the woman he actually loved. It is at this point when a few things occur to me. First of all, this is the only instance of illegitimate pregnancy in the whole of the Austen canon. And second of all, condoms had been invented by this era – Willoughby only has himself to blame. There are parallels between Eliza and Pride and Prejudice‘s Lydia Bennet. The girls are of an age. They both elope. Both of them are sought after by wealthy friends – Darcy and Brandon. But while Mr Darcy funds both a wedding and Wickham’s future career, Colonel Brandon satisfies himself with fighting a duel instead. Eliza and her child will have no happy ending. They will be exiled to the remote farmhouse that the Meryton gossips hoped would be Lydia’s fate and will live out their lives in quiet shame. It is unfair and yet all three of these misused women – the older Eliza, the younger Eliza and the newborn child – all seem to fade from the narrative without regret from either author or reader. I wonder if Regency Britain had yet no vocabulary with which to express sympathy for a fallen woman.
I am certain that I have read a literary theory that Persuasion‘s Mary Musgrove is in the early stages of pregnancy but I have absolutely no recollection of where I came across this. It is an intriguing thought and would explain the irritability, mood swings and some of her health issues. First trimester can truly and royally suck. And poor Mary has two bigger children to run after. No wonder she is asking for help from her sister. Seen through this lens, her husband Charles suddenly seems very unfeeling when he asks Anne to speak to Mary about not always fancying herself ill. Charles, until you grow a uterus, keep your opinions to yourself. I am not entirely convinced by this whole idea though. When Austen wanted to portray a pregnant woman, she did. I think it is more likely that Mary is simply another of Austen’s fabulous hypochondriac characters, a Mrs Bennet in training.
Still, Austen was known to have unsympathetic views of pregnancy. Hearing of a distant relative having delivered of their eighteenth child, an exasperated Jane wished the woman a smooth recovery, ‘& then I wd recommend to her & Mr D. the simple regimen of separate rooms‘. More shockingly, Austen also noted once in a letter, ‘Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.–I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband‘. In sharp contrast to her sister Cassandra, Austen does not seem to have attended many of her sisters-in-law during their labours. Perhaps she really was just disinterested in this element of the female experience. Some writers have even theorised that an aversion to pregnancy was a possible explanation for why Austen never married. Pregnancy features in her novels as a plot point rather than because of any particular feeling of empathy from Austen herself. For example, while Mary Musgrove is most likely not pregnant, Mr Elliot’s friend Mrs Wallis most definitely is expecting a child. This pregnancy precludes her from being introduced to the wider Elliot family, thus preventing the Elliot women from gaining a valuable female insight into the mysterious gentleman’s true character. Even more significantly, Mrs Wallis’ condition means that she requires the attendance of Nurse Rook, who also cares for Mrs Smith, friend to Anne Elliot. Just as in the case of Charlotte Palmer, the period of confinement hides the expectant mother even from author and reader and this underground communication is key to the novel’s denouement.
For me, the most intriguing pregnant female in Austen’s writing is Mrs Weston. She marries at the start of the novel in around late September or early October. Her daughter Anna Weston is born the following July. It would appear that her child was conceived around the wedding night. This is interesting because Mrs Weston is marrying slightly later in life but Austen is letting us know that she and Mr Weston still experience sexual desire. Indeed, suppressed sexual desire is a strong theme of Emma with even the heroine herself not particularly clear on her own sexuality. Mrs Weston’s pregnancy runs silently alongside the plot of the novel. Nobody mentions it but her bump is growing. When Emma is called to Randalls, her first fear is that Mrs Weston may be taken ill. I would also suggest that another plot factor around Mrs Weston’s pregnancy is that it gives her a reason to sit at home and take less of an active role in preventing her erstwhile charge from being a massive idiot. Poor Emma.
However, Mrs Weston also attends the strawberry-picking party at Box Hill at a point when she is eight or nine months pregnant. And this is very odd. The trip to Box Hill is on a hot day. Many exclamations are made about the dangers of the heat to poor little Jane Fairfax. Mrs Elton goes off countering towards the shade claiming that she was tired to death. So why does nobody object to the heavily pregnant Mrs Weston walking a mile and a half from Randall to Donwell in the heat? Surely Mr Knightley would have had the sense to summon up some form of vehicle to help the poor woman out? If Mrs Jennings had been there, I would imagine that she would have walked on foot to fetch one if necessary. But yet none of the characters seem to remember her. Author Margery Sharp was so appalled when she noticed this that she exclaimed ‘Miss Austen forgot the baby!‘ Most charitably, I would guess that in a busy scene with so many characters with so many competing agendas, Mrs Weston’s plot line was quietly, if temporarily, dropped. Not long afterwards, Austen announces the birth of Mrs Weston’s baby and that ‘all her friends were made happy by her safety‘. They know that this has been a higher risk than usual pregnancy because it is both her first delivery and she is older than is typical for the average first time mother. So they do care. But I really feel for Mrs Weston on this one as I have low blood pressure, which makes being pregnant in hot weather extremely difficult. If it had been me at full term on Box Hill that day, I would most likely have passed out.
Mrs Weston’s happiness in her marriage and the birth of her baby present a positive image of sexual fulfilment. Emma has feared marriage and loss of childhood, symbolised by her refusal to leave her father. The running thread of Mrs Weston underlines that physical union can bring joy. In agreeing to marry Mr Knightley, Emma is agreeing to participate in sex and to have children of her own rather than simply playing match-maker and taking second-hand delight in her nieces and nephews. Without a doubt, Mrs Weston is the happiest pregnant Austen character, married to a man who loves and values her and secure in her home and future. Austen never suggests that pregnancy is an easy time in one’s life but although she clearly recognised the wonder of creating new life.
For other entries in the Austen A-Z Challenge, visit the challenge homepage