History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 January 2011

Families Made and Families Found -- Then and Now

It all comes around to Jane Eyre, perhaps -- or to those lovely posters that I've been seeing in the train stations, of the beautiful young actress Mia Wasikowska as Jane, in the forthcoming movie. Prompting me to take a smart and lovely book off my shelf: Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres, by Ruth Brandon.

Brandon writes eloquently about the embarrassments and discomforts of the governess life -- the loneliness of this particular state of upper servanthood, of being in the family but not of it, denied even the downstairs camaraderie and shared resentments of the servants' hall. The loneliness and the anger, expressed so passionately in Jane Eyre and lived by the real-life governesses, Mary Wollstonecraft, Anne Bronte, Claire Clairmont, and others.

All of which, of course, takes place in the context of family life among the upper classes of a society where status and much of wealth was based upon the transfer of land, title and inheritance to an eldest son. Where in 99% of the cases, women of the landed (and even the middle, classes could only achieve real status by marrying into the system) and who needed some training in the ladylike graceful arts and accomplishments to pull it off. Which is, of course, why they had governesses.

For men, meanwhile, inheritance mattered -- most particularly for older sons. At the upper reaches of society, legitimate claims to a title mattered. As in the earliest extant romances (from second-century Greece) paternity mattered.

But what if a landowning family had no legitimate heir? If the estate wasn't entailed (most horrifically to a Mr. Collins) such a family without an heir might take in an affable, attractive boy. And if he remained affable, attractive, might settle the estate upon him.

Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen Knight (as he became), was evidently such a boy. This is silhouette of Jane Austen's father presenting his son to the Knight family. And we should thank heaven that he was such a boy, that the Knight family did adopt him, and that the estate he inherited included Chawton Cottage, where in 1809 he installed his widowed, financially hard-pressed mother and spinster sisters Jane and Cassandra, and where Jane unpacked the manuscripts she'd been carrying around for a decade, and got to the serious, sublime work of creating Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey.

Perhaps remaining affable and attractive was a simple matter for Edward Austen Knight. Certainly we have no knowledge to the contrary. Still, I can't help wondering what the pressures might have been upon a boy who'd been sent away at age twelve from a crowded if loving home (eight children to support on the Reverend Mr. Austen's small living!) to charm his way into an estate. There isn't any evidence to suggest any difficulties -- except, perhaps, the portrait his brilliantly perceptive (and far less affable) sister Jane drew of another such boy -- Frank Churchill in Emma.

Not only is Frank constrained to dance attendance upon the difficult, querulous aunt who holds his fate in her hands, but he's managed to further complicate his life by falling in love with a young woman of no property of her own -- one of the angriest governesses (or would-be governesses) in all of fiction, Jane Fairfax.

Bringing us back to the humiliations of living one's life preparing other ladies (perhaps far less smart or talented or even handsome than oneself) to enter the marriage mart. To be a governess was to be an unsuccessful (because unmarried) lady never quite at home in the house of a successful lady and her potentially successful daughters.

The darkness of a love between a too charming adopted boy and a furious and furiously accomplished orphaned girl, neither of them with secure assurances of an eventual home is, to my mind, one of Austen's great understated moments of social criticism, and one that leads me to muse upon the misshapings of family life under the dominance of property and inheritance. Not strictly or simply a romantic couple in Austen (their problems are solved too abruptly by a providential offstage death) Jane and Frank continue to haunt my imagination, to make me hope that they do find their way, somewhere beyond the covers of Emma.

While as for the complexities of family life that more often than not overflows strict biological boundaries, of governesses in homes not of their making, and all the secrets and lies of identity and inheritance. The more I think about it, the more contemporary these issues begin to seem. Think of blended families (on your street, among your relatives, perhaps in your own home). Think of working mothers and of their nannies whose own children are sometimes halfway around the world.

The idealized postwar mid-century "nuclear family" was doubtless the exception instead of the rule. And so, I'm thinking, perhaps the impetus for this post didn't entirely originate with Jane Eyre, but with the actress who will play her, and who also played another touching young woman, Mia Wasikowska as Joni in the Oscar-nominated The Kids are All Right.

Which movie has also been in my mind, perhaps because of my own sister Robin and her partner Barb's family (much like the one in the movie, although their daughter and son are still too young to meet their biological dad). Or because my son has recently fallen in love with a lovely women who's brought with her Sasha, a ready-made two and a half year old granddaughter for us.

And because I'm rather awed to realize (if only after the fact of writing it) how important the idea of a network of relationships that creates a family were for me when I wrote another complicated story of families finding themselves in The Edge of Impropriety, which will be reissued in mass paperback this May.

There's my new cover.

And HERE (indulge me, please, just this once) is Sasha's first representational drawing -- eyes, nose and mouth, in the lower right hand corner of the pic.

And let me know what some of your favorite new-style, old-style, blended or created families are in romance (or in the movies, too)

(and thanks again to romance blogger Tumperkin, for her lovely, insightful comments on EDGE)

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Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I never really thought about Jane Austen's poor brother being on trial all his life in an effort to secure an inheritance that would benefit now only himself, but his mother and sisters as well. Talk about pressure!

People send adopted kids back to Russia. They send adopted pets back to the shelter or rescue. (Lady in England returned a lovely Jack Russell mix after two days because he clashed with her curtains!! EXCUSE me?) I am quite sure had Edward not satisfied they might very well have sent him back.

My brother was in a relationship with his now wife for eight years before they married. Her son was only five when she and my brother got together. His own father was "not in the picture," lets just leave it at that. From the very start my family, most especially my Mom treated this little boy (now 14) the same as our natural niece and nephew. His first Christmas my mother spend the same on him as she did on the others. (Trust me, this is a big deal. My Mom does Christmas right! Looks like Santa's sleigh was carjacked and dumped under her Christmas tree!) It took him a while to get used to the idea, but now he ADORES his Nana and thinks I am the coolest aunt ever. So I guess my favorite blended family is my own.

I know there is a historical romance series, I can't call it to mind at the moment, in which the legitimate and illegitimate children of an aristocratic couple are raised together and the blending of that family makes for a really great story line!

3:53 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

And Miss Sasha's drawing is quite lovely!

3:54 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

The thought of being a governess is depressing. I love children, but the social distance from the family, the servants and all with no real hope of finding true love is just too depressing.

What a gloomy life---and yet, I suppose it was far better than starving. My sympathy to all the angry governesses of the past!

4:29 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You know, Louisa, I'm not sure about Edward Knight. Maybe he was confident his whole life about being wanted by his adopted family. But I do know that Frank Churchill wasn't.

And yes, Sasha's drawing is very beautiful. Paul Klee had to work to get stuff to look like that.

And as for the governesses -- yes, Kathrynn, my sympathy too.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I was thinking that Sasha's drawing has a touch of Matisse about it as well. She should be doing your cover art. I think she's got a wonderfully Expressionistic touch. Speaking of your new cover, I love the shade of emerald on the dress; it really pops; but not sure about the Hitler youth embracing her. And call me madcap, but I do miss your original cover. Not that you asked me ... I know.

You've written much to chew on, Pam. I've never envied the "trayf" (neither milchig nor fleischig) twilight existence of governesses but they were certainly preferable to factory workers, as far as physical labor. Still, the blunting of a young woman's identity must have been demoralizing, but on the bright side it wasn't only in novels that they met their future husbands.

I never thought about Edward Austen Knight's emotional/psychological circumstances. Perhaps the biographies I read glossed over his situation, but I was always under the impression that he was happily assimilated. I admit that it didn't occur to me that it cost him in much the same way it cost Frank Churchill (and EAK may have been Jane's model for Frank, true).

6:14 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Pam! I know so many wonderful blended families in real life. Perhaps that's partly why I often write about characters who ended up raising children that aren't their biologically, often with complicated past histories. I think Charles/Malcolm and Mélanie/Suzanne's family definitely qualifies as blended with Raoul playing a role which evolves with the series.

Emily Cowper had a number of lovers and probably only her eldest son was her husband's (though he was fond of all the children apparently). One of her son's in particular was almost certainly the son of her long time lover Lord Palmerston. Palmerston sent her money for him. Eventually, after Lord Cowper died, she married Palmerston. The son became his secretary. When Palmerston was Prime Minister, a visiting diplomat complicated him on how much his son resembled him, not realizing the son was officially a stepson :-).

7:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


Love Sasha's drawing!

7:39 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Glad you like the popping emerald cover, Leslie. But oh dear, I'll never be able to look at that cover and not think Hitler youth. LOL

Tracy, I was fascinated to realize how very "California" the Regency aristocrats were with their complicated liaisons and mysteriously blended families. Or are we just still in the Regency?

10:02 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Always great to see your take on things, Pam. Makes me think and provides fodder for my own books (where I'm writing about nothing but younger sons, so this gem of an observation must be tucked away for later use).

9:22 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Sasha could be making a fortune if marketed correctly . . .

9:23 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Isobel. I was, of course, partly thinking about your younger sons when I wrote this.

As for "Sasha could be making a fortune if marketed correctly" -- ah, but which of use couldn't? ;-)

11:19 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Interesting point, Pam, about Frank vs. Edward tho I always felt that Edward Knight was not nearly as flakey as he could have been... and I'm so glad the Knights adopted him so he could provide Jane etc the cottage at Chawton. It wasn't the first time it had happened in the Knight family, but since I'm tidying up my office I can't find a thing and so can't look it up.

Have you read A Diary in the Time of Jane Austen, the journal and letters of Agnes Porter who was quite lucky, adored by her employers, and who accumulated more money than Austen ever did. She had some very interesting things to say about servants. I've seen Brandon's book at Daedalus but haven't yet bought it.

Sasha's drawing is incredibly sophisticated for her age. If I could find it, I'd drag out my daughter's first artwork for comparison!

8:51 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'll check out the Porter book, Janet. Thanks.

While as for Sasha's drawing -- it's of the Grinch, whom she absolutely adores. Jesse says the Grinch is her Byronic hero -- bad but good. These things begin very early, evidently.

9:11 PM  

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