Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Birth of an Heir

by Maria Grace

The Birth of an Heir

Given the important role a male heir played in a landowning family’s life, it is hardly surprising that the birth of son, especially a first son, was often more welcome than the birth of a daughter. In the case of the birth of an heir to a great house, the birth might be celebrated throughout the region.
This is not to say the birth of a girl was not welcome. As the Georgian era came to an end and into the beginning of the Victorian era, children were increasingly perceived as not just potential heirs and marriage partners to provide family connections, but as emotional resources for parents, particularly mothers. (Lewis, 1986) Daughters might be welcomed for the affection and companionship they brought to their parents, even if those same parents were also apologizing for their predilection toward sons.

Unfortunately in that era, many children did not live past the age of five. (Laudermilk, 1998) The typical illnesses of childhood illnesses, accidents, unpurified water and consumption (tuberculosis) claimed many young lives. Because of the high infant mortality rate, it was critical that a clergyman be on hand to baptize a child as soon as possible. The Common Book of Prayer of the era specifically required newborns to be baptized before the second Sunday passed.

Three godparents, (preferably two of the same sex as the child) were required by the Church of England. They were often chosen in the hope that they would provide assistance—social and/or financial—as the child grew. They might also be potential guardians for the child, should the need arise.

What Happens Next?

In the modern mind, what happens next is fairly clear. After birth, baby would be fed, either nursed by the mother or given specially prepared infant formula and take their place in the family unit. This was not necessarily the assumption during the Regency era.

Not unlike today, conflicting views argued both medical and moral grounds for the best way to feed and care for an infant. Some asserted the process of breastfeeding was so intimate that it was hard to imagine any woman of proper feeling allowing the task to be fulfilled by a wet nurse. The argument went so far as to imply that mother's milk provided more than physical sustenance. The intellectual climate of the times assumed that the additional properties were of a moral nature. (Collins, 1998)

On the other side, however there were those who claimed that raising a baby ‘by hand’ (feeding an infant on animal milk or some other mixture) was a healthier option. From the late 18th century various types of feeding vessels were used, including animal horns, spoons, boat-shaped sucking bottles and upright pots with spouts, but sterilization was unheard of, causing exactly the sorts of problems one might expect. (Adkins 2013) In 1700, less than half of English babies were breast-fed, by 1800, the number approached two-thirds. (Gatrell, 2006)

Women opted to nurse their babies for a wide variety of reasons, many which are still influential today. Some believed that it was healthier for the baby—and in many ways it was, if only considering that feeding equipment was never sterilized and might only have cursory washing. Food-borne illness was a major contributor in the mortality of ‘hand raised’ infants.

Others chose to nurse for more emotional reasons. Family pressure influenced some, as did the desire to avoid another pregnancy. Some women felt a sentimental devotion toward their infants that encouraged nursing. Still others had a distaste for the lower classes from whom wet nurses were recruited. (Lewis, 1986)

Various taboos and inconveniences convinced some women not to breastfeed. Beliefs that interfered with successful nursing included: the belief that mothers should be churched (four to six weeks after giving birth) before breast feeding; colostrum or ‘first milk’ was harmful to babies; and that babies should be purged and given other liquids for the first few days after birth including wine, sugared water, or butter and honey. (Adkins, 2013) Needless to say, some of these beliefs resulted in serious health complications including infant starvation and milk fever in the mother.

Another potential discouragement to nursing: nursing normally lasted twelve to eighteen months, during which the mother would stay home with the baby, since nursing in public was simply not done. So, for women with active social roles, nursing could represent a serious hardship.

A third option presented itself for affluent women of the era. A significant number employed the services of a wet nurse throughout the first half of the 19th century. (Lewis, 1986) Some women saw it as an ideal means to avoid to avoid the inconvenience or indelicacy of nursing or to save their figures. The desire, or even the need to become pregnant again soon could also make this a desirable option. Even if pregnancy was not specifically desired, husbands might push for wet nursing because many believed that sexual excitement in a nursing mother spoiled the milk. As late as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft still thought that desire for sexual relations by the fathers was the main reason for the survival of wet nursing. (Stone, 1979)

Wet nurses

During the regency era, most believed that infants required no more than to be kept reasonably clean, warm and well-fed until their intelligence showed itself. (Tomalin, 1999) Babies were handed about freely without thought toward the modern concepts of parental bonding or abandonment. It should come as some relief that wet nurses often chosen for their patience and loving nature. However, this came more from a belief that a woman’s milk was endowed with the characteristic of its provider than a desire to provide a warm, maternal environment for the infant. (Watkins, 1990)

Wet nurses were usually married working-class women, capable of producing milk, often because they had lost a baby or recently weaned one. Some worked for many continuous years. Not only did wet nurses feed the infants, they took over all aspects of infant care. Often, babies were moved into the homes of wet nurses, especially if those women lived in the countryside and the alternative was to keep the infants in a disease-ridden town. A country wet nurse could earn about 2 shillings and sixpence a week. (Tomalin, 1999) In 1813 in Ireland, a wet nurse for a countess cost £26 a year. (Stone, 1979)

How long a child might remain in fostering with the wet nurse varied, sometimes lasting as long as five years. The process came under attack during the eighteenth century, but it continued for some time.

Mrs. Austen (the mother of Jane Austen) followed the custom of putting out her babies to be nursed in a village cottage. The infant was daily visited by one or both of its parents, and frequently brought to them to the family home, the parsonage. The wet nurse’s cottage was the infant’s home though, and must have remained so till it was old enough to run about and talk. (Day, 2006) Not all parents were as attentive to visit their infants as the Austens were. Some paid little attention to their children during their nursery days.

Adoptions, guardians and godparents

 Even though a child might survive into adulthood, nothing guaranteed that the child’s parents would survive to see it. Wardship was common legal instrument since many children lost both parents while still in their minority. Though a child would certainly feel the death of either parent, it was the death of a father that would most influence who had custody over the child. Women had no custody rights over their children who were effectively property of the husband (who was assumed to be the father since there was no DNA testing to prove paternity.)

At the father’s death, children usually went to the nearest male relative, often a grandfather or uncle. In some cases, children might be split up along gender lines. Male children might go to the father’s family and female children to the nearest male relative on the maternal line. (Spence, 2003) In either case, the mother had little or no influence on where the children would go nor any legal right to even visit the children.

Guardians exercised all the legal rights of parents until the child reached the age of majority, twenty- one. They controlled any finances of the child and could influence, though not mandate personal matters, such as the choice of a spouse. Girls could consent to or reject a marriage proposed by a guardian, and (at 14 years of age) even petition for a particular guardian to be appointed for them. So guardians had to exercise some delicacy in the performance of their role. (Byrne,2005)

Though adoption as the practice is known today did not actually exist in the era, childless relations commonly ‘adopted’ a relation’s child to serve as their heir. (MacDonagh, 1991) Sometimes wealthy branches of a family might ‘adopt’ a child of poorer relatives, bringing them up with their own children. Whether or not that child enjoyed all the privileges of wealth or was treated as a poor relation surely varied from family to family. Such was the premise of Austen’s novel Mansfield Park in which a daughter, instead of the expected son, was sent to live with wealthy relatives.

All of this suggests that the structure of families during the era was as variable as they are today, though the actual process of rearing infants and children might look very different.


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Brander, Michael. The Georgian Gentleman. Farnborough: Saxon House, 1973.
Buchan, William. 1838. Domestic Medicine: Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines: with Observations on Sea-bathing, and the Use of the Mineral Waters. To which is Annexed, a Dispensatory for the Use of Private Practitioners. J & B Williams, London.
Byrne, Paula. “Manners,” in Jane Austen in Context, edited by Janet Todd, p. 297-305. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen and the Clergy. London: Hambledon and London, 2001.
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, the Parson's Daughter. London: Hambledon Press, 1998.
Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Day, Malcom. Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David and Charles, 2006.
Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century London. New York: Walker &, 2007.
Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.
Lewis, Judith Schneid. In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
MacDonagh, Oliver. Jane Austen: real and imagined worlds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Martin, Joanna. Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House. London: Hambledon and London, 2004.
Shoemaker, Robert Brink. Gender in English Society, 1650-1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? London: Longman, 1998. Pearson Education Limited
Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.
Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: a life. New York: Random House, 1999.
Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.
Watkins, Susan. Jane Austen's Town and Country Style. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her

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