Childcare in the Regency
As a companion essay to Monday’s blog post on the servants who cared for the children in a Regency household, today I will touch upon the topic of childcare itself. I say “touch upon” because it is a huge subject so cannot be delved into deeply. Whole books have been written on the historical trends and philosophies in childcare. In fact, one of the books I recommend at the end of this post covers this topic in exquisite depth. I am fortunate to own a copy of Yesterday’s Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare by Sally Kevill-Davies and I reference it constantly when writing anything related to children. The photos alone are worth the cost!
Child Rearing Philosophy & Theory
This is a complex subject, but to summarize, in the latter years of the 18th century an enlightened, rational attitude toward raising children emerged that was completely revolutionary. Infants and toddlers were no longer viewed as “lumps of flesh” with little or no virtue, or worse yet the receptacles of “original sin” which needed to be beaten out of them. Influential writers such as John Locke, and Richard and Maria Edgeworth, (among many others) advocated for the rights of children and rejected the old concepts of child rearing for new ideas of freedom, nurture, and natural liberation. Additionally, with the gradual improvements in medical care and obstetrics, the previously held superstitions and fears regarding death (so common with children) slowly began to wane.
A study of all the societal changes would take ages, so suffice to say, many families during the Regency Era approached parenthood different from their predecessors. This altering attitude paved the way for the radical swing to embracing everything related to motherhood in the Victorian Era. In 1837 Victoria ascended the throne and ruled while simultaneously and seemingly continually in a pregnant state. Unabashedly devoted to her children, Victoria’s example elevated motherhood to a near-sanctified state.
If the rearing and training of childhood is an art (and who can deny that it is so?), it must be learned, practiced and perfected like any other art. ~ Baroness B. M. Von Marenholtz-Buelow in 1855
Therefore, while during the early years of the Regency Era the old philosophies probably held sway to some degree and within certain households, less and less were infants and young children being farmed out, tucked away in attic rooms until “civilized” and proper, given to the wet-nurse, or ignored by their parents. That said, wealthy upper-class parents managed large estates and business affairs, as well as the pressing demands from Society. They needed help raising their offspring, the nurse/nanny a vital necessity, as I pointed out in Monday’s post.
Education During the Regency and Georgian Eras
In England, during these decades, there wasn’t a formal, standardized educational system. Government funded public schools did not exist, nor did the crown or Parliament require everyone to receive a set level of education. There were schools run by philanthropic and religious groups that were free for poorer children, and there were numerous private schools for boy and girls of the middle to upper classes. Jane and Cassandra Austen attended a school for girls run by a Mrs. Crawley in Oxford, a one year experience Jane detested. And we all know that Austen’s father, Reverend Austen, supplemented his income by educating boys in his home.
Formalized, quality education was definitely easier if one had the money and the desire to learn. Yet even in this, the options were myriad and the rules for what constituted an “education” were fuzzy at best.
In general, girls were educated entirely at home. A governess was preferred, but again looking to Jane Austen, it was not at all unusual for a genteel gentleman’s daughter to be educated by her parents. If a daughter was sent to a female-ran boarding school, it was usually for a short period of time.
Boys, on the other hand, simply could not arrive in Society without some sort of formal education, for appearances if nothing else. Indeed, it was typical for boys as young as eight to be sent away to a boarding school, the most prestigious the better. However, it was also just as common for a boy to remain at home under the tutelage of a tutor and forego a boarding school entirely, or only attend for a handful of years in preparation for University.
Essentially, there was no one pathway that was “normal” or even most common. Nothing was written in stone.
Therefore, the following commentary in regards to education is what the “norms” were but nothing was written in stone.
Yesterday’s Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare
This book describes the changing trends in childcare through the centuries. From the time when the Church, ritual, and superstition dictated the way in which children were reared, through the era of Romantic Enlightenment, to our own, more or less, common-sense theories of today, the attitudes of society towards childcare have fluctuated violently, with each generation rejecting the customs of its predecessors.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, children were seen as little better than animals, full of “original sin” and destined for Hell, while the 18th century saw a more rational attitude gradually developing. Queen Victoria, though personally unmaternal, helped to make motherhood a cause celebre, and by the end of the 19th century “baby worship” was a national pastime.
The everyday objects used by mothers and nurses to help raise the children in their care sharply reflect these changing attitudes. From swaddling-bands to cradles, breast pumps to baby-walkers, christening robes to high-chairs, Sally Kevill-Davies’s book reveals the fascinating, amusing and frequently horrifying truth about childcare in the past.
Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres
Between the 1780s and the end of the nineteenth century, an army of sad women took up residence in other people’s homes, part and yet not part of the family, not servants, yet not equals. To become a governess, observed Jane Austen in Emma, was to “retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever.”
However, in an ironic paradox, the governess, so marginal to her society, was central to its fiction-partly because governessing was the fate of some exceptionally talented women who later wrote novels based on their experiences. But personal experience was only one source, and writers like Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, and Jane Austen all recognized that the governess’s solitary figure, adrift in the world, offered more novelistic scope than did the constrained and respectable wife.
Ruth Brandon weaves literary and social history with details from the lives of actual governesses, drawn from their letters and journals, to craft a rare portrait of real women whose lives were in stark contrast to the romantic tales of their fictional counterparts.