Jane Austen’s birth, 16 December 1775Our first scene takes us to a cold winter's night in the small village of Steventon, deep in the Hampshire countryside. It is December 1775, the year of Jane Austen’s birth.
The weather was bitter: there was a sharp frost, and the pond froze over. The Austen boys, led by James, the eldest, went skating and sliding upon its glassy surface.
On Saturday 16 December the Hampshire naturalist Gilbert White wrote in his diary ‘fog, sun, sweet day.’ We can imagine the Austen boys running in the fields, their breath sending out clouds of mist into the cold air. Back at home, their mother went into labour.
Jane Austen was born that evening. She was Mrs Austen’s seventh child, and the second girl. Her husband wrote proudly to his sister the following day:
You have doubtless been for some time in expectation of hearing from Hampshire, and perhaps wondered a little we were in our old age grown such bad reckoners but so it was, for Cassey certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago: however last night the time came, and without a great deal of warning, everything was soon happily over. We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny’.
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The Natural History of Selborne, by Gilbert White
The Hampshire naturalist Gilbert White lived in Selborne, just a few miles from here. His work The Natural History of Selborne, first published in 1789, can tell us much about the country Jane Austen was born into.
In January 1776, when Jane was just a few weeks old, White described the winter weather in his diary:
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Jane was christened at home by her father, like all the Austen children. She would be christened in church later. But now the winter set in in earnest. Snow fell thickly, a freezing, sparkling white blanket on the earth.
The Steventon house was full of activity. The maids were kept busy washing, cooking and stoking the fires. The laundry woman trudged up from the village to wash the extra sheets and nappies, although it was so cold the wet laundry froze outside and so had to be strung up to dry in the house. The kitchen was full of steaming sheets and baby clothes, through which the boys ran and played.
Upstairs, Mrs Austen and her newborn lay in the four-poster, keeping warm with layers of blankets. The baby lay, warmly swaddled, enjoying her mother’s warmth and the interest of her older sister, Cassandra, who was to become her best friend throughout her life.