Jane Austen is one of the most influential and best-loved novelists in English literature. Austen’s genius was her cast of characters—so timeless and real that readers today recognize them in their own families and neighborhoods. Her book’s universal themes—love and hate, hope and disappointment, pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility—still tug at heartstrings today in cultures spanning the globe. Austen wrote about daily life in England as she knew it, growing up a clergyman’s daughter among the upper class of landowners, providing readers with a window into the soul of a lively, imaginative, and industrious woman in an age when most women were often obscured. Jane Austen for Kids includes a time line, resources for further study, places to visit, and 21 enriching activities.
About the Author
Nancy I. Sanders is the author of many books, including Frederick Douglass for Kids, America's Black Founders, A Kid’s Guide to African American History, and Old Testament Days.
Read an Excerpt
THE AUSTEN ANCESTORS
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen's beginnings seemed simple enough. She was born in England on December 16, 1775, the seventh of eight children. Her family wasn't wealthy, but they were part of the gentry, the fortunate social class that owned land in Georgian England. The Georgian era lasted from 1714 to 1830, when England was ruled by four successive kings named George: George I, his son George II, George II's grandson George III, and George III's son George IV.
Jane lived life surrounded by family, friends, and festivities. She loved to dance and merrily dance she did. Many of her joy-filled days were also spent in quiet pleasures: gathering flowers in English gardens and walking through the countryside. And the teas she enjoyed! Jane's life was rich in the delight of daily moments. She never married but shared a bedroom with her older sister, Cassandra, until Jane died at age 41.
Even as a teenager, Jane took delight in storytelling. Her childhood writings are still read today. As she grew older, she eventually wrote six complete novels. Four were published during her lifetime, but alas, they were released anonymously, so most people didn't know Jane had written them. After she died a quiet death from an unknown illness, her brother and sister published her other two novels. They included a note identifying their sister as the author of all six works.
Who could have guessed Jane would one day become one of the most beloved authors of all time? Many literary scholars hold up her works along with Shakespeare's as among the best in the English language and consider her England's most famous novelist. Fans throughout the world call her "our Jane." They read her books — numerous times — and join clubs to celebrate all things Jane, calling themselves "Janeites." Movies, television series, and books (both nonfiction and fiction) based on her novels and her life are wildly popular.
To many, Jane Austen truly is a heroine. Living when women had limited opportunities, little education, and few privileges, she engaged in the witty occupation of writing. She wrote and rewrote her novels until they shone. She studied human characteristics and the complicated social etiquette of her times, identifying universal emotions that readers relate to even now.
Our Jane. Everything Jane. Clever, witty, high-spirited, and kindhearted Jane. What was it that made her so special both during her life and to so many of us today?
George Austen, Jane's father, was born in Tonbridge in the county of Kent, England, in 1731. The Austen ancestors were in the woolen industry. Known as clothiers, they provided sheep's wool to weavers, who made cloth. The Austens then sold this cloth to merchants.
Because of their gray livery (the jackets their coachmen wore), the Austens "were usually called the Gray Coats of Kent." By the time George was born, they had become gentry, the fortunate social class that owned land in Georgian England. The Austen family was so large that their combined votes counted heavily on election day. They were therefore a strong influence on the politics in the area where they lived.
George's father, William Austen, married a widow. She had a son, William Walter, from her first marriage. Together, George's father and mother had three children: Philadelphia, George, and Leonora. Sadly their mother died when the children were still young. Three years later their father married again, but he died a year after that. After this, their stepmother would have nothing to do with the children. She sent them to live with family members. It was a sorrowful beginning for six-year-old George and his siblings, who were now penniless orphans. William Walter, George's half brother, went to live with his mother's relatives. George, Philadelphia, and Leonora landed in London with their father's brother.
After a short time in London, George's aunt Betty took him under her wing. He moved to Betty and her husband's home back in Tonbridge.
Another uncle, Francis Austen, paid for George's education. Such an arrangement was not uncommon in Georgian England. Wealthy members of ancient families took pride in providing for their less fortunate relatives. This was partly to keep the grand estates they owned within the family.
Young George was a clever lad. When he was 16, he won a scholarship to attend St. John's College at Oxford University. As a member of the gentry, his choices for a "respectable" career were limited to becoming a clergyman or joining the military. All other trades or businesses were not considered worthy of the gentry class in Georgian England.
Host a Regency Tea
Drinking tea was an everyday part of Jane's life. And the parties where tea was served were elegant! "We drank tea again yesterday with the Tilsons, and met the Smiths. I find all these little parties very pleasant," Jane wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra. One of Jane's household responsibilities was to purchase the tea. When she visited London, she shopped at Twinings, a tea shop still open today, where she probably bought black or green tea imported from China.
Thomas and Catherine Knight, Jane's relatives who adopted Jane's brother Edward, had a family cookbook. Jane probably enjoyed these recipes served during her visits to Edward's estate, Godmersham Park in Kent, or at another of his homes, Chawton House in Hampshire. Chawton was often referred to as the "Great House." In a letter to her niece Anna, Jane shared that she had spent the previous night "drinking tea at the Great House."
ADULT SUPERVISION REQUIRED
Now it's your turn to host a tea such as Jane would have enjoyed during the Regency period. (These were the years the Prince of Wales ruled as prince regent while his father, George III, was too ill to reign.)
Most important, be sure to include tea. Boil a pot of hot water, then steep or soak in the water the number of teabags recommended on the package. Use caffeine-free tea such as cinnamon apple, mint, or raspberry. Discard the teabags before pouring the tea into teacups. Offer honey or sugar cubes, along with milk or cream, if guests want to flavor their tea.
Also prepare sandwiches, cakes, and sweets. Teatime in Jane's day included delicacies like lemon pudding, macaroons, and gooseberry tarts. Tea drinkers also enjoyed rout cakes, cookies flavored with edible rose water and served at a rout, or "fashionable evening party."
The Knight family was fond of gingerbread and ginger cake. Their cookbook contains four of their favorite recipes. Here is a ginger cake recipe, inspired by one in the The Knight Family Cookbook, that you can bake for your Regency tea.
1 cup softened margarine or butter
1 cup honey
4 egg whites
¾ cup hot water
1½ teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
2½ cups whole wheat pastry flour or white flour
13-by-9-inch baking pan, greased Large mixing bowl Electric mixer Toothpick (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350°F and grease a 13-by-9-inch baking pan.
2. With an electric mixer, cream margarine (or butter) and honey in a large mixing bowl.
3. Add egg whites to the margarine and honey mixture and beat until well mixed.
4. Slowly pour hot water into the mixture, then add spices and beat well.
5. Gradually add flour, mixing on a low speed, then beat for one minute.
6. Pour batter into the greased baking pan and bake at 350°F for 35 minutes. (Insert toothpick to see if the cake is done — the toothpick should come out clean.)
7. Allow the cake to cool completely, and then cut into small squares and serve.
Design a Coat of Arms
The coat of arms, or "arms," were a matter of family pride. Only British gentry or families of distinction were allowed to own a coat of arms. These arms were displayed on the family's carriage so people could quickly identify who rode inside. The arms could be used in other ways. George Austen proudly printed his on bookplates, labels he put inside his books.
The background was typically the shape of a shield, but various shapes could be chosen. Unmarried daughters like Jane would display her family's arms on a diamond shape, or lozenge. The shield could be one solid color or divided into parts.
Pictures placed on the shield were called charges. Any symbol could be used, such as birds, fish, and reptiles, or castles, crowns, and hunting horns. Some images were a playful twist on the family name. Each had a motto, a phrase that held special meaning. Oftentimes the motto would contain a pun or witty reference to the family's name.
* Poster board
* Crayons, markers, or paints
* Optional: Computer, color scanner, art program, and specialty paper
1. Choose the shape for your shield. Draw it on poster board, using a ruler to make sure the lines are straight. Leave it as one solid piece or divide it up.
2. Color the background. Here are the frequently used colors, along with their common names and symbolic meanings:
Or (gold or yellow): generosity, wisdom
Argent (silver or white): truth, purity, peace
Sable (black): constancy, grief
Azure (blue): loyalty, faith
Gules (red): warrior, martyr, strength
Vert (green): joy, hope, love
Purpure (purple): royalty, sovereignty, justice
3. Pick the charges you want. Choose symbols that are meaningful to you or that play on your name. You can draw them yourself, cut them from magazines, or print them from the internet. Glue the charges to your shield.
4. Think of a catchy phrase to use as your motto, and add it your arms. You can also add more decorations. Some arms have symbols sitting on top called a crest. Others feature symbols on either side called supporters.
You can display your coat of arms as is or use it to create bookplates, like George Austen's. Scan your coat of arms using a color scanner and upload the image to an art program or a blank word-processing document. Shrink its size and copy it so four images fit on one page. Type your name at the bottom of each. Print out several copies of this page, and cut apart the bookplates. Use an acid-free glue stick to attach a bookplate to the inside front page of your books.
The Church of England
George and most of the Austens were Anglicans, members of the Church of England. As Anglicanism was the national religion, the Church of England was very influential in politics and social customs. In George's day, gentlemen had to be Anglican to attend Oxford or Cambridge University, to work for the government, or to join the British military and become an officer.
At St. John's College, George earned multiple degrees. In 1754, he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. The next year, he became a priest. By 1764, he was done with school and was ready to marry and start a family. But how could he support them?
His wealthy relations came to his aid. Uncle Francis knew George needed a rectory, a house where a priest lives to serve his parish, the people in the neighborhood surrounding his church. Francis purchased a rectory for George in the village of Deane.
In addition, Thomas Knight, a rich cousin, gave George one of the Knight estates. By the bye, this was a property that included a second, dilapidated rectory in the village of Steventon. One mile apart, both rectories were nestled in the county of Hampshire, which had scarcely 300 villagers.
At 33 years old, Rev. George Austen was a clergyman in charge of his parishioners' souls, baptisms, marriages, and funerals. With the help of his rich relations, he had risen from penniless orphan to the lower ranks of the gentry.
All he wanted now was a wife.
The Distinguished Leigh Family
George Austen courted Cassandra Leigh, the youngest daughter of Rev. Thomas Leigh. Young Cassandra Leigh was born into a family connected to English nobility. A distant ancestor was the Lord Mayor of London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Other ancestors married wealthy aristocrats. The Leigh family was proud of their heritage. Cassandra was named after her great aunt Cassandra Willoughby, the Duchess of Chandos.
Cassandra's uncle, Dr. Theophilus Leigh, was master (or head) of Balliol College. College students, family members, and neighbors shared stories of the clever puns he told. Like her uncle, Cassandra was known for her puns.
Learn Social Etiquette Among the Gentry
As a member of the landed gentry, George Austen would have been expected to know the basic rules of social etiquette and manners. You can learn some of these rules so you can practice them during a Regency tea or a ball.
Manners for meeting and greeting another person were very important. You were never supposed to start talking with someone you didn't know. At a ball, the master of ceremonies introduced strangers to each other, especially gentlemen and young ladies so they could dance. When a gentleman strolled down the street past a young lady, if he did not know her very well he had to wait for her to bow to him before he could tip his hat at her. A man had to wait for a young woman to speak first.
A young lady was never supposed to walk through town by herself. Her governess (like a nanny), servant, sisters, or a gentleman must accompany her. If she was unmarried, she wasn't supposed to walk alone with a gentleman.
When a girl turned 16, it was her turn for coming out, a term used to describe a young woman's formal entry to society. Before that, she was expected to behave quietly in a group of people, not speak to gentlemen in public, and not attend public balls. A young lady's time of coming out was very important. The event was often celebrated with an elegant ball.
If a young lady was seated at a ball and a gentleman had no dance partner, he was expected to ask her to dance. If a gentleman asked a lady to reserve a specific dance for him, he was expected to arrive promptly. When a couple danced, it was considered rude to interrupt them. When a gentleman danced the last dance before supper with a lady, he was expected to sit with her during the meal. A gentleman was not supposed to dance more than two dances with the same lady unless he meant to ask her to marry him.
Clever, witty Cassandra and bright, educated George made a fine match. The couple married on April 26, 1764, at St. Swithin's, a church in the town of Bath.
George and Cassandra settled in the village of Deane. They had a student boarding with them named George Hastings. This little boy was the son of Warren Hastings, an English businessman turned politician in India. Warren Hastings was a business partner with George Austen's sister Philadelphia and her husband, Tysoe Hancock.
Young George Hastings was born in India but sent to England for his education. Alas! little George didn't fare well in England. Sadly, he caught a condition known as the "putrid sore throat" and died.
For several years, Cassandra and George rented the parsonage in Deane while the one at Steventon was being repaired. Their family grew. Sons James, George, and Edward were born within three years.
When the Steventon parsonage was finally ready, movers loaded up a wagon with the Austens' furniture, hefting the feather bed atop the load. Cassandra was not feeling well. Rather than walk the mile over the deeply rutted road to Steventon, she climbed onto the wagon. Cassandra rode high on the feather mattress like a queen riding in her royal carriage.
Play with Puns
Cassandra Austen, her ancestors, and her children were well known for their love of wordplay and puns. What is a pun? It's a word or phrase used in a clever way so as to have a double meaning.
Playing with puns is fun. If you learn how to "pun"ish your audience to get laughs, you'll be joining the ranks of literary giants such as William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Both loved to sprinkle stories with witty wordplays.
Start by collecting puns. In Jane's day, people collected puns and wordplays in a scrapbook. Harriet Smith, in Jane Austen's book Emma, decorated the pages of her collection with ciphers — messages written in secret code. You can write your collection by hand or print them from your computer and glue them into your scrapbook.
Next, learn how to create your own puns. Here's how to get started.
1. Look online or in dictionaries and thesauruses for homophones, homonyms, and homographs. Collect lists of these words and their meanings — you will need to know the definitions to create puns.
Homophones are spelled differently but sound the same. For example: gnu,new, and knew.
Homonyms are spelled and pronounced the same but have different meanings. For example, a rose is a flower, but rose is also the word used for getting up (The sun rose in the sky).
Homographs are spelled the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings. For example, the wind blew in the trees, but you wind your clock.
2. Ask friends, family, and classmates to share their favorite sayings and proverbs. Collect these common phrases.
3. Use a rhyming dictionary to look up rhymes or near-rhymes for words you want to use in creating a pun.
4. Now put your research together. Choose words that have a double meaning and use them to write a clever sentence or phrase. Start with a common cliché or proverb and switch one or more words with words that rhyme or nearly rhyme to create a humorous twist.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jane Austen for Kids"
Copyright © 2019 Nancy I. Sanders.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Pride: The Austen Ancestors,
2 Prejudice: A Clergyman's Daughter,
3 Sense: A Literary Education,
4 Sensibility: Youthful Writings,
5 Love And Friendship: Growing Up,
6 Persuasion: Literary Masterpieces,
Websites and Places to Explore,
Books for Further Study,