Today, I welcome Quenby Olsen to the blog, to talk about her research into Regency childhood. Over to you, Quen.
While writing The Firstborn (a story that features a very chubby, very assertive infant named George) I fell down the frequent rabbit hole of research about how babies and children were regarded in the nineteenth century. The fact that stood about above everything else? If you were a child born in Regency-era England, then your childhood was most likely remarkably different from only one generation before you.
In the eighteenth century, the prevailing belief about children was that they should be treated (and be expected to behave) as miniature adults. The advice we hear today, to let kids be kids? Not something you would have heard in the early Georgian-era of powdered wigs and telling French peasants to eat cake. But round and about the turn of the nineteenth century, there was a tremendous change in not only how children were brought into the world, but how they were raised.
Obstetricians began to take the place of midwives, and women were encouraged to “lie in” for at least a month after giving birth, taking on help from neighbors and family. Many households still sent their young children off to be cared for by wet nurses from about the age of three months (poorer households would most likely not have this option) presumably to give the mother freedom to re-enter society and also to bring about the ability to have more children quickly. (Jane Austen, for instance, was sent to live with another family from the age of three months to two years. As dire as this sounds, she was visited by one or both of her parents every day. Though this practice was looked down on by the generations immediately followed.)
The tight, constraining swaddling of an infant that had been the norm in the eighteenth century was pushed aside in an effort to give babies more freedom of movement. Swaddling had also been used in an effort to keep babies calm and quiet, as if the crying of a child was a bad thing. In the nineteenth century, adults began to understand that crying was a normal part of infancy and childhood, often a result of the baby and child still learning how to express themselves.
Play and games were encouraged as being essential towards a child’s development, and children’s clothing reflected these changing attitudes. While babies were kept in long gowns to keep them warm, as soon as they reached the age of crawling and walking, they were placed in “short clothes” to give their chubby little legs room to maneuver. Pudding caps were used as well, a slightly padded helmet, of sorts, to help prevent the bumps and bruises that came with learning to walk and run and jump. (And just when you thought overprotective parenting was a modern invention…)
Children were also drawn tighter into the bosom of the family, and many households all ate their meals together rather than keeping the children separate with a nursemaid round the clock. The belief was that they would better learn to socialize and grow into better adults by seeing the behavior of their elders and to “practice” with them. But it had the added benefit of keeping the family together and letting the parents and children play a larger part in each other’s lives.
By the age of eight is when things would begin to change in the child’s life. If you were a boy, your education went into overdrive. Being sent off to school, the hiring of a tutor, or being sent to learn from the local parson were all popular options. Girls, on the other hand, were more likely to be kept at home for their education (especially as a girl’s education consisted of things like needlework, painting, music, and less history, science, and languages than their brothers). A governess would often be added to the household staff (though we all remember Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s horror at discovering that all five Bennet daughters were raised without the aid of a governess).
As the nineteenth century moved forward, the role of motherhood and the importance of children being children only progressed further. A short while after the Regency period, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert arrived, two people who both reportedly doted on their children (all nine of them!) and all while running an empire. Now, nearly two centuries later, it is remarkable how many things have changed, and yet how with the upswing in popularity of cloth diapers and midwives and ensuring that kids have ample time to play, just how many things have remained the same.
Sophia has sacrificed everything for her younger sister, Lucy. She has removed them from the only home they ever knew, taken on the care of Lucy’s illegitimate son, George, and even assumed the role of a widow and mother in order to erase all hint of scandal from the boy’s birth. But rumor continues to follow them like the darkest of clouds, and Sophia must adapt to her new existence as a false widow with no prospects beyond the doors of her small cottage.
Lord Haughton will stop at nothing to prevent the slightest whiff of disgrace from tainting his family’s name. When he learns of his younger brother’s latest indiscretion-one that leaves a bastard child in his wake-Haughton rushes across the country to offer the boy’s mother a comfortable living in exchange for her silence about the child’s true parentage. But he arrives only to have his generous offer thrown back in his face by Sophia Brixton, a sharp-tongued and sharper-witted woman who proceeds to toss him out of her house. But just because he is banished from her home does not mean he is so easily banished from her life.
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Finnian shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Up to this point, nothing had transpired in the way he’d imagined it would. And as for Sophia, she was too blunt, and too intelligent. And that was what worried him most.
He gestured towards the recently vacated table. “Will you be seated?”
Her shoulders pressed back. “I’ll stand, thank you.”
He cleared his throat. She was not going to make this easy for him. A point for her, since he doubted she had any idea what had brought him all this way. “The child—”
“George,” she said, interrupting him. “His name is George, after our father.”
“No,” she spoke again, while his next words still danced on the tip of his tongue. “Not ‘of course’. Such a phrase denotes your being aware that our father’s name was George, or knowing what type of man he was and why we would choose to honor him in such a way. But here you are, darkening my doorstep nine months after his birth. A fact which proves to me that either you didn’t know about him before now, or you simply didn’t care.”
He inclined his head, yet dared not take his eyes off of her, not for a second. “My apologies. I assure you it was the former, and as soon as I discovered that my brother had a son—”
“And where is your brother? And why are you here in his stead?”
Finnian could feel his temper beginning to rise. Never before had he allowed himself to show anger in front of a woman, and yet she was the most infuriating creature he’d ever encountered. “He is in London. I assume.”
“You assume?” To his surprise, her mouth broke into a smile and a soft laugh emanated from the back of her throat. “In other words, you have about as much sway over the life of your brother as I have over my sister.”
“I’m not here to discuss my family,” he said, his voice taking on a note of warning he hadn’t even intended to be there.
“Oh, but I’m sure you’re here with the sole purpose of discussing mine. Or am I wrong?” A flash in her eyes countered the steel in his voice. “The mere fact that you’ve arrived today with a prior knowledge of not only both our names, our location, George’s existence, and no doubt a myriad other trivial items concerning our past and present life tells me that you’ve gone to great lengths to find out all you could before traveling here from…” She waved her right hand in a vague circle. “… wherever you call home. Which means, no doubt, that you wanted the upper hand in this discussion. Which also means that I will most likely not care for whatever it is you’ve come to tell me.”
Finnian fumed in silence. If the baby’s mother was even half as maddening as the woman standing before him, he wondered how David had survived with his manhood and his sanity intact. “I had come here with the intention of speaking to the mother of my brother’s child,” he ground out between clenched teeth.
“But she is not here,” she said, delivering the confession with the precision of a wielded weapon. “And she is not like to be anytime soon. And since your appearance here is most likely connected with George, then you will have to make do with speaking to me.”
Meet Quenby Olsen
Quenby Olson lives in Central Pennsylvania where she writes, homeschools, glares at baskets of unfolded laundry, and chases the cat off the kitchen counters. After training to be a ballet dancer, she turned towards her love of fiction, penning everything from romance to fantasy, historical to mystery. She spends her days with her husband and children, who do nothing to dampen her love of the outdoors, immersing herself in historical minutiae, and staying up late to watch old episodes of Doctor Who.