We know Jane accepted a proposal in 1802 from Harris Bigg-Wither (five years her junior and heir to the nearby Manydown estate); but she withdrew her consent the following morning.
In doing so, she declined luxury as mistress of a fine Tudor mansion with a grand park. Such was her integrity.
She did not let this disrupt her friendly relationship with Harris's sisters. In a letter written in 1808 from Godmersham, she insists that she wants to be home in Southampton for a planned visit by those ladies: I have felt obliged to give Edwd & Elizth one private reason for my wishing to be at home in July. – They feel the strength of it, & say no more; – & one can rely on their secrecy. – After this, I hope we shall not be disappointed of our Friends' visit; – my honour, as well as my affection will be concerned in it (Letter 54).
As for the story that Jane fell in love possibly at Lyme with a man who later died – a family tradition begun many years later by Cassandra (as related by James Edward Austen-Leigh in his Memoir of 1870) – there is no clue in the surviving letters.
Perhaps there is a hint of another proposal. An August 1805 letter reported that Edward Bridges was being remarkably attentive. He had been too late for a cricket match, returned home and It is impossible to do justice to the hospitality of his attentions towards me (Letter 46).
In October 1808, she wrote to Cassandra: I wish you may be able to accept Lady Bridges's invitation, tho' I could not her son Edward's (Letter 57). Edward was a brother of the Elizabeth Bridges whom Jane's brother Edward had married.
Jane was always ready to make fun about marriage possibilities. It was a running joke that she would have married the poet Crabbe, though she never met him. When visiting London in September 1813 while Crabbe was there, she feigned disappointment at failing to meet him, at the theatre, for example: I was particularly disappointed at seeing nothing of Mr Crabbe (Letter 87). On the death of Crabbe's wife, Jane wrote: Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as a I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any (Letter 93). While in Kent during November 1813, Jane met a Miss Lee. Jane wrote: Miss Lee I found very conversible; she admires Crabbe as she ought. – She is at an age of reason, ten years older than myself at least (Letter 96).
|A Portrait of Tom Lefroy.|
Audrey Hawkridge, in Jane Austen and Hampshire (published by Hampshire County Council in 1995), suggests that Mrs. Lefroy failed in match-making here and probably tried again with Samuel Blackall, a boisterous clergyman, two years later. Mrs. Hawkridge suggests there may even have been a third - the landowner Thomas Harding Newman. The 'Zoffany' portrait of a teenage Jane Austen (almost certainly not our Jane) was for fifty years owned by his son, who was convinced it was a portrait of the novelist. It could just conceivably be a portrait of Jane painted when at the age of twelve she was in Sevenoaks, the muslin dress perhaps being a gift from her great-uncle Francis. Perhaps Jane wore it at the wedding of her cousin Jane Cooper in 1792. (Fanny Price is given a dress by her uncle to wear at the cousin's wedding.) In 1973, the Committee of the Jane Austen Society gave their opinion that the portrait was not of the novelist. However, their reasoning was thin: the hair-do (short, with a fringe) and the dress (very high waistline) would not, they say, have been in fashion until a few years later. In the Report of the Jane Austen Society for 1974, the opposite case is cogently argued by Constance Pilgrim. Jane Cooper, incidentally, married Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Williams - yet another naval connection in the family.