Saturday, 26 March 2016

Did Jane Austen plan to marry?

Did Jane Austen ever come close to getting married? Cassandra's censorship ensured that no surviving letters supply an answer.

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). 

At Godmersham in 1813 Jane became acquainted with Stephen Lushington, the member of parliament for Canterbury – the man of whom she wrote: I like him very much. ... He is quite an M.P. – very smiling, with an exceeding good address .... I am rather in love with him. – I dare say he is ambitious & Insincere (Letter 92).

There are several references around Christmas 1796 to a flirtation with Tom Lefroy, nephew by marriage of Jane's friend Mrs. Lefroy. The nineteen-year-old Irish-born Tom spent just three weeks at Ashe Parsonage with his aunt and must have met Jane several times. So flippant is Jane on the subject that it is difficult to be sure of her feelings. Her claim that she would not have accepted a proposal from him may be girlish affectation. Here as elsewhere, Jane gives herself the persona of a heroine in an epistolary romance, as David Nokes pointed out in Jane Austen, A Life (1997).

Jane seemed to be concerned to be of interest to Tom. Writing of a forthcoming ball, she says (Letter 2), I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat. In the same letter, she adds, Tell Mary that I make over Mr Heartley and all his Estate to her for her sole use and Benefit in future ... as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence. Two years later (Letter 11) she reports that a letter from Tom was read when Mrs. Lefroy visited their home. He was to practise the law in Ireland. I am very sorry, he wrote, to hear of Mrs. Austen's illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family – with a hope of creating to myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it. Jane comments That is rational enough; there is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner.

A year later Tom married the sister of a college friend. They had ten children and Tom, who was addicted to biblical study, made rapid progress as a judge. He became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1852. Claire Tomalin thinks Jane Austen was really in love: the experience with Tom taught her what it felt like to 'feel the blood warm ... to long for what you are not going to have and had better not mention'. If so, it was an experience she put to good use in her novels. 
A Portrait of Tom Lefroy.
Amazing but true, a photograph of Tom Lefroy also exists. It was taken in 1869, shortly before his death at the age of 93. It shows him at that age bald-headed and stern in appearance, with a formidable jaw.

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.