It wasn’t as if she was never asked, or didn’t want to be asked. The teenaged Jane Austen was in fact such a flirt and party animal that one neighbor called her “the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembered.” She was every bit as confident and witty as her creation, Lizzie Bennet, and considerably more mischievous. Take this from a letter she wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1796, when Jane was just 20:
“Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C[harles] Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence.”
Her crush on “Mr. Tom Lefroy,” the nephew of family friends, was at least half-serious (which is why she was careful to make light of it here), but hardly the full-blooded romance/elopement that the film Becoming Jane tried to depict. Lefroy went back to his family in Ireland without giving Jane any grounds for hope. But she wasn’t heartbroken: It was fun while it lasted, and Tom could dance, unlike stodgy Reverend Samuel Blackall, who dithered around in 1798, hinting that he might be getting ready to pay court, and who only earned Jane’s scorn: “It is most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual,” she wrote crushingly.
There were plenty of young men for Jane Austen to choose from in her youth—her father’s past pupils, her brothers’ friends—and the Austens were a gregarious family. Jane was very fond of her cousin Edward Cooper (who might have been one of the models for Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park), but lamented the fact that he grew up to be quite a stuffy cleric. She may also (according to Jon Spence) have held a candle for Edward Bridges, her sister-in-law’s brother. Both men married elsewhere, as did Tom Lefroy—and Samuel Blackall. And there is an uncorroborated story of a “seaside romance” that Jane might have had on holiday in 1801, but no letters survive from that period, so it remains conjectural.
What we do know is that on 2 December 1802, when Jane and her sister were visiting Manydown House in Hampshire, Harris Bigg-Wither, the 21-year old younger brother of Jane’s friends Alethea and Catherine, proposed marriage to her—and was accepted. Jane was 6 years older than Harris, and a good deal cleverer, but they had known each other a long time, and he must have had some encouragement from her in the months or years before popping the question, or he wouldn’t have dared ask. And she said yes, after all: There might have been plenty of mutual regard, even love.
But after what must have been an agonizing night of second thoughts, Jane left Manydown abruptly and in confusion, having broken off her very short engagement.
Part of her decision not to marry Harris must have been the lack of really powerful feeling: If she’d been deeply in love, Jane would have let very little stand in her way. But by 1802 there were other strong considerations for Jane, perhaps the most pressing being the happiness of her beloved sister. Cassandra’s fiancé, Tom Fowle, had died abroad in 1797 and Cassandra had withdrawn completely from the marriage market afterwards. Jane had always idolized her elder sister and stuck with her through thick and thin: “If Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have her’s cut off too,” their mother had once remarked.
Although the possibility of marriage was far from over for Jane, the companionship of her sister in shared spinsterhood had many attractions. She was frankly relieved in later life to have avoided the pitfalls of married life, not least the huge risks of childbirth, “all the business of Mothering,” and, worst of all, being tied to an uncongenial partner. As she wrote feelingly to Fanny Knight, who was thinking of making a match of convenience, “Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love.” And Lizzie Bennet surely echoes Jane’s own opinion when she deplores Charlotte Lucas’s acceptance of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, finding it “humiliating,” “disgracing,” and a recipe for disaster.
Would Jane Austen have ever got round to finishing and publishing Pride and Prejudice if she had been married to Harris Bigg-Wither—or anybody else? Decidedly not! Living quietly with her mother and sister, however low in material and social rewards, gave her the freedom she needed to write. And what she went on to invent was a set of heroes and romances unrivalled in their appeal, humour, and knockdown fantasy-power.
So we can all be thankful that this remarkable woman decided against becoming Mrs. Harris Bigg-Wither, or Mrs. Anyone. Where would the rest of us be without Darcy, Mr. Knightley, Colonel Brandon, and Captain Wentworth?
Claire Harman is the author of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Jane’s Fame is a history of Jane Austen’s fame, the changing status of her work and what it has stood for, or been made to stand for, in English culture in the two hundred years since her death. For more information stop in at www.claireharman.com.