How many times was Jane Austen engaged—or married (!)? Thoughts about her short life—and her emotional life, whatever it may have been—bubble up in this year of 2017, the 200th anniversary of her death.
Officially, Austen was engaged once, for less than a day, to a young, callow Harris Bigg-Wither, in 1802. Because the engagement is recounted in all the Austen biographies, the answer of “one” is the correct answer in my quiz/giveaway for an Easton Press collector’s edition of leather books comprising Jane Austen’s six major novels.
(Please enter! No purchase required; contest open till 18 Sept. 2017; different quiz each week. The contest appears several items down on the Facebook page.)
Whether there was such an engagement, however, is open to speculation, as we will see next month when we drill into that proposal in detail.
This time, we consider several other beaus in the amorous history of Miss Austen.
Let’s quickly dispose of two. Clergymen figure regularly among her suitors, though her novels have only one clergyman with any pluck, and he’s a clown in his persistence. Two who came and went in her life were a Mr. Samuel Blackall in 1798, whom Jane testily labels “a piece of … noisy perfection,” and Mr. Edward Bridges in 1805. It seems these relationships went no further than the men displaying an interest in her and Jane deflecting it.
Her first and best-known attachment involves an Irishman, Tom Lefroy (above, by headline), in late 1795 and early 1796 when both were turning 20. With plans to study law in London, the lad comes down to visit his aunt, Mrs. Anne Lefroy, who was Jane’s friend and mentor. The story is that, when the flirtation becomes too serious, Mrs. Lefroy (whom many called Madame Lefroy, though Jane uses “Mrs.” in all her letters) sends Tom away before an “understanding”—an engagement—can be reached.
The reason is that Tom could forfeit the Langlois inheritance if he marries a penniless girl. In this scenario, Mrs. Lefroy is torn between her affection for Jane and her need to protect her nephew’s financial well-being, as he is there under her supervision.
This relationship is the basis of the book and movie “Becoming Jane,” which is a combination of good and bad extrapolation of their personal history. For example, “Becoming Jane” has Tom naming his oldest daughter after Jane, when a family’s oldest daughter would normally have been named after her own mother or grandmother. As luck has it, the mother of Tom’s wife is indeed also named Jane! Convenient for our Irish lawyer, as well as the movie script. …
But was the relationship that serious? Tom, whom Jane describes as a “very gentleman-like, good-looking, pleasant young man,” is mentioned in the very first extant Austen letter of 9 January 1796, when she says that his birthday was the day before. She tells her sister Cassandra that she was “almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved … everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” She also mentions that he will leave “soon after next Friday.”
Six days later she writes that “I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend” at the next day’s (Friday’s) ball, saying she “will refuse him, however, unless he … give[s] away his white Coat”—a follow-on joke about his dress. Then, on Friday, she writes that she will “flirt my last with Tom Lefroy,” adding, “My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.”
Biographers have taken this to mean that she is broken-hearted, yet this is all she says to her confidante-sister about what is supposed to be a tragic breakup, and her very next remark is that “Wm. Chute called here yesterday. I wonder what he means by being civil,” and she follows with several more bits of ordinary gossip.
So: She says on the 9th that she and Tom are having great fun but he will leave in little more than a week. In little more than a week, he leaves! Hard to see this as his being shipped off in “disgrace,” as biographer David Nokes describes it. Austen being wry in almost every sentence of every letter, it’s hard to know if she is serious or joking about expecting a proposal or laughing or crying about melancholy tears.
The Lefroy and Austen families had continuing personal connections, and years later Jane’s niece Anna married Tom’s cousin Ben. No one objected to that pairing because Ben did not have wealth. Jane could keep up with Tom, but was hesitant to. In November 1798, nearly three years after the ball flirtations, Jane recounts to Cass that when Mrs. Lefroy visits she is “too proud” to make any inquiries of him. Her father does, likely on her behalf, and she learns that Tom is returning to Ireland to practice law. There, he married an old friend, eventually became Lord Chief Justice, and remembered Austen fondly.
Perhaps her heart was broken, if only a little. One suspects it was on the level of a summer vacation flirtation in which both parties know they will go their separate ways after an exciting but innocent fling. Perhaps later, considering their delightful weeks together, she hoped he might come back after completing his initial studies in London.
Tom at one time admitted that he loved Austen but in a “boyish” way. Still, in an ending to rival “Dr. Zhivago,” he traveled to England to pay his respects to her when he learned of her death on 18 July 1817, according to his family. It’s hard to know: Had they truly fallen hard for each other and then forced apart, or were they both just tantalized by a lively start and simply wondered what might have been?
Then we have the mysterious lover at the beach in the summer of 1801, which Cassandra recounts to at least two of their nieces after Jane’s death. The story is that while the Austens are at the beach, Jane and the man meet and fall in love; they are to meet again later, where a proposal is expected. Instead, Jane and Cass receive a letter that he has died.
Tradition is that he was a clergyman, but that’s not certain; Cass says he was “pleasing and very good looking,” but never provides the man’s name. The nieces, Caroline and Louisa, cannot even agree about where on the Devonshire coast this romance occurs. Finally, Cass does not relay the story until 1828—more than a quarter-century after it is supposed to have happened, when she sees a man who evidently reminds her of the suitor.
Her nieces and nephews carry on the inconstancy about Jane’s possible relationships. In the first edition of “A Memoir of Jane Austen,” her nephew James Edward writes: “I have no reason to think that she ever felt any attachment by which the happiness of her life was at all affected.” In the next edition, however, he hints at two romantic attachments, concluding that he is “unable to say whether her feelings were of such a nature as to affect her happiness”—whether she seriously cared about either man.
Even in these comments, it’s not clear whether he is speaking of Lefroy and Bigg-Wither, one or more clergy, the beach mystery, or someone entirely different.
Next time: the Bigg-Wither proposal: Why does it not ring true?