Stepping back 200 years, what we see in Jane Austen’s personal life are tantalizing hints of relationships but primarily obfuscation about any possible romances from 1802, when she was 26, until her retirement to Chawton Cottage with the other Austen women in 1809.
As described in my last two blogs, Jane had one boyfriend, Tom Lefroy (1795), who was either sent off in disgrace for leading her on—or merely left to study law in London. She shooed away two potential suitors, the clergymen Samuel Blackall (1798) and Edward Bridges (1805).
She had a mysterious beach suitor (1801) who evidently died, though her sister Cassandra spread more confusion than information about that circumstance. She also had the one “official” engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither, when (the story is) she accepted a proposal from the young man, recanted it overnight, and fled back to her parents in Bath. That event, however, is not recorded until nearly 70 years later by a niece who was not even alive when it supposedly occurred in 1802!
Why the smokescreens originating with her family but all pointing to the same idea: a lost love or tragic affair? Why did her beloved sister Cass destroy almost all of the letters from this period, leaving huge gaps in the timeline? Why did the vivacious Jane prematurely “put on the garb of middle age,” as her niece described it, and retire to her writing desk? There at Chawton, she wrote or heavily revised the six mature novels that made her reputation.
By the time Austen’s family responded to her growing fame, they were now in the middle of the repressed Victorian era in which Britannia and propriety ruled the waves. Her nieces and nephews were happy to bury any suggestion that Austen would have ever done anything untoward such as write to make a living or—fall in love. (Virginia Woolf, in contrast, says that “Persuasion” proves that Austen had loved intensely and by 1817 no longer cared who knew.)
One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to envision the possibility that there may have been a very serious relationship overlooked or even hidden by her prim and proper descendants.
This possibility has led me on an eleven-year research project and more than four years of hard writing, culminating in the release in a few weeks of the third and last volume of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen.”
What if Jane Austen had married? What if this intelligent woman of character and passion (read the surviving letters) had met someone very much her equal but also the sort of man a Victorian might want to lose in the mists of time? What kind of man might that be?
How would their relationship have begun? (Might bits and pieces of the history be true?) How would it have developed? How would it have ended? How, as a married woman, might she have fit into the large and turbulent world of the Regency? Perhaps most important, how would the archetypal woman of the period have handled all that marriage meant for a woman of that day?
These are the questions I sought to answer. Though this project began as plausible speculation, the biographical pieces fit into the puzzle much more tightly than I would have imagined. Every time I needed there to be a blank in her history to describe a possible action—there was a blank. Every time there was a documented personal or historical incident—it fell exactly where it needed to in my narrative to continue the story. The more this happened, the more I wondered what was real and what was imagined.
Envision the coolest aviation event in Bath history on exactly the date needed to launch the series (and set up the quasi-mythic proposal a few months later). Envision the most important political issue of the day falling directly into the marriage years, propelling the story onward. Envision the tragic family events of October 1808, when Jane’s sister-in-law Elizabeth dies shortly after childbirth, fitting to the day into the most significant geopolitical actions of that same year. Though I was writing fiction, at times I felt as though I were filling in a few personal details in an already documented history of England.
In addition to “inventing a good story and telling it well”—Fielding’s dictum for a novelist—I wanted to be true to Austen herself: her intelligence, compassion, and humor. I wanted to see her directly engaged in serious issues and to see how she herself might have directly written about serious issues if women writers of the day had been able to. In her novels, she had to treat the most serious issues discreetly, in the background or on the periphery.
This led to the creation of a trilogy spanning these seven years of 1802-1809: Volume I, a non-Austenian courtship novel told with what the author hopes is Austenian charm; Volume II, a deep psychological portrait of a woman’s first year of marriage; finally, the soon-to-be-released Volume III, in which Austen must face the most difficult moral decisions that any person can face.
My hope is that readers will come away satisfied with a tale of a meaningful relationship built upon the “understanding” she often writes about. And why Austen herself wrote at the very end of this period, 27 December 1808: “I consider everybody as having a right to marry once in their Lives for Love.”