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Harris Bigg-Wither’s Marriage Proposal – An Ongoing Mystery?

Harris Bigg-Wither's Proposal

What was the real story behind Jane Austen and Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal? Will we ever know?

Harris Bigg-Wither's Proposal
Harris Bigg-Wither

In the late autumn of 1802, Jane and Cassandra Austen, then living in Bath, went to stay with their good friends, Catherine and Alethea Bigg at Manydown Park, not far from Steventon.  The visit was welcomed by both Austen sisters, but it ended badly;  a few days brought the return of Jane and Cassandra to their brother’s home at Steventon Rectory in tears, begging James, their clergyman brother, to take them back to Bath immediately.  It then became apparent that Harris Bigg-Wither, the son of the house and brother to Catherine and Alethea, had proposed marriage to Jane.  He had been accepted, but by the following morning he was rejected, as Jane had changed her mind overnight.

What was the reason behind Jane’s initial acceptance of Bigg-Wither’s proposal, followed by her retraction the following day? Certainly it seems likely that the proposal took her unawares.  Was it because she realised how unhappy any marriage could be without at least some attraction towards her future husband?  Did the realisation that marriage and child-bearing might mean the end of her writing career influence her?  Jane Austen could be rather forthright about this side of married life, once describing her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, who gave birth to 11 children, as a “poor animal”.  In one of her letters to her sister Cassandra, she talks of an acquaintance, Mrs Deedes, who has recently given birth to a daughter, and comments that she now recommends to Mr and Mrs D. the regimen of separate rooms!  Was this simply a witty comment for Cassandra’s amusement or did it reflect her true feelings that motherhood might effectively end her own literary life?

We may also speculate whether by 1802 Jane sensed that she might be on the brink of breaking into the literary world, and that marriage to the (by some accounts) unprepossessing, rather socially inept young man might bring this ambition to a halt? Or was there some other reason?  Bigg-Wither was by all accounts some 6 years younger than Jane, and it is interesting to ponder whether this had any bearing on her ‘second thoughts’.  In Pride and Prejudice the foolish Mr Collins is a few years younger than his future wife Charlotte Lucas, who has reached the ripe old age of 27 without being married!

It is also interesting to consider whether Jane might have realised that she still had feelings for another man she had met some years before (Tom Lefroy), or perhaps the contrast was too great with another young man she had met and with whom a mutual attraction had been formed prior to his sudden death?  Was she so startled by Bigg-Wither’s proposal that she give her consent without thinking what she was saying?

 

Jane Austen dances with Tom Lefroy in “Becoming Jane”

We will perhaps never know for certain, but when we read chapter 59 of Pride and Prejudice we learn how, in the privacy of the bedroom, Lizzy Bennet ‘opened her heart to her sister, Jane,’ about her attachment to Darcy.  I cannot help but wonder if this scene, where Jane Bennet exclaims in horror at the very idea of her adored sister marrying this man, reflects in some way what happened between Jane and her beloved Cassandra after Bigg-Wither’s proposal.  Was it Cassandra’s reaction that night, when the two of them were alone in their bedchamber, that helped change Jane’s mind about marrying Bigg-Wither?  Of course, neither Jane nor Cassandra left any record that we are aware of, but Jane Bennet’s anguished cry of ‘Oh Lizzy!  Do any thing rather than marry without affection’.  may give us some clue as to what actually took place.  Unlike the character of Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, however, Jane Austen was unable to give her own ‘solemn assurances of attachment’ to her sister.

Fanny Austen Knight KnatchbullCertainly, if we read the cautionary letters Jane later wrote to her nieces Fanny Knight and Anna Lefroy on the subject of their romantic involvements it seems clear that she counsels the advisability of much thought on the subject prior to any possible marriage proposal and acceptance.  In chapter 7 of Emma, the dialogue Jane gives Emma Woodhouse when advising Harriet Smith on Robert Martin’s marriage proposal is quite explicit: Emma talks of a woman’s duty at such time and says  ‘If she can hesitate as to “Yes” she ought to say “No” directly.  It is not a state to be safely entered into with doubtful feelings, with half a heart’.  Was this the bitter voice of experience speaking and did Jane still deeply regret what she had done?  Perhaps it is testament to the strength of the Bigg girls affection and regard for the Austen sisters that their mutual friendship did eventually recover from this shock and continued to be close and warm.

What were the implications of Jane Austen rejecting a proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither that had so much to recommend it?  She must have been only too well aware that marriage to this comfortably-off young man would have been advantageous from a worldly point of view. She would have gained a settled home and welcome financial security, a single woman’s only real chance for an active and independent life and the resultant benefits for her sister and parents. Furthermore, it would have relieved the Austen brothers of the need to financially support and house their unmarried sisters when their parents died.

We can only speculate as to the real reason why Jane Austen retracted her promise, but we may be sure that it affected her deeply. We can also only speculate what the Reverend and Mrs George Austen’s thoughts were.

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Article written by Margaret Mills
July 2019
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Pride and Prejudice vs. Jane Eyre

Jane Austen News

Pride and Prejudice vs. Jane Eyre

1463668501091.0As two of the most popular novels of all time, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre have an incredible number of spin-off books written about them. Two of the books tipped to be summer bestsellers this year are Eligible – a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Steele – a modern retelling of Jane Eyre. But do they both work in the modern era?

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Lady Susan Gets the Ending She Deserves?

Jane Austin News

Lady Susan Gets the Ending She Deserves?

3000Now to a retelling of a different kind. Lady Susan, the epistolary novella Jane Austen wrote in her youth, will soon be coming to the cinemas in the form of Whit Stillman’s new film Love and Friendship, and John Mullan, author of the book What Matters in Jane Austen?, has been looking at whether the story lives up to Austen’s other work.

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John Mullan on Why We Need Plot

Jane Austen News

John Mullan on Why We Need Plot

Emma-Woodhouse-jane-austen-12817696-400-250John Mullan, author of the book What Matters in Jane Austen?, has written an article for The Guardian talking about how many of the modern novels and media which are currently being released lack a real sense of plot. In the course of his argument he picks out Emma as an example of a novel which uses plot incredibly effectively.

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Cassandra Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Queen Victoria and a Destruction of Letters

Cassandra Austen in Becoming Jane

What did Cassandra Austen have in common with Charlotte Brontë and one of Queen Victoria’s daughters?

 

Cassandra Austen and Jane Austen in the film ‘Becoming Jane’

Whatever possessed them to do it?  This can be a question that springs to mind when reading about the deliberate destruction of material left behind after the death of a famous person.  It doesn’t matter from what sphere of the arts the deceased came, whether the artist in question was a singer, musician, poet, painter or writer: anger is raised that part (or all) of their unreleased material has been “disposed of” or censored in some way by a third party, whether relative, business associate, or other.  We know that after Jane Austen’s death, Cassandra Austen, her beloved older sister, was no exception to destruction or censorship of this kind and quantities of Jane’s letters may have been destroyed.  Certainly many were censored by having contentious comments removed.

As the two sisters were often apart, visiting different members of the large Austen family or their connections, a considerable number of letters would have passed between the two.  Some Jane Austen commentators have vilified Cassandra for what they deem acts of wanton vandalism, and have sometimes concluded these acts were probably inspired by jealousy of her talented younger sister.  But is this really the case?  Is this vilification fair?

Two other famous women who have faced charges of wilful censoring and destroying much of a deceased relative’s work are novelist Charlotte Brontë and Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria.

Charlotte Brontë is widely believed to have destroyed the draft of a second novel written by her sister, Emily, although it is unclear what stage any manuscript second novel had reached when Emily died, in late 1848.   The accusation rests on Charlotte’s known opinion of Emily’s first work “Wuthering Heights“.  She once wrote of it as  “….a rude and a strange production”, and mentioned its’ “….harshly manifested passions”, so it seems quite possible that she feared this second book would be even more controversial than the first.  A published author herself at the time of Emily’s death and understandably anxious to continue to sell her work to the public, she may have felt that any impropriety would reflect badly on her own reputation.

Princess Beatrice with her mother, Queen Victoria

Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, was the recipient of a sacred charge left to her by her mother, compelling her to go through Victoria’s voluminous diaries, kept since childhood, and to expunge anything considered unfit for eyes other than those of the Queen and her daughter. It appears that Beatrice had received strict instructions on exactly what she was to censor, and the instructions were faithfully followed and carried out over a period of many years.

We who come later may criticise the decisions of Cassandra, Charlotte and Beatrice, but we need to try to put ourselves in their situation:  not long after Emily’s death in 1848, Charlotte Brontë became the last surviving child of the Reverend Patrick Brontë and at the time of Emily’s death, her widowed father was in his seventies.  By 19th century standards, it was quite likely that within the next 5 years he would die, leaving her completely alone with no blood relatives apart from distant cousins in Cornwall, on whom she had no claims. As her father was a clergyman from a humble family background, little money would be forthcoming from his estate, and Charlotte hoped she could continue to earn her own living by her writing. The success of her writing depended on the public’s reception of her work and their view of her as a novelist. Can we blame her for taking the long view and being anxious to maintain her reputation and that of her sisters’ work?

There is another aspect that also warrants consideration:  the temperament of Emily herself.  Always a fiercely private person, and protective of her writing against outside eyes until she deemed it right to be revealed, it was perhaps Emily herself who exacted a solemn promise from Charlotte that on the event of her death, Charlotte should ensure that any remaining manuscripts were destroyed before there was any chance that they might come to public attention.

Were these actions partly motivated by self-interest?  Perhaps we’ll never know, but I think if they were, we should be tolerant, considering the realities of life for a woman in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the need to preserve an unblemished reputation.  There was also the feeling that the deceased would not be able to answer any criticisms that arose as a result of further material coming under public gaze.

Princess Beatrice as a child

Princess Beatrice, always the shyest, most deferential and malleable of Victoria’s five daughters and the one who, even after her marriage, still lived in her mother’s home, is likely to have been deliberately selected by Victoria to access her private diaries and follow her wishes to the letter.  Obedience was bred into Beatrice, and as an archetypal Victorian lady and Princess of Great Britain to boot,  it would not have occurred to her to refute what would be looked on as a sacred task and her mother’s final wish. The fact that she was leaving large ‘holes’ that later historians would attempt to fill in probably did not occur to her, nor was it likely to have made much difference if it had, in the face of her mother’s royal command.

It is quite possible that Cassandra Austen was in a similar position to that of Princess Beatrice, albeit 84 years earlier. As Jane’s adored only sister and confidante, Cassandra was the recipient of all Jane’s confidences, whether written or spoken, and was the usual first audience for her manuscripts.  With Jane’s talent for lively social commentary about family, friends and acquaintances (and her sometimes forthright and acerbic comment at that), Cassandra may have wished to avoid anything that might later taint the memory of her adored sister or cause upset within the family and we remember how ‘prickly’ her sister-in-law, James Austen’s second wife, Mary (nee Lloyd) could be. Within the family circle of brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces there was plenty of material for observation, comment and the forthright views Jane was never reluctant to express in letters to her sister (their brother Henry’s failed banking venture, which occurred about 3 years before Jane’s death, and which necessitated yet another change of career for him, would have caused the whole Austen family much grief and surely much comment).  Dearly as she loved her family, Jane is likely to have wanted to spare them any unnecessary pain after her death.  Fully aware that she was dying, Jane may have herself tasked her sister with undertaking the melancholy duty following her death, and exacted her promise that this would be done.

To inflict charges of wanton destruction and jealousy on Cassandra – or Charlotte Brontë and Princess Beatrice – without any apparent evidence to support the charges is, I believe, too harsh and simply unfounded.  What we can say about Jane Austen is the same as can be said about Emily Brontë and Queen Victoria:  we can only speculate about possible evidence of uninhibited comment on joy, passion, unhappiness, disappointment and so on, which has been denied to posterity by the absence of part of their legacy.

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This ‘Cassandra Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Queen Victoria and a Destruction of Letters’ article was written by Margaret Mills
About the author:
Margaret’s admiration for Jane Austen began many years ago in her early teens, when she was inspired by a wonderful English Literature teacher who introduced her to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the wit and wisdom of Jane Austen. She still re-reads the novels at least once a year, finding new insights every time and admiring Jane’s brilliant writing.
History and literature are her passions and she teaches part-time in adult education. Needless to say some of her courses are on the subject of Jane Austen!
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Top Comedian Abandons Internet In Favour Of Austen

Jane Austen News

Top Comedian Abandons Internet In Favour Of Austen

160502_3029337_louis_c_k_explains_how_he_kept_horace_and_pYet more proof that Jane Austen is for everyone. Top U.S. comedian Louis C.K. recently shut himself off from the internet as “everything is weird and mean and upsetting.” Instead he sought refugee by pulling out a copy of Pride and Prejudice and beginning to read through that, rather than through the cruelty all over the internet.

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Curtis Sittenfeld on Austen and Feminism

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Curtis Sittenfeld on Austen and Feminism

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Barnes and Noble’s Austen Must-Reads

Barnes and Noble’s Austen Must-Reads

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