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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.


Article written by Margaret Mills
July 2019
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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.


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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Aunt Jane’s Trial

Jane Leigh Perrot

The Trial of Mrs Jane Leigh Perrot – the Primary Sources

by David Pugsley

Discussions of Aunt Jane’s trial and the question whether she was innocent or guilty are normally based entirely on John Pinchard’s account, conveniently re-printed in MacKinnon’s Grand Larceny (1937), as if there was no other source of information and as if all the witnesses were telling the truth. However, there are other contemporary sources


I. The advertisements in the Bath Chronicle and other local newspapers

Jane Leigh Perrot

There is a series of advertisements in the Bath Chronicle for no. 1, Bath Street, near or opposite the King’s Bath: 14 May and 16 July 1795, Gregory & Co; 19 May 1796, 5 and 12 January 1797, W Smith; 11 May 1797, Smith, “Mrs Smith is also just returned with an elegant assortment of Millinery, etc”; 29 June 1797, Smith; 8 November 1798, 28 March and 4 April, 21 November  (“The Proprietor”) 1799, 6 February, 10 and 17 April, and 11 more dates in 1800; 10 dates in 1801; 12 dates in 1802; 10 dates in 1803, plus 8 and 15 December (death of W. Smith); 8 dates in 1804; 9 dates in 1805; 8 dates in 1806, including 18 December (“A vacancy for an apprentice at Christmas”); and 3 dates in 1807, ending on 19 March, all Mrs Smith.

Contrast Elizabeth Gregory’s evidence under cross-examination by Mr Dallas: “Witness said she had been in the shop nearly five years; kept it two years herself; is sister to Mrs Smith, who kept it before; Mr Smith in London 8th August; carried on business on her own account, not for the benefit of Smith and wife” (Pinchard, p. 10). Under further cross-examination: “Mrs Smith was not entitled to more of the profits than witness chose to give her … She bought and sold upon her own account and in her own name; it is customary and advantageous that the old name should be continued on shops, and it was sometimes done for years after a person had given up trade; Smith’s name was continued over the door with this view only” (Pinchard, p. 12).

(Were Elizabeth Gregory and Charles Filby taking advantage of Mrs Smith’s absence in Cornwall to try to make a little money for themselves?) Continue reading Aunt Jane’s Trial

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Jane and Cassandra: Extraordinary Sisters

Jane and Cassandra

by Caroline Kerr Taylor

Jane and Cassandra
Anna Maxwell Martin and Anne Hathaway as Cassandra and Jane in the film ‘Becoming Jane’ (2007)

Jane Austen was born in December 1775, the seventh child of Rev. and Mrs. Austen. Mrs. Austen nursed each of her babies for the first few months before they were taken to a neighboring family (the Littleworths). Each child was looked after by this family for the first couple of years until the child could walk and talk. The parents visited regularly during this time, until the child was ready to be brought back into the Austen household. This was not a totally uncommon practice for the time, nor was it considered unfeeling. As long as the baby was well cared for, that was what mattered to the Austens. Knowing today what we know of the importance of mother/baby bonding it would have been extremely disrupting for a child to be taken from its mother after just a few months and placed with another family. (And then, later, wrenched from that family when the Austens felt the child was ready to rejoin their household.) This could be a significant reason why Jane became attached more deeply to her sister than to her mother.

Continue reading Jane and Cassandra: Extraordinary Sisters

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Jane Austen and Illness

Jane Austen and illness

by Margaret Mills

What reading material do you turn to if you are unwell?   The novelist Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a letter early in 1865 to John Ruskin, about one of her own books, in which she said: “whenever I am ailing or ill, I take Cranford and – I was going to say enjoy it (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it afresh!”

For a couple of months last summer, my own life was temporarily disrupted because I was “ailing or ill”, and spent most of my time indoors.  No real hardship this, as I am, and always have been, a great reader, and at times like this I turn to one of my favourite authors, the divine Jane Austen.  Well or not, I can’t begin to estimate how many times I have read Jane Austen’s works over the years.  My favourites are probably Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but the reason I settled on Pride and Prejudice as my first selection rests partly on the first chapter alone:  the immediacy of the introductory paragraph plunges you straight into the story, and I have always adored the dry humour of Mr Bennet, the father of those “silly and ignorant” daughters! Continue reading Jane Austen and Illness

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The Formative Years of George Austen, Jane’s father

George Austin

A look at James Cawthorn, George Austen and the Curious Case of the Schoolboy Who Was Killed by Martin J. Cawthorne

George Austin


Jane Austen’s father, George Austen has many connections to the city of Bath.

On the 26th April 1764 he married, by special licence, Cassandra Leigh in St Swithin’s, Walcot.  The Austen family were regular visitors to Bath and in December 1800, after 35 years ministering in Steventon, George Austen announced his retirement and moved to Bath, where he spent his final years.  He died in the city on the 21st January 1805 and is buried at St Swithin’s Church where a memorial to him has been erected.

Jane Austen lived at home with her parents all her life and the Rev George Austen played a significant part in her life.  Apart from a brief period at boarding school, Jane was largely educated at home; George also provided writing equipment for her to develop her literary talent.  The Rev Austen features in Jane’s correspondence and as a result much is known about his adult life. Very little, however, has been written about George Austen’s early life, before he met and married Cassandra Leigh.  It is known that he was orphaned at the age of six before going to school in his home town of Tonbridge, Kent, from where he won a scholarship to study at St John’s College, Oxford.  However, very little has been written about these formative early years of his life – until now.

Continue reading The Formative Years of George Austen, Jane’s father

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The effects of the family’s misfortunes on Jane Austen’s death

Jane Austen's Death

By Caroline Kerr Taylor

Jane Austen's death

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. She is one of the world’s most popular literary giants. It was a tragic loss that she died at 41, just as her star was gaining traction in the literary firmaments.

We will never know for sure the exact cause of her death. The medical community has conjectured Addison’s disease, an adrenal insufficiency, or some form of cancer such as lymphoma. Any one of these diseases would have been exacerbated by long periods of extreme stress. Though she enjoyed a good deal of literary success in her last years, there is much evidence that they were also filled with insecurity and worry.

Family was the centre of Jane’s world. As she never married, she lived her entire life within the family circle. George Austen, Jane’s father, was a member of the clergy and Oxford educated. Their family was part of local genteel society; however, financially they were barely inside the bounds of polite society. Women of her class did not work. Jane and her sister Cassandra, as unmarried women, continued to live with their parents. While Jane’s closest and deepest connection was to her only sister Cassandra, she also enjoyed a close relationship with her brothers. As the boys grew up they left home, had careers, and raised families of their own. They did, however, keep a close extended family connection with visits between families, and corresponding when apart.

George Austen retired in 1800 and gave the Steventon parish living to their oldest son James. The Austens, along with their daughters, then moved to Bath. Here they rented various temporary accommodations. After living in a large house in the country it was not an easy adjustment. Continue reading The effects of the family’s misfortunes on Jane Austen’s death

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Martha Lloyd: Jane Austen’s “Second” Sister

whooping cough cure

With what true sympathy our feelings are shared by Martha you need not be told; she is the friend and sister under every circumstance.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Castle Square October 13, 1808

Martha Lloyd, by kind permission of private owners collection.
Second only to Cassandra, Martha Lloyd (1765-1843) seems to have been Jane Austen’s dearest friend. Not much is known of them though it is supposed that Mrs. Lloyd, daughter of the Royal Governor of South Carolina, the Hon. Charles Craven, met her future husband in Newbury, when she and her sister lived there with an aunt, who took them in after they had fled from a mother who, by some accounts treated them badly and by others was insane. Regardless of the situation, both sisters married obscure country parsons. The Lloyds settled down and had four children. Martha, the oldest daughter, was born in 1765 and her sister Mary in 1771. A few years later, a smallpox epidemic took the life of their brother and left the two older sisters scarred for life, though the youngest, Eliza, seems to have escaped relatively unharmed.

The Lloyd family had much in common with the Austens and from an early time, visits between the two families were frequent. Though no one knows quite how they met, the Austens and Lloyds shared many mutual friends and when the Rev. Lloyd died in 1789, his widow and her two oldest, single daughters were happy to move into the unused Deane parsonage offered by Rev. Austen. Their time there, only a mile and a half from Steventon, must have been a delight for young Jane, for though she was ten years younger than the oldest Lloyd daughter, Martha, they were, as Janes’ cousin Eliza de Feuillide remarked, “very sensible and good-humored.”

Three years later, when Jane Austen’s brother, James, married and assumed the parish of Deane, it was necessary for the Lloyds to move, this time to a home in Hurstbourne, called Ibthorpe. Though only 15 miles from Steventon, this separation must have seemed cruel to Jane, who had few friends nearby and no mode of transportation. It is clear from Jane Austen’s correspondence that her friend Martha was privy to her great secret– her writing. An early piece of Juvenilia, Frederick and Elfrida, is dedicated to her

As a small testimony of the gratitude I feel for your late generosity to me in finishing my muslin Cloak, I beg leave to offer you this little production of your sincere Freind and later writings prove that she had been allowed to see the manuscript for Love and Freindship, an early edition of Pride and Prejudice and an honor accorded to few.

In 1805 changes abounded for the Austen and Lloyd Ladies. Many years had now passed since James Austen’s first wife had died and he had remarried again, choosing the younger Miss Mary Lloyd to be his second wife. With the Austen’s removal to Bath in 1801, James had taken over both the Deane and Steventon holding and his growing family now lived in the Steventon parsonage.

It was while they were living in Bath that Mr. Austen finally succumbed to his long illness and not too many months later that Mrs. Lloyd also died. The women, being in a delicate financial state decided to combine housekeeping and all four (Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, Jane and Martha Lloyd) moved to Southampton to be with Jane’s younger brother Frank and his wife, Mary. As an officer in the Navy, Frank was often away from home and this joining of households not only helped him look after his widowed mother, but provided constant companionship for his soon pregnant wife. It seems to have been, by all accounts, an excellent arrangement.

On July 7th 1809, Jane Austen moved to a cottage in Chawton, together with her mother, her sister Cassandra, and their friend Martha Lloyd, at the invitation of her brother Edward Knight, on whose estate it lay. Their new house was a late 17th Century brick building with two sitting rooms, five bedrooms, kitchens, garrets, outbuildings, and about two acres of grounds. It had once been an inn, and stood at the junction where the Gosport and Winchester roads met and became the main road to London.

The family remained at Chawton Cottage, even after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. Martha Lloyd took on many duties as housekeeper for the family, though the work was divided among the three surviving women. Unfortunately for Frank, by now Sir Francis Austen, his happy home was broken up upon the death of his wife in 1823 after the birth of their 11th child. In 1828 he remarried, completing the family circle by this time, wedding Martha Lloyd. At sixty two, Martha was at last a bride, and more than that, Lady Austen.

Her role as Jane Austen’s friend and confidant cannot be undervalued and her contribution to what we know of Jane Austen’s life is significant. We have, not only letters written by Jane to Martha, but her collection of recipes used at Chawton were later were compiled into The Jane Austen Household Book and more lately, The Jane Austen Cookbook.

Martha Lloyd died in 1843.


About the author of this article:

Laura Boyle is fascinated by all aspects of Jane Austen’s life. She runs Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom made hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe.

Sources for this article included:
Jane Austen: A Companion by Josephine Ross; Rutgers University Press; 2003
Jane Austen: Her Life by Park Honan; A Thomas Dunn Book; 1987