It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the most beloved writers in the English literary canon. Nonetheless, while her heroines may have found true love, Austen herself never did. British author and self-professed “Press Agent” for Austen, David Lassman recently asked just why it was that the writer died a spinster.
Although she wrote some two centuries ago, during the Georgian period, Austen’s popularity remains strong even today, given in perhaps no small part to the fact that her heroines “act as romantic beacons for the modern age,” promoting marriage as a bond sought for love, rather than money. This, despite Austen herself never walking down the aisle (the old adage “write what you know” evidently isn’t the be all and end all to successful authorship…).
Jane Austen’s public persona was “whitewashed” by her brother, Henry, shortly after her death in 1817, in his preface to the posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. This seemed to satisfy Victorian curiosity, but by the mid-20th Century, the view of Austen as a “virtuous Christian spinster” began to be challenged.
Lassman cites Q. D. Leavis’ 1942 protest, writing against “the conventional account of Miss Austen as prim, demure, sedate, prudish and so on, the typical Victorian maiden lady.” Leavis’ essay was the spark that reignited the search for why exactly Austen never married. Since then, the theories have been diverse. One in particular Lassan dismisses:
“The most contentious hypothesis puts forward the assumption Jane Austen did not marry for the simple reason her sexuality was orientated towards other women. In other words, she was a lesbian. The evidence, however, is simply not there to support this.”
Also denied by Lassan is the 1995 suggestion by Terry Castle (or rather, a sub-editor on the London Review of Books, which published Castle’s piece) of an incestuous relationship between Jane and her sister, Cassandra (entirely ignoring Cassandra’s engagement before her fiancé died in 1797, devoting herself to spinsterhood purely out of respect for his memory).
Reviewing a new edition of Austen’s collected letters, Castle “mused about the true nature of their relationship”, pondering on what might have happened between the sheets of the double bed she believed the two shared their entire lives. This, given also that Cassandra infamously burnt much of Jane’s correspondence (“one of the greatest acts of literary vandalism in history”), leading readers to speculate on what exactly the letters contained. The sub-editor entitled the article, “Was Jane Austen Gay?”
Austen’s fans were not amused:
“The ensuing fallout from the article – which included a media maelstrom – made at least one thing certain: not the bedtime habits of the Austen sisters, but the reverence held for Jane by various devotees (or ‘Janeites’, as they are called) around the globe. Indeed, many fans were outraged at the mere suggestion that Austen could have been anything other than a heterosexual, virginal singleton.”
The case was closed when an invoice surfaced, proving that the woman’s father had ordered two single beds for his daughters upon reaching adolescence.
Yet, Austen’s life was not completely devoid of romance.
In reality, however, money did play a role in the love life of Austen; her early romance with Tom Lefroy (the future Lord Chief Justice of Ireland) was called off due to the lack of funds of both parties. Against the romantic vein of her fiction, the age in which the author lived was very much one in which marrying for money was a realistic necessity for those in the middle classes and above, the worth of potential partners of both genders measured financially.
There was also apparently a romance with a clergyman during one of the family’s summer breaks in Bath, which was to have continued into the following year, but news reached Austen before the intended rendezvous that the young man had sadly died. However, this was refuted by Dr. Andrew Norman in 2009, when he named the clergyman as Samuel Blackall, and claimed that the young man instead decided to marry someone else.
Nevertheless, a proposal of marriage was made and (briefly) accepted in 1802 from Harris Bigg-Wither, the brother of Jane and her sister, Cassandra’s friends, the Bigg sisters, while on a visit to Manydown in Hampshire. He was six years younger than the author, but well off. Austen rescinded her acceptance the next morning, fleeing back to Steventon and then Bath.
Lassan has his own opinion on Austen’s spinsterhood:
“It was because she already had developed a deep, lifelong relationship with her art – writing – and believed there was a good chance any gentleman she uttered the words ‘I do’ to would insist on that artistic expression ceasing forthwith.”
Lassan supports his argument with simple biographical facts. Austen began writing at 12 years old, stopping only during the ill health that forced her to put down her pen shortly before her death at the age of 41. When she wasn’t writing fiction, she was composing letters, and when she wasn’t writing correspondence, she was devouring library books, or books owned by friends or relatives, her mind ever-stimulated, honing that literary brain for “an incredible six-year outpouring of […] creativity once ensconced at the cottage in Chawton.”
Lassan recognizes that his theory is somewhat “contentious”:
“Why? Because this suggests that she was not only a literary genius but a forward-thinking woman, an independent mind, an astute business person and a feminist pioneer – one who can easily take her place alongside such luminaries as Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft – rolled into one.”
In an age when women had to marry for money, Lassan believes Austen chose instead to work for her financial security. Lassan therein sees the cause for Austen’s brother, Henry’s virginal portrait of the author put forth in his preface to her posthumous publications. Lassan also believes this to be why she called off the overnight engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither, fearing her writing would be prohibited after marriage (even though such a union would have greatly benefitted her family financially).
“It would have been the dutiful daughter who accepted the proposal, but it was the aspiring writer (and true artist) who descended the stairs the following morning, took Harris to one side, and declared she had made a mistake and the marriage was off.”
This event was the impetus behind self-publishing Sense and Sensibility, which saw her career take off. As Lassan concludes:
“She sacrificed financial security and matrimonial happiness in order to retain the freedom to write and develop as a true artist.”
Freedom and one’s art: now, those are two things more necessary to a creative soul than romance.
YouTube Channel: The British Library
Featured image via Jane Austen in Vermont
h/t History Extra