The great English novelist Jane Austen never met her Mr. Darcy in real life. In fact, Reader, Austen was a master of the marriage plot but never married. Her beloved life partner was her sister Cassandra, also a spinster. The sisters shared a bedroom in a country cottage during the last eight years of Jane’s life.
As Jane’s birthday draws near on Dec. 16, let’s raise a glass to the lady born in 1775. Austen died 200 years ago, in July of 1817. She left this world early, at 41 years old, but, as she playfully wrote in “Emma”: “It was a delightful visit — perfect, in being much too short.”
Seriously? A short life and spinsterhood hardly seems fair for the author of “Pride and Prejudice,” a title that cleverly refers to proud Mr. Darcy and sparkling Elizabeth Bennet. As many of us know by heart, Mr. Darcy has elegant manners and character, from one the finest families in England. He’s captivated by Elizabeth’s beautiful dark eyes and daring repartee at dances, but she finds him cool and superior — at first. Then she gets a look at his magnificent estate, Pemberley. As Austen notes, it would be something to be mistress of Pemberley.
Austen’s six novels burnish the institution of marriage. Each pairs a deserving young woman with a man lucky enough to deserve her. It might be a family friend, a ship captain or a cousin. Each is a variation on finding a suitable match. My favorite, “Persuasion,” is Austen’s last. Anne Elliot, who has lost the bloom of youth at “seven and twenty,” has a second encounter with a man she once turned down. Still dreamy, and now possessing a good fortune, Frederick Wentworth seeks “a strong mind with sweetness of manner.”
But what about Austen’s own flushed cheeks and charm out on a dance floor? Some slender straws and stories, memories documented in family journals and letters, were handed down about her young womanhood. Were there missed opportunities? Was she unlucky in love? One contemporary described her as “a husband-hunting butterfly.”
Along came beguiling Tom Lefroy, whom young Jane fancied. “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself … everything most shocking,” she wrote in a letter. This scene suggests she was not frigid with men, as Virginia Woolf was. The narrative goes that Tom, who aimed to study law, had no money to “give her joy,” the expression for an engagement. Too bad, because he later became Chief Justice of Ireland.
On a December night in 1802, when Jane was on the cusp of turning 27, Jane and Cassandra went to visit Steventon, the town where they grew up. They stayed with well-off family friends, the Bigg-Withers, who had two daughters and a son, Harris, who lived in the manor house, Manydown Park. During a party at the Bigg-Withers’s home, Harris proposed to Jane, her one and only proposal. Her ticket out of spinsterhood.
Flustered, she said yes. There were reasons to accept: social approval, security, life as mistress of a 1,500-acre estate with a lovely staircase and a drawing room. These were nice things, not to be turned down lightly.
But this was not the script Austen had in mind, not for herself nor her heroines. Harris was a catch on paper, yet he had a stutter. He flunked out of Oxford. He was six years younger. She never considered him a romantic prospect, more like the little brother of the household.
Jane went through a dark night. Sleepless, she realized the proposal would radically alter everything. As mistress of Manydown Park, Austen would contend with heavy responsibilities that would sap her daily writing energy. In addition, childbirth was downright dangerous in those days. Did she want to worry chicken and horses, too?
At her age, she was already closing in on spinsterhood for life, and she didn’t mind that much. Austen could either live the life of marching up to matrimony — or she could write about that life. She could not do both, so she had to choose. At 26 going on 27, she knew her own genius. Her dialogue still floats and speaks from the page like notes in a Mozart sonata. (She played the piano every morning.) She knew she had to keep faith with her chiseled social realism, the first flawless portraits of young women in English literature. Eventually she realized that she needed to stay single, to get her work done.
Austen wept in agony. She withdrew her answer to Bigg-Wither in the morning. Then the two pairs of sisters got in the carriage and rode over to the Austen parsonage. They parted in tears. Jane and Cassandra insisted their brother James take them right away to Bath, where they were then living with their parents. It was a shattering trauma for Jane.
The budding Austen, who flowered into a master of irony, was all too aware that marriage was the best life chance a woman had to improve her lot. In fact, it was the only chance to change her destiny in Austen’s genteel gentry society, circa 1800. That was what her art was made of. No doubt she caught the bitter irony that the only way for Austen to improve her own lot was to keep writing and never marry.