Emily (whatisbiscuits) wrote in bookish,
Emily
whatisbiscuits
bookish

Jane and her Gentlemen

I picked up a book called Jane and her Gentlemen: Jane Austen and the men in her life and novels, by Audrey Hawkridge in the library this weekend. It's not quite what I wanted, in that I was hoping for juicy details of failed love affairs and a real-life Mr Darcy, but in fact Jane never quite let herself go when it came to love - she had to save romance for her books.

I was surprised to find that Jane as a young lady was not a shy, bookish Mary Bennet as I had mistakenly imagined but more of a cross between Lydia and Elizabeth Bennet, a pretty girl with a love of balls, a sharp, witty tongue and a kind heart. On an income of £210 per annum, and a five-bedroomed cottage, she was no financial catch for a gentleman but was in a position to turn down marriage proposals if she chose to. And she did have proposals - Hawkridge tantalises us in the first chapter by revealing that at 27 Jane had a proposal of marriage from a young heir to fifteen hundred acres and a handsome mansion.

"there were not too many years in which a woman was eligible for a first marriage. She could as a rule expect to find her mate only when she was between the ages of about sixteen and twenty-six, with her wealth, health, pedigree and appearance influencing the range of choice, much as it has always done in the bloodstock markets of the world. So speed was important, yet difficult to achieve in the slow pace at which life moved then" (26? I only have six months left!).

So was there a real-life Mr Darcy? Not really. She only met two or three men which she considered suitable, and might have married except for social circumstances and bad luck. The first exciting and most Mr-Darcy-like young man was a red-haired Irish boy named Thomas Langlois Lefroy, a shy law student who, like Jane, had just turned 20 when they met at a ball. They liked each other, but any potential proposal was interfered with by Jane's friend and Thomas's aunt-in-law, Mrs Lefroy, because Jane was not wealthy and so the family did not consider the match worth promoting. Boo.

The next young man, whose name is unknown, was a charming young clergyman met by the seaside. They intended to meet again shortly after parting, but the next Jane heard was news of his sudden death. Very unlucky.

Some years later, aged 27, Jane and her sister Cassandra visited some friends at a place named Manydown Park. About a week after Jane's arrival (time being of the essence back then) the second son of the family, Harris Bigg-Wither (what a name!) unexpectedly proposed to her. He was a shy, stammering young man and only aged 21, but he could offer Jane financial security for herself, her mother and her sister. Plus, by the age of 27, Jane was presumably getting on a bit. She accepted - and a sleepless night later, turned him down after all, unable to go through with a lifetime of Harris Bigg-Wither.

So, despite writing so many romances, Jane never really had one which lasted longer than a week or two. She seems to have got on with things, telling her niece "It is no creed of mine... that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody'. It is interesting to ponder what type of books she might have written if she ever had got married. Charlotte Bronte complained of Jane: 'She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her.' But I'm sure Jane would have had one or two things to say back to that.
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  • 13 comments

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    A sequel to 14, in which the Great Old Ones arrive to eat the world. Kavach Press, 2020, 333 pages Murdoch’s past has finally come…

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