Wednesday 24 April 2019

Writing was Jane Austin's first and true love

Jane Austen's novels dealt with the often rocky road to love. As the 200-year anniversary of her death approaches, our reporter examines how the author herself put career before love

Love & Friendship, a Jane Austen film adaptation starring Kate Bekinsdale and Chloe Sevigny
Love & Friendship, a Jane Austen film adaptation starring Kate Bekinsdale and Chloe Sevigny
Pride and Prejudice. BBC
Jane Austen

Liadan Hynes

'It is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her." Emma Woodhouse, Emma.

One could be forgiven for assuming that Austen herself to some extent shared this belief, that a happy-ever-after ending in marital bliss was the ultimate goal for a woman. Her novels all centre around the involved dance of courtship, as a couple overcome various obstacles; mutual prejudice, interfering relatives, youthful folly, glamorous if ultimately licentious strangers, to arrive at an eventually successful proposal.

Jane Austen, however, was not a sentimentalist, and harboured no excessively romantic notions about the state of marriage. Her own idea of love was decidedly pragmatic; the concept of one true, passionate love was given short shrift. On advising her niece, Fanny Knight, on affairs of the heart, she warned against believing that first love is the only one, from which one will never recover. "Oh! Dear Fanny, your mistake has been one that thousands of women fall into. He was the first young man who attached himself to you." Such disappointments do not kill anyone, she goes on to explain. Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, one of Austen's most attractive proponents of romantic love, suffers badly, in the ending opting for the much more prosaic Colonel Brandon.

In her own life, Jane eschewed wedlock in favour of her career. Far from living a sheltered spinster's life, Austen enjoyed a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Her father ran a small boarding school at the family home, so from a young age she was surrounded by young men. She herself was the second youngest of a family of eight, six brothers and two sisters. Always independently minded, at the age of seven, Jane insisted, according to her mother, on accompanying her beloved older sister Cassandra to school in Oxford. It was to be the beginning of a lifetime's travels, to London, around the countryside, to Bath, and on various holidays with her family. She was, however, dependent on male family members to accompany her from place to place, and could languish at one house waiting for a male relative to come and collect her.

Pride and Prejudice. BBC
Pride and Prejudice. BBC

Accounts by various friends and family record that Austen herself was the object of various men's interest throughout her abridged life. Tom Lefroy, later the Chief Justice of Ireland, was a youthful dalliance. The pair met when he stayed with nearby friends of Jane's family, he was spirited away before things became too serious; his large family expected him to marry into money.

According to family legend, a summertime romance with a mysterious man encountered on a family holiday in Devonshire around 1801 was the most significant in terms of impact on Jane's affections, and might have led to an attachment, had he not died several months after their first meeting. "I never heard aunt Cass speak of anyone else with such admiration - she had no doubt that a mutual attachment was in progress between him and her sister," a niece recorded. "They parted - but he made it plain that he would seek them out again and shortly afterwards he died."

A year later, Jane actually did accept a marriage proposal, from Harris Bigg-Wither, a family friend. On a visit to Steventon to see their brother who now lived in the old family home, Jane and her sister had gone to stay with friends. The pair returned home early, in tears, their sister-in-law Mary Austen recalled. The story unfolded that the friend's younger brother Harris had proposed, and while Jane had accepted, the next morning she rescinded her agreement. One acquaintance recorded that Harris, although in line to inherit a fortune, was 'very plain in person, awkward, and even uncouth in manner'. He had failed to finish his studies, which may have counted against him with the whip-smart Jane, who was then approaching her 27th birthday. "One explanation is that she was at a vulnerable moment," suggests biographer Paula Byrne, in The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. "Unhappy to be living in Bath, longing for a return to the locality of her childhood, and possibly recovering from news of the death of her seaside lover." Despite Austen's dismissal of the idea of one grand, passionate true love, her notion of marriage did require a love-match, but one that was grounded in reality, rather than an idealistic fantasy. "She simply wasn't in love with Harris," Byrne concludes, "and-whether as an agony aunt or a novelist - she was never someone to advise matrimony for financial gain without love, whatever the temptations of security or status".

Austen's view of marriage was in its way quite modern, a contract between equals. The idea of marrying a person for whom one did not feel affection, or kinship, was abhorrent. To her niece, she wrote "anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection…nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love."

Finding such a person was not guaranteed though; "There are such beings in the World perhaps, one in a Thousand…where Grace and Spirit are united to Worth, where the Manners are equal to the Heart and Understanding… such a person may not come in your way".

Although in later years Austen's work would provide her with increasing amounts of financial independence, for much of her life, she, like most women of her era, was dependent on her male relatives, for financial security, a home, even for transport. Even from a young age, Austen would have been aware of the inescapable reliance women had on male relatives, and the consequences if such support was unforthcoming - her father's unwed sister travelled to the East Indies in search of a husband. She herself always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Jane was lucky in that her father wholeheartedly supported her aspirations, allowing her access to his library, and purchasing her a portable writing desk for her 19th birthday. First her father, then her brothers, provided homes for the sisters and their mother. When her parents announced suddenly that her father was retiring as rector at Steventon and the family would move to Bath, Austen fainted with shock. So little autonomy did she enjoy over her life that the notion that Jane would have any say in a decision which would so hugely affect her didn't occur to anyone. In 1809, her brother Edward, who as a teenager had been adopted by a wealthy, childless couple, provided Jane and her mother and sister with a house on his estate. The effect of a settled home, her first in almost a decade, was tangible; in her time at Chawton, Jane revised Pride and Prejudice, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon. Austen wrote from the age of 12, completing her first book aged 14. Virginia Woolf remarked that these writings were not just intended to entertain the close family circle, correctly identifying Austen's lifelong plans to become an author. Such ambitions most likely didn't allow for marriage as part of Jane's domestic arrangements. In letters to her nieces she urged them to put off childbirth until a little later in their lives, to avoid early exhaustion; "By not beginning the business of Mothering quite so early in life, you will be young in Constitution, spirits, figure and countenance, while Mrs Wm Hammond is growing old by confinements and nursing.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

"She truly believed that marriage could stifle women's voices. This was the fate to which she would not submit herself in her own life," Byrne argues. In letters Jane lamented to her niece: "I shall hate…when your delicious play of mind is all settled down into conjugal and maternal affections." Austen may have ended her heroine's stories in marriage, but this is not a facile depiction of a fairy-tale ending. Jane was nothing if not realistic, and the reality of her time was that marriage was, in fact, for the majority of women bar those lucky enough to enjoy personal wealth, a vastly preferable option to a life of penury, dependency on relatives, or virtual slavery as a lady's companion.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Austen's most famous line, from Pride and Prejudice, could as easily be adapted to refer to the universality of a woman of marriageable age, with no income of her own, being in want of a husband.

Such championing of the marital state may fall short of our contemporary notions of feminism and female empowerment, but for Austen to have suggested an alternative would have been impossible given the essentially realistic nature of her work. The author's voice describes Charlotte's position on the matter in Pride and Prejudice in a tone that, despite Mr Collins's hideousness, allows for the validity of her point of view, despite Austen's own feelings that marriage without affection was beyond contemplating; "without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want." Women in Jane Austen's work rarely adhere to the traditional notion of a heroine. They are real creatures, rather than idealistic caricatures. The author "rejects the convention that a heroine must be beautiful," writes Byrne. Instead they are imperfect, hot-headed, pious, reserved. They make mistakes. Women in Jane Austen's books are pragmatic - Charlotte and her marriage to Mr Collins; sexually charged - Lydia Bennet and her affair with Wickham; intelligent - like Elizabeth Bennet; wise - like Fanny Price; and licentious - in Mary Crawford's case. They are not perfect, and their author does not require them to stand on a pedestal. Jane's own most significant relationship was with her sister, Cassandra, she jokingly referred to the pair as 'the formidables'. "Jane Austen liked women," explains her biographer, Byrne. She had many close friends, from neighbours, to governesses of her brothers' families. The idea of women as fragile, delicate creatures, in need of male protection, is given short shrift. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth's hardiness in tramping the countryside is favourably depicted. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth's sister Mrs Croft admonishes him: "I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days." Jane pays women the respect of representing them and the realities of their lives, fully. In later years, Austen, who took over from her brother and acted as her own agent, negotiating with her publishers, would robustly defend the novel, a new literary form which came in for much sexist, patronising criticism, associated as it was with female writers, and depictions of the feminine world, most famously in Northanger Abbey. "'Oh it is only a novel'…in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the word in the best chosen language."

Austen does not seem to have harboured any desire for motherhood, and childbirth horrified her somewhat. Her novels were her children. "I am never too busy to think of S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her suckling child." Jane died at the age of 41 in 1817, her head cradled in her sister's lap. Afterwards, Cassandra wrote "she was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself." No lover could have penned a more heartfelt tribute. Speculation has placed the cause of her death as Addison's disease. Even from her sickbed, she dictated comic verse to her sister. She died a successful author, her lifelong ambition fulfilled.

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