One of the greatest writers in the English language, Jane Austen (1775–1817) is famed for her works of romantic fiction including Sense and Sensibility (1811); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Her present-day popularity derives chiefly from the fact her heroines, although two centuries old, act as romantic beacons for the modern age. With a universal message of marrying for love rather than money, they provide examples, albeit fictional, of women choosing husbands due to strings of the heart and not of the purse.
If the old adage ‘write what you know’ is applied to Austen’s writing, then she should have had one of the happiest marriages in the history of matrimony. But here lies the paradox. One of the supreme purveyors of romantic love in English literature, and the creator of numerous blissful couplings in print, never took her own trip down the aisle.
The whitewashing of Jane’s public persona began almost immediately after her death in 1817 with the autobiographical note her brother, Henry, wrote to preface the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. This meant that the question as to why this was so never really entered the equation. The mere fact that Jane did not find a Mr Darcy in real life and so lived – it seemed – as a virtuous Christian ‘spinster’ was enough to satisfy Victorian curiosity.
By the middle of the 20th century, however, this somewhat distorted view of the now much-admired and studied author began to be challenged. Literary critic QD Leavis protested in 1942, for example, against the “conventional account of Miss Austen as prim, demure, sedate, prudish and so on, the typical Victorian maiden lady”. Her essay was just one of many that would bring into question and then rewrite the received biography. And with this rewriting came the desire to know exactly why Jane Austen had remained single.
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.
We know of the early romance with Tom Lefroy, who would later become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, which was called off not by Jane due to any burgeoning doubt about her own sexuality, but by his family due to the penniless status of the would-be lovers. And this was the age, lest we forget, at least for the middling classes and above, when marrying for money was a fact of life and the yardstick by which all potential partners – male and female – were measured.
There was also the mystery seaside rendezvous, where it is said Jane fell in love with a young clergyman and he with her. Their infatuation blossomed over several weeks during one of the Austen family’s regular summer breaks while they lived in Bath, and the lovers made arrangements to meet the following year. Sadly, when the time came for their reunion, news arrived saying that the clergyman had died during the intervening period. In 2009 Dr Andrew Norman named this clergyman as Samuel Blackall, but claims Blackall did not die but rather went on to marry someone else.
And then, of course, there was an actual proposal of marriage and acceptance of it. While Jane and her sister, Cassandra, were staying with friends, the Bigg sisters, at their residence, Manydown, Hants, in December 1802, their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither (the additional surname having been adopted for males of the family during the late 18th century) took it upon himself to integrate the families further by one evening proposing to Jane. Although he was six years younger than her she accepted, but after what can only have been a dark night of the soul rescinded it the following morning and hastily bid a retreat by carriage back to Steventon and then to Bath.
It could be argued that if there were any hint of lesbianism in Jane then surely she would simply have not accepted the offer in the first place, or else would not have changed her mind (enjoying the financial security the marriage brought, while at the same time free to enjoy her sexuality outside of the relationship). The reality is that any relations Jane did have with the same sex were either genuine friendships, or else those normally shared with relatives.
Another theory was later put forward; that of an incestuous relationship. This ‘sisterly love’ theory, which suggested a sexual bond between Jane and her sister, Cassandra, came into public consciousness in 1995, the same year as Colin Firth’s shirt-drenched Darcy became lodged there; the former through a review essay by Terry Castle.
Castle’s piece, which appeared in the London Review of Books, was a critique of the latest edition of Jane Austen’s collected letters. In the essay Castle pondered on the closeness of the sisters to the point where she mused about the true nature of their relationship and what had transpired between the sheets of the double bed she believed the sisters shared throughout their lives.
It was of course Cassandra, in one of the greatest acts of literary vandalism in history, who burnt the majority of her sister’s enormous correspondence to her, thus depriving posterity of an insight into a more authentic character study of Jane, other than the whitewashed, virginal one that prevailed. The burning of Jane’s letters also gave rise to endless speculation as to what exactly they contained.
Whether it was ever Castle’s intention to call into question the sisters’ sexual orientation – she later stated it was not – there was seemingly enough in the review to warrant a sub-editor on the periodical (with one-eye on circulation, no doubt) to title the review “Was Jane Austen Gay?” and then emblazon the headline on the front cover.
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.
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The final nail in the coffin of this theory seemed to come with the disclosure of an invoice. The whole episode had revolved around Castle’s assumption that the two women slept together in one double bed, but this assumption was completely shattered by a piece of paper that showed that Mr Austen, on his daughters reaching adolescence, had ordered a single bed for each of them.
And let us not forget, either, that Cassandra herself was engaged to be married, before her fiancé died in 1797, leaving her bereft but determined to embrace spinsterhood out of respect for him and not through any sexual orientation towards other women.
With that contentious theory hopefully put to bed (no pun intended), we can come to the real reason, I believe, Jane Austen did not marry. 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.
Jane Austen began writing at the age of 12 and did not stop until ill health forced it upon her, shortly before her death, at the age of 41. In between there were seemingly fallow years – in Bath – and even barren ones – in Southampton – but this did not mean she ceased in the development of her craft. There were voluminous letters to be written, so as to keep her wit and observations sharp, and large amounts of books devoured from circulating libraries or those of friends and relatives to stimulate her mind in readiness for an incredible six-year outpouring of literary creativity once ensconced at the cottage in Chawton.
This ‘revelation’ and the whole mass of evidence that is slowly being recognised as supporting this theory is, in its own way, possibly even more contentious than any questions about Jane’s sexuality. 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.
And this at a time when women were supposed to love, honour and obey their husbands, and the only way for the majority of women – including Austen – to obtain financial security was to marry into it. Because God help them if they tried to make a living independently, say through the pen, as she chose to do! In hindsight, then, it is perhaps no wonder Jane’s brother, Henry, sought to soften the image of his sister, knowing a true portrait would most likely cause outrage in certain sections of the Regency, and then later Victorian, public.
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Possibly Tom Lefroy would have encouraged Jane’s writing aspirations, as might the mysterious seaside suitor, but she was certain that Harris Bigg-Wither would not and ultimately, in my mind, at least, that is why she declined his proposal. But let us consider for a moment the pressure that would have been on Jane throughout that December night in 1802 at Manydown. Her family, although not poor, were not well off, and the marriage would have brought security for all of them, or at least the females within it: Jane, Cassandra and their mother.
I believe it was with a pragmatic mind that Jane accepted Bigg-Wither’s proposal. And then throughout the night, either within her solitary thoughts or in discussion with her sister, she pondered on what she might be losing herself, and changed her mind. It might 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.
With this knowledge of Jane’s literary aspirations, it is perhaps no surprise that on her return to Bath she subsequently revised Northanger Abbey (or rather Susan, as it was originally titled) and successfully sought a publishing deal for it, which saw her achieve the goal of finally being paid for her writing. The fact that, for whatever reason, the publishing firm chose not to publish the work merely taught Jane a lesson about the industry and made her more determined to see her work in print, if not bearing her own name, certainly on her own terms.
To this end, after revising Sense & Sensibility and once settled at Chawton, Jane used her own money to publish the book and saw a handsome return on her investment. And although she sold the rights to her next published novel, Pride & Prejudice, she quickly realised a mistake had been made and so subsequent books reverted back to this initial ‘business model’.
The fact that Jane Austen remained single all her life, while her literary heroines enjoyed both romantic wedded bliss and financial security, is one of English literature’s greatest ironies. The simple fact is, though, that even if Jane had herself experienced a happy marriage with a husband only too obliging for her to continue writing, with the prospect of possibly a large family to bring up Jane may not have had the time to write to the extent she did and so develop her incredible talent that is so revered today.
So, to reiterate, by not marrying, Jane allowed herself the time and space to develop her talent unhindered by domestic duties or conjugal obligations. She sacrificed financial security and matrimonial happiness in order to retain the freedom to write and develop as a true artist. It is perhaps because of that choice Jane Austen is considered one of the greatest literary talents of all time.
David Lassman is a former director of the International Jane Austen Festival. His views on Austen have been sought by media organisations such as CNN, BBC and the New York Times, and he has made many radio and television appearances, including the 2008 documentary Crazy About Jane; BBC’s The One Show and Good Morning America.
This article was first published by History Extra in 2016