By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
The notion that Jane Austen lived an uneventful, sheltered life is a ridiculous life-myth. It’s true that she hadn’t widely traveled, but then few people, especially few women, of her social class had. She experienced, and observed, deeply emotional things, joyful and tragic. She witnessed, within her own family, a wide variety of human characters and experiences.
Jane’s Flirtation with Tom Lefroy
Jane Austen was very close to her only sister, Cassandra Austen. During their lives, they wrote letters to each other when they were separated, and much of what we know of Austen’s life comes from her loving, humorous letters to her sister.
Around 1795, Jane had a flirtation with a man named Tom Lefroy, an Irishman who was visiting his Hampshire relatives, the Austen’s neighbors. Jane apparently took a liking to him, and he to her.
This is how Jane describes her friendship with Tom Lefroy to Cassandra: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.”
Although some biographers have spun this episode with Lefroy into a great love lost, including in the film Becoming Jane, it’s largely speculation.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Jane’s ‘No’ to Marriage
It is known that Austen once received a proposal of marriage. It came in 1802, when she was 27, from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither. According to family accounts, Austen was staying at his family’s home at Manydown—Harris’s sisters were Jane’s friends—and Harris surprised her with an offer of marriage. She first said yes. But then the next morning, she changed her answer to a no.
So, while Austen did not marry, one can’t say it’s because she had no options. But whatever the reasons, Austen walked back her yes to Harris Bigg-Wither.
Her father died in 1805, and Jane, Cassandra, and their widowed mother had difficult years, economically, relying on the help of several Austen brothers to meet their basic needs. However, when presented with an option that would have provided financial security for her, Jane wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do it. It’s a shame that no letters survive telling us anything about her motives.
Letters by Austen
The fact is, there is little more known about Austen’s life from 1801 to 1805, the years when she lived in Bath, England, than the addresses at which she lived. One reason for that is because there are relatively few letters by Austen from this or indeed any time period.
Just 161 letters are known to have survived, and they include very few intimate details. While 161 might sound like a lot, Austen likely wrote thousands of letters over the course of her life. Unfortunately, they were not preserved. Family accounts report that sister and confidante Cassandra later destroyed most of Jane’s letters, perhaps to preserve the family’s privacy. Maybe it was Jane’s wish or Cassandra’s wish. The fact is, one just doesn’t know.
A number of Austen letters were first published, in edited form, in 1884. One thing that has remained constant from the 1880s to the present is that readers who love Jane’s novels are often disappointed in the letters. The letters don’t tell drawn-out stories. They dart here and there; they rarely have a narrative arc; and they seem interested in minutiae that often disappoints those who come to Austen’s fiction for weightier things.
Austen’s letters show an interest in fashion, shopping, and gossip. She gives occasional advice to her nieces and nephews. Her letters do, however, offer a glimpse into the everyday things she cared about. They also reveal her devastating wit and often macabre sense of humor.
Quoted and Misinterpreted Statements
Statements in her letters have been selected out, quoted, and misinterpreted, too. Here’s one example. Austen is often quoted as comparing her writing process to: “(Two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”
Now, this sounds like charming, self-deprecating modesty. In the original context of her letters, however, it’s clear that this is meant as a joke. She’s comparing herself as a writer to her writer-nephew, who has revealed to her that two chapters of his writing have gone missing, perhaps stolen. She assures him,
By the bye, my dear Edward, I am quite concerned for the loss your Mother mentions in her Letter; two Chapters & a half to be missing is monstrous! It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, & therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them;—two strong twigs & a half towards a Nest of my own, would have been something—I do not think however that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety & Glow?—How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?
So what may sound like self-deprecation when it’s told as one line looks more like a jocular exchange, in a joke about theft, in its larger context. Her two inches of ivory are compared to his two strong twigs and two missing chapters. This seems not so much her modesty as hilarious mock-modesty.
Common Questions about Jane Austen’s Letters
In 1802, Jane Austen did receive a marriage proposal from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither. She first said yes, but then the next morning, she changed her answer to a ‘no’.
Just 161 letters are known to have survived, and they include very few intimate details. While 161 might sound like a lot, Jane Austen likely wrote thousands of letters over the course of her life.
Readers who love Jane Austen‘s novels are often disappointed in her letters as they don’t tell drawn-out stories. They dart here and there; they rarely have a narrative arc; and they seem interested in minutiae that often disappoints those who come to Austen’s fiction for weightier things.