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Jane Austen: In Love

In 1801, Austen's father retired and decided that the family should move to Bath, England. Though she was reluctant to leave Steventon, the only home she had known, Austen agreed to move with her parents to the English resort town (she really didn't have much choice; it was unthinkable that an unmarried woman should live with anyone but family). Austen was by then in her mid-twenties: prime marrying years. So far, however, she had come up unlucky in love. In December 1795 she had met an Irish law student named Tom LeFroy while he was visiting her neighbor in Steventon. The two engaged in some gentle flirtation—Austen wrote jokingly to Cassandra that the two had been "profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together"6 at holiday parties. It's unclear how intense their feelings for each other were (after Austen's death, her sister burned all of her most personal letters) or if LeFroy was as interested in Austen as she was in him. Either way, it was a moot point. Neither had enough money at the time to be considered suitable for marriage. LeFroy left Steventon a month later and eventually became engaged to someone else. Some Austen critics suspect that he is the model for Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen never married, but she did have the option. In 1802, she received an unexpected proposal on a holiday visit to some friends. Twenty-one-year-old Harris Bigg-Wither, the brother of her friends, was rather unattractive, somewhat of a dullard, and had the unfortunate habit of a pronounced stutter. However, he had just graduated from Oxford and was poised to have a successful career. Austen knew that the marriage would be good not only for her own security, but for the security of her entire family. She said yes. The next morning, however, she realized that she just couldn't go through with a marriage to someone she had no feelings for, and she rescinded her acceptance. "Having accepted him, she found she was miserable and that the place and fortune which would certainly be his, could not alter the man," her niece later wrote of the difficult decision. "I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that 'yes'."7

In Pride and Prejudice, the narrator calls marriage "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."8 In real life, Jane Austen soon felt the consequences of her decision to remain unmarried. Her father died in 1805, leaving Jane, her mother, and her sister with no means of support (Cassandra also never married; her fiancé died of yellow fever in 1797). The Austen women became completely dependent upon the charity of Jane's brothers. First they moved into a rented house in Bath, and then they moved in with Austen's brother Frank and his wife. In 1809 they finally got a place of their own when Edward, the brother adopted by wealthy relatives, offered them a house on his estate called Chawton Cottage.

With no husband, no children, and no job, Jane Austen spent her days doing the things that most middle-class Englishwomen did at the time: needlework, letter-writing, the occasional piano playing. Sometimes, she confessed, she got bored. "Do not be angry with me for beginning another letter to you. I have read [Byron's] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do,"9 she once wrote to Cassandra. After moving into Chawton Cottage, however, Austen spent more time writing and less on housework. It suited her far better. "Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb,"10 she wrote her sister.

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