Jane Austen

Jane Austen by Valerie Grosvenor Myer

Book: Jane Austen by Valerie Grosvenor Myer Read Free Book Online
Authors: Valerie Grosvenor Myer
rate as Very well married’ she would need a man with £10,000 a year.
    The gap between a five-figure income and the actual stipends earned by well-born, well-educated clergymen, the younger sons with no inheritance to look forward to, was enormous. A contemporary of Jane’s described such young men as being ‘shoved off about the world to scramble through it as best they could with nothing but their good blood to help them.’ These were the potential husbands within Jane Austen’s own reasonable expectations. To be addressed by a landowner was beyond them.
    Cassandra later destroyed the letters covering the Bigg-Wither episode, but not before letting her niece Catherine Hubback, Frank’s daughter, read them. Catherine gathered that Jane was much relieved when the affair was over, and that she had never been attached to him. Harris Bigg-Wither two years later married Anne Howe Frith, an Isle of Wight heiress, who bore him five sons and five daughters. Jane’s letters between 1801 and 1804 are missing, either because they dealt with this matter which Cassandra considered private, or because Jane was generally disgruntled and Cassandra did not wish to be reminded of her sister’s unhappiness. She was living at the time in Bath, where she was never even moderately contented.
    It was a commonplace of the time that what was openly known as the ‘marriage market’ was overstocked with well-dressed spinsters, trapped at home with their parents with no hope of escape until an offer of marriage turned up. As Charlotte Lucas says in Pride and Prejudice, ‘I am not romantic, you know. I never was. All I ask is a comfortable home.' There were many like her, whose hopes were doomed to disappointment. The problems of the Bennet girls in
Pride and Prejudice
, of embarrassing relatives and minimal dowries, are solved in fairytale fashion. In real life their chances of marrying well would be small, and Mrs Bennet’s anxieties, however foolishly expressed, represent social and economic realities.
    Jane was fond of joking that she would like to marry the poet the Revd George Crabbe. According to her nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh, she enjoyed Crabbe’s work ‘perhaps on account of a certain resemblance to herself in minute and highly finished detail’. Jane wrote when the death of Crabbe’s wife was reported in 1813 that she had only just worked out from one of Crabbe’s prefaces that he was married. ‘Poor woman! I will comfort
him
as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any.’ This was a mere fantasy Jane never met Crabbe.
    Crabbe’s verses depict the lot of the rural poor with grim realism. They were written as a corrective to the fashion for romanticizing cottagers’ lives. Although Jane Austen does not foreground the poor in her books, they were all around her. As befitted the parson’s daughter she gave them presents of clothing. She reported to Cassandra on 24 December 1798 that she had given a pair of worsted stockings to Mary Hutchins, Dame Kew, Mary Steevens and Dame Staples; a shift to Hannah Staples, and a shawl to Betty Dawkins; amounting in all to about half a guinea’. She was overjoyed when her prosperous brother Edward gave her £10 to spend among the cottagers at Chawton, her final home, and when his adoptive mother bequeathed £20 to the parish’.
    Just before she died, having reached the age of forty as a single woman, Jane, supported mainly by the charity of her brothers, wrote to her niece Fanny Knight, not yet transformed into Lady Knatchbull, ‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor -which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.’ Earlier, though, she had warned Fanny that nothing could compare with the misery of being bound without love. Jane had seen a loving marriage between her own parents and knew its worth. Anything was better than marrying without affection, but on the other hand, as she was at pains to

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