A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XXI." by Constance Hill
From: Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923) by Constance Hill.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 232] 

CHAPTER XXI

AN EPISODE IN JANE AUSTEN'S LIFE

"He best can paint them who shall feel them most."

IT has been generally assumed by Jane Austen's numerous critics that, in spite of her Shakespearean power of describing the feelings of lovers, she had never experienced those feelings herself. "Friendship," writes Lord Acton, "was enough for her. In it she, in fact, seems to have found sufficient tenderness and support to satisfy her cravings . . . . She sat apart in her rocky tower and watched the poor souls struggling in the waves beneath. And her sympathies were not too painfully engaged, for she knew that it was only an Ariel's magic tempest, and that no loss of life was to follow . . . . Accordingly, her view of the life she described was that of a humorist, but of a very kindly one."

And Mr. Austin Dobson remarks: "On the whole we may assume that Miss Austen had no definite romance of her own." If "in the words of the French song, 'L'amour a passé par [Page 233]  là,' the marks of his footprints have now been irretrievably effaced." The writer attributes her long silence as an author - a silence lasting for twelve years, and whose cause has puzzled Miss Austen's biographers, to her disappointment at the rebuffs she had received from publishers.

Another critic writing upon "Miss Austen and Miss Mitford,"[1] says: "We are absolutely denied a love tale in both these lives, which is hard . . . . No man's existence could be more entirely free from sentiment. If love is a woman's chief business then here are two very sweet women who had no share in it. It is a want, but we have no right to complain . . . . Such a question, it is unnecessary to say, could not have been discussed by a contemporary, but the critic at this distance may be permitted to regret that there is not somewhere, a faded bunch of violets or some dead forget-me-nots, to be thrown with the myrtle and the bay of their country's appreciation, upon these two maiden graves."

But the same critic has the insight to perceive that between the composition of the first three novels, and the last three "some softening influence" had come over the writer. "It is not," he says, "that the force is less or the keenness of insight into all the many manifestations of foolishness, but human sympathy has come in to [Page 234]  sweeten the tale, and the brilliant intellect has found out somehow that all the laughable things surrounding it - beings so amusingly diverse in their inanity and unreason - are all the same mortal creatures with souls and hearts within them. How Miss Austen came to find this out we cannot tell. But it is pleasant to see that she made the discovery. In 'Emma' everything has a softer touch. The sun shines as it never shone over the Bennets."

In an article by Miss Lefroy that appeared in "Temple Bar" some years ago the writer tells us that a large number of Miss Austen's letters, dealing with matters of a private nature, were burnt after her death. She goes on to say: "With all the playful frankness of her manner, her sweet sunny temper and enthusiastic nature, Jane Austen was a woman most reticent as to her own deepest and holiest feelings; and her sister Cassandra would have thought she was sinning against that delicacy and reserve had she left behind her any record of them . . . . That, on the contrary, it was her duty to the public to preserve whatever could throw any light on her sister's life and character never occurred to her . . . . We feel ourselves aggrieved that we have lost so much, but if Jane Austen had been asked she would undoubtedly have approved of her sister's conduct." [Page 235] 

In spite of "scanty materials," however, Miss Lefroy has recorded, upon carefully weighed evidence, an episode in her Aunt Jane's life, which must be deeply interesting to all who admire and love Miss Austen's works. This episode, but faintly alluded to heretofore by the biographers, is recounted in some family papers from which we are allowed to quote.

"The Austens with their two daughters, were once travelling in Devonshire," writes Miss Lefroy, "moving from place to place; and I think that tour was before they left Steventon in 1801, perhaps as early as 1798 or 1799. It was whilst they were so travelling, according to Aunt Cassandra's account, given many years afterwards, that they somehow made acquaintance with a gentleman of the name of Blackall (a clergyman). He and Aunt Jane mutually attracted each other, and such were his charms that even Aunt Cassandra thought him worthy of her sister. They parted on the understanding that he was to come to Steventon, but instead came, I know not how long after, a letter from his brother to say that he was dead. There is no record of Jane's affliction, but I think the attachment must have been very deep. Aunt Cassandra herself had so warm a regard for him that some years after her sister's death, she took a good deal of trouble to find out and see his brother." [This brother was [Page 236]  a medical man, whose acquaintance the Austens had also made in Devonshire.]

Miss Lefroy here gives the following extract from a letter written by her aunt Caroline Austen.

"I have no doubt that Aunt Jane was beloved of several in the course of her life, and was herself very capable of loving. I wish I could give you more details as to Mr. Blackall. All that I know is this. At Newtown Aunt Cassandra was staying with us when we made the acquaintance of a certain Mr. Henry Edridge of the Engineers. He was very pleasing and very good looking. My aunt was much struck with him, and I was struck by her commendations, as she rarely admired any one. Afterwards she spoke of him as of one so unusually gifted with all that was agreeable, and said he had reminded her strongly of a gentleman they had met one summer when they were by the sea (I think she said in Devonshire), who had seemed greatly attracted by my Aunt Jane. That when they parted he was urgent to know where they would be the next summer, implying, or, perhaps, saying that he should be there also, wherever it might be. I can only say the impression left on Aunt Cassandra's mind was that he had fallen in love with Aunt Jane. Soon afterwards they heard of his death. I am sure she thought him worthy of her sister from the way [Page 237]  she recalled his memory, and also that she did not doubt either that he would have been a successful suitor."

"I fancy it was about 1799," resumes Miss Lefroy, "that this blow fell upon Jane Austen, and to it and the similar sorrow that befell her beloved sister, I attribute the disuse of her pen during so many of the finest years of her life. Between her first novels and their successors there was a period of twelve years, a long strange silence for which there must surely have been some reason. Is it not probable that, lively and cheerful as she was in manner, she had that deep silent sorrow at her heart, which could not but indispose her to the exertion of writing, perhaps even paralysed the faculty of invention? 'Pride and Prejudice,' 'Sense and Sensibility,' and 'Northanger Abbey' were all written before she was five-and-twenty, indeed, I think we might say before she was three-and-twenty, and it was not until she was thirty-five that she began revising them for the Press . . . . That her grief should have silenced her is, I think, quite consistent with the reserve of her character. Many could have found consolation in pouring out their sorrows to the public, and describing, their own feelings under the disguise of their heroines, but only once did Jane Austen's heart slip into her pen when she said, as Anne Elliot, 'all the privilege I claim for my sex, and it is not a very [Page 238]  enviable one, is that of loving longest when hope is gone.'

"The similarity of their fates must have endeared the two sisters to each other, and made other sympathy unnecessary to either. No one was equal to Jane in Cassandra's eyes, and Jane looked up to Cassandra as to one far better and wiser than herself. They were, as their mother said, 'wedded to each other.' . . . Yet they had such a gift of reticence that the secrets of their respective friends were never betrayed. The young niece who brought her troubles to 'Aunt Jane' for advice and sympathy knew she could depend absolutely on her silence even to her sister. A strict fidelity which is, I think, somewhat rare between any two so closely united.

"There are many [persons] who find fault with Jane Austen's novels as hard and cold and prudish, and who think that such was her own nature - incapable of depth of feeling . . . . Of passionate feeling she was, perhaps, incapable, but passion is not depth, and still less is it long-lived. And as for the hardness and prudishness, I think there is not allowance enough made for the difference between the fashion in this matter in her day and our own. In hers people were called by their plain Christian names, and 'loves,' 'dears,' and 'darlings' were less plentifully used. Caresses were not so common and only bestowed in [Page 239]  private. It is not only that her heroines abstain from 'throwing themselves into the arms of their lovers,' but as sisters they are equally reticent. Dear as Jane in 'Pride and Prejudice' is to Lizzie, she is to her Jane, and Jane only; and Elinor and Marianne, who in these days would have certainly been 'Nellie' and 'Minnie' are contented with their own names, unadorned with any prefix of affection. The only person she paints as addicted to the use of terms of endearment is Isabella Thorpe, who talks of her 'dearest, sweetest Catherine,' without having any real regard for her, or for any one else save herself. It is not feeling, but the expression of feeling which has altered. If we do not wear our hearts on our sleeves, we seem to keep them on our lips much more than formerly.

"It seems to me that the beauty of Jane Austen's character has been marred by the too careful suppression of the romance of her life. But, though I think it probably caused the long disuse of her pen, I do not mean to imply that it made her gloomy or discontented. She was bright and lively at home, and the delight of her little nephews and nieces. To my mother she was especially kind, writing for her the stories she invented for herself long ere she could write, and telling her others of endless adventure and fun, which were carried on from day to day, or from [Page 240]  visit to visit. I have still in my possession, in Aunt Jane's writing, a drama my mother dictated to her, founded on 'Sir Charles Grandison,' a book with which she was familiar at seven years old."

We learn from Miss Lefroy that Miss Austen received an offer of marriage in 1802 from Mr. Bigg-Wither of Manydown Park, who is described as "a sensible pleasant man," and whose "sisters were already her friends." It would have been a match to give great satisfaction to the relatives on both sides, and from a worldly point of view highly advantageous to Jane. But she could not bring herself to consent to it, feeling probably that "the past was so dear to her, and her love" for him who was gone "so true and living" that it must make "any other attachment impossible."

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Footnotes



[Page 233]
1 Blackwood's Magazine for March 1870.

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