"Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick & wicked"

- Jane Austen
"Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the Eros-and-Agape people, the Marxists, the Freudians, the Jungians, the semioticians, the deconstructors - all find an adventure playground in six samey novels about middle-class provincials. And for every generation of critics, and readers, her fiction effortlessly renews itself."

- Martin Amis, in The New Yorker

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More on Jane's admirers

About Mr Heartley nothing seems to be known apart from a reference in Jane’s second surviving letter, which shows that he owned an estate and he formed part of her entourage of admirers in January 1796. However, Jane wasn't interested.[1]

Rev. Charles Powlett, another of the entourage, wanted to kiss Jane.[2]

Jane’s early letters hint strongly that John Lyford was another romantic contender. She mentions her “inexpressible astonishment” at avoiding dancing with him, although she was “forced to fight hard for it”, possibly on more than one occasion, as in her next letter she mentions arrangements for getting to the Ashe Ball (her last opportunity to dance and flirt with Tom Lefroy). She is going in the company of her brother Edward, together with John Lyford and the latter’s sister. This is immediately followed by “I understand we are to draw for Partners” - which sounds like someone is attempting to keep her away from Lefroy, and possibly Lyford is trying to achieve by strategy what he could not achieve by asking.[3]

It is not entirely clear if John Warren was also one of the admirers – Valerie Grosvenor Myer lists him as one, and at least one of Jane’s friends certainly thought so. Jane herself said not, offering as definitive proof that he drew Tom Lefroy’s portrait for her, and presented it “without a Sigh”. In 1800, Jane described him as “ugly”.[4]

Thomas Langlois Lefroy, (left) who is now the stuff of legend, was the most serious contender in January 1796 and possibly right through to December 1797, as some commentators think he may then have been visiting Bath at the same time as Jane Austen. By November of 1798, if any shred of hope had remained to Jane, she knew for certain that it was over.[5]

The pompous Rev. Blackall reminds us irresistibly of Mr Collins, and it seems that in 1797-8, Mrs Lefroy had attempted to make a match between him and Jane in the aftermath of the Tom Lefroy débâcle, possibly as a sort of consolation prize. Jane was having none of it however, and her ironic voice leaves us in no doubt of her opinion of the Rev. Blackall and his charms. Fifteen years later, she was marginally more charitable, although the irony is still apparent: “He was a peice [sic] of Perfection, noisy Perfection himself which I always recollect with regard”.[6]

In 1799, Jane had an almost-admirer, as she reported tartly after a ball at nearby Kempshott Park, that “There was one Gentleman, an officer of the Cheshire, a very good looking young Man, who, I was told, wanted very much to be introduced to me; but as he did not want it quite enough to take much trouble in effecting it, We never could bring it about.”[7]

The unnamed clergyman who fell in love with Jane in the summer of 1801 was the brother of a doctor in a seaside resort in Devon (probably Sidmouth or Teignmouth). According to the account of Mrs Bellas, Jane’s great niece, who heard it from Cassandra, the feelings were reciprocated. However before anything further could come of it, the gentleman “very provokingly died suddenly”, in the words of Jane’s great-nephew Lord Brabourne.[8]

Harris Bigg-Wither (at left) proposed to Jane in December 1802, when he was 21 and she was almost 27. She accepted, but changed her mind the very next morning.[9]

In 1805, it is probable that another clergyman, Edward Bridges, a younger brother of Jane's sister-in-law Elizabeth Bridges, proposed and was refused. He paid Jane great attentions in 1805; three years later he and his mother encountered Jane, and their manners towards her were equally “unaltered”, and a few months after this Jane reports to Cassandra “I wish you may be able to accept Lady Bridges’s invitation, tho’ I could not her son Edward’s”.[10]

Valerie Grosvenor Myer cites an Austen “family tradition” that Jane received a proposal from Thomas Harding Newman, a wealthy young gentlemen who owned two estates in Essex (Nelmes and Clacton Hall) and one in Northumberland (Callerton).[11]


[1] Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, No. 2 (14 Jan. 1796)

[2] Letters, No. 2

[3] Letters, Nos. 1 (9 Jan. 1796) & 2

[4] Letters, Nos. 2, 27 (20 Nov. 1800); Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart.

[5] Letters, Nos. 1, 2, 3 (23 August 1796), 11 (17 Nov. 1798) & 43 (8 April 1805). Linda Robinson Walker “Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy: Stories” and others believe that this last letter, in which Jane harks back to December 1797, refers to Tom Lefroy. The Austens and the Lefroys were then in Bath, and one of Mrs Lefroy’s nephews had been staying with her in the same month.

[6] Letters, Nos. 11 & 216 (3 July 1813). Jane’s great-nephew, Lord Brabourne was of the opinion that “any attachment which existed was rather on the side of the gentleman than of the lady”. Brabourne edition of the letters, published in 1884. Republic of Pemberley.

[7] Letters, No. 17 (8 Jan. 1799)

[8] Marghanita Laski, Jane Austen, citing Mrs Bellas, daughter of Ben & Anna Lefroy; also Lord Brabourne, online at the Republic of Pemberley.

[9] Cited by Laski, drawing on the account of Caroline Austen, probably from My Aunt Jane Austen (1867), printed for the Jane Austen Society, 1952. Also Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart, who states Bigg-Wither proposed on 2 December 1802.

[10] Deirdre Le Faye makes this suggestion. See Letters No 46 (27 Aug. 1805), No. 55 (30 June 1808) & No. 57 (7 Oct. 1808)

[11] Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart, no further source details given.

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