Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record

Chapter VI



Miss Mitford, in a paragraph showing some hostility to Jane Austen, tells us that her own mother spent her maiden life in the neighbourhood of the Austens and knew Jane as 'the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers.' It is perhaps a sufficient answer to this attack if we remark that when Mrs. Mitford married and left her home Jane was barely ten years old, and that at a date two years later she was accused by a cousin of being 'prim.' It is probable that on growing up she, like other girls, enjoyed admiration, and it is certain that she attracted a good deal of it; but she says so much to her elder sister and mentor about one particular flirtation that we may be sure that it was neither a serious nor a frequent occupation with her.

In a letter[63] written from Steventon, November 17, 1798, she mentions a visit from her friend Mrs. Lefroy, and adds that she had enough private conversation with her to hear all that was interesting,--

which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father's afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.

She showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago (in answer to one written by her to recommend a nephew of Mrs. Russell to his notice at Cambridge) towards the end of which was a sentence to this effect: 'I am very sorry to hear of Mrs. Austen's illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family with a hope of creating to myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it.' This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.

Mrs. Lefroy's 'friend,' though Jane was interested to hear of him, had evidently not touched her heart, and we should know nothing more of him if it were not for a letter of hers to her brother Frank, written more than fourteen years afterwards, and published in the Sailor Brothers.[64]

I wonder whether you happened to see Mr. Blackall's marriage in the papers last January. We did. He was married at Clifton to a Miss Lewis, whose father had been late of Antigua. I should very much like to know what sort of a woman she is. He was a piece of perfection--noisy perfection--himself, which I always recollect with regard. We had noticed a few months before his succeeding to a College living, the very living which we recollected his talking of, and wishing for; an exceeding good one, Great[65] Cadbury in Somersetshire. I could wish Miss Lewis to be of a silent turn and rather ignorant, but naturally intelligent and wishing to learn, fond of cold veal pies, green tea in the afternoon, and a green window-blind at night.

North Cadbury is an Emmanuel College living, and Mr. Blackall was a Fellow of that society, who, after the fashion of the times, had waited long for his living and his wife. Jane had known him well and liked him much, though with sufficient detachment to remember and to criticise his demonstrative manners, his love of instructing others, and other little peculiarities. The 'friend' of 1798 must have been a young Cambridge don; and she was not likely to have had an opportunity of knowing individually more than one of that limited community, who did not naturally come in the Austens' way. It seems obvious to link the two allusions together; and if this is correct, we have identified one of the admirers of our heroine.[66]

More serious--but not very serious--was the attachment between her and Mrs. Lefroy's nephew, Tom Lefroy, afterwards Chief Justice of Ireland, which is mentioned somewhat cautiously in the Memoir, and the end of which is alluded to in the letter already quoted.

The young people became acquainted in the winter of 1795-6, and took to each other from the first. In a lively letter to Cassandra on January 9, 1796, Jane describes a ball at Manydown:--

Mr. H[eathcote][67] began with Elizabeth, and afterwards danced with her again; but they do not know how to be particular. I flatter myself, however, that they will profit by the three successive lessons which I have given them.

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that 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. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago. . . . After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well-behaved now; and as to the other, he has but one fault, which time will I trust entirely remove; it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.

A few days later she is writing again:--

Our party to Ashe to-morrow night will consist of Edward Cooper, James (for a ball is nothing without him), Buller, who is now staying with us, and I. I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat.

Friday.--At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.

Truly the 'prim' little girl of twelve had made considerable progress by the time she was twenty! Unfortunately, there is no further letter to tell us whether Tom made the expected proposal or not; but it is pretty certain that he did not, and indeed there is a good deal of doubt whether it was really expected. Possibly lack of means prevented its ever being a serious matter on his side. They can never have met again on the same intimate terms. If he visited Ashe at all in 1798, the conditions must have been different, for he was by that time tacitly engaged to the lady whom he married in March 1799. Tom Lefroy accordingly disappears from Jane's life, though he never forgot her till his death at the age of ninety. When he was an old man he told a young relation that 'he had been in love with Jane Austen, but it was a boy's love.'

As for Jane's feelings, the opinion in the family seems to have been that it was a disappointment, but not a severe one. Had it been severe, either Jane would not have joked about it, or Cassandra would have destroyed the letters.

But the day of Jane's one real romance was still to come: a romance which probably affected the flow of her spirits, and helped to disincline her for literary composition, for some time after its occurrence. In this case, as in the other, the author of the Memoir was rather reticent; but shortly after its publication his sister, Caroline Austen, was induced to put down in writing the facts as she knew them. No one could be better qualified to do this, for she was a person of great ability, and endowed with a wonderfully accurate and retentive memory. It will be seen also that she has the unimpeachable authority of Cassandra to support her; we can therefore feel confidence in the truth of the story, although date, place, and even the name[68] of the gentleman are missing.

Caroline Austen's account is as follows:--

All that I know is this. At Newtown, Aunt Cassandra was staying with us [i.e. with the writer and her mother, Mrs. James Austen] when we made acquaintance with a certain Mr. H. E., of the Engineers. He was very pleasing and very good-looking. My aunt was very much struck with him, and I was struck by her commendation; she so rarely admired strangers. Afterwards, at another time--I do not remember exactly when--she spoke of him as of one so unusually gifted with all that was agreeable, and said that he reminded her strongly of a gentleman whom they had met one summer when they were by the sea--I think she said in Devonshire; I don't think she named the place, and I am sure she did not say Lyme, for that I should have remembered--that he seemed greatly attracted by my Aunt Jane--I suppose it was an intercourse of some weeks--and that when they had to part (I imagine he was a visitor also, but his family might have lived near) 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 that the impression left on Aunt Cassandra was that he had fallen in love with her sister, and was quite in earnest. Soon afterwards they heard of his death. Mr. H. E. also died of a sudden illness soon after we had seen him at Newtown, and I suppose it was that coincidence of early death that led my aunt to speak of him--the unknown--at all. I am sure she thought he was worthy of her sister, from the way in which she recalled his memory, and also that she did not doubt, either, that he would have been a successful suitor.

This short history contains all the facts that are known. The rest must be left to imagination; but of two things we may be sure: the man whom Cassandra deemed worthy of her sister can have been no ordinary person, and the similarity in the ending of romance in the case of both sisters must have added a strong link of sympathy to the chain of love which bound their lives together.

A story is given in the Reminiscences of Sir Francis H. Doyle, to the effect that Mr. Austen, accompanied by Cassandra and Jane, took advantage of the Peace of Amiens, in 1802, to undertake a foreign tour. Whilst in Switzerland, they fell in with a young naval officer, who speedily became attached to Jane. His love was returned, and all seemed to be going smoothly. The party were making for Chamonix; but while the Austens kept to such high road as there was, their friend was to make his way thither over the mountains. The Austens reached Chamonix safely, but their friend never arrived, and at last news came that he had over-tired himself and died of brain fever on the way. The Austens returned to England, and Jane resumed her ordinary life, never referring to her adventures abroad. This story is given on the authority of a Miss Ursula Mayow, who heard it thirty or forty years later from a niece of Jane Austen's. Who this niece was we do not know, but she cannot have been either of the two who were grown up before their aunt's death, for they knew nothing of any such journey. As it stands, the story is impossible for many reasons. We give three:--

1. Such an important and unusual event as a tour in Switzerland could not have taken place without leaving traces behind, and there is no shadow of a tradition of it remaining in the family.

2. They could not possibly have afforded it. George Austen had given up his living, and was hoping to have £600 a year as a maximum for the family party of four persons, and they had just had the expense of setting up house in Bath.

3. We can almost prove an alibi. We know that they were at Dawlish in the year of the Peace of Amiens, and they certainly could not have made another lengthened absence.

The story, however, is interesting, for it fits in (so far as its main theme is concerned) with the authentic account given above of Jane's romance in the west, although the setting is completely different. It is quite possible that the fiction originated in an incorrect account--mis-heard or mis-repeated--of the true tale, mixed up with the fact (mentioned below) that the Henry Austens went abroad at this time.

One more incident shall be narrated: an incident which, though full of discomfort and inconvenience for the actors, yet lacks the note of tragedy contained in the last. It rests on the same excellent authority, with the additional safeguard that Caroline Austen's own mother must have known the circumstances exactly. The story is as follows:--

In November 1802 Cassandra and Jane came from Bath to pay a visit to their old home--then in the possession of their eldest brother James and his wife Mary. In the course of it, they went to spend a few days with some old friends in the neighbourhood. On the morning of Friday, December 3, they suddenly reappeared--their friends having driven them back--at an unlooked-for moment. All got out, and to Mrs. James Austen's surprise a tender scene of embraces and tears and distressing farewells took place in the hall. No sooner had the carriage disappeared than Cassandra and Jane, without offering any explanation, turned to her and said that they must at once go back to Bath--the very next day--it was absolutely necessary, and (as an escort for young ladies travelling by coach was also necessary) their brother James must take them--although Saturday was a day on which it was most inconvenient for a single-handed rector to go far from his parish; for he could not return till Monday, and there was hardly any time to provide for his Sunday duty. But Cassandra and Jane, in a manner very unlike their usual considerate selves, refused to remain till Monday, nor would they give any reason for this refusal. James was therefore obliged to yield and to go with them to Bath. In course of time the mystery was solved. One[69] of the family with whom they had been staying had made Jane an offer of marriage, which she accepted--only to repent of her action deeply before many hours had passed. Her niece Caroline's remarks are as follows:--

I conjecture that the advantages he could offer, and her gratitude for his love, and her long friendship with his family, induced my aunt to decide that she would marry him when he should ask her, but that having accepted him she found she was miserable. To be sure, she should not have said 'Yes' overnight; but I have always respected her for her courage in cancelling that 'Yes' the next morning; all worldly advantages would have been to her, and she was of an age to know this quite well (she was nearly twenty-seven). My aunts had very small fortunes; and on their father's death, they and their mother would be, they were aware, but poorly off. I believe most young women so circumstanced would have gone on trusting to love after marriage.
If this event occurred after the more romantic incident in the west of England it is possible that Jane had hardly as yet regained her wonted balance of mind and calmness of judgment. We have no further tale of the sort to tell. As time went on, she acquiesced cheerfully in the gradual disappearance of youth. She did not eschew balls, but was indifferent whether she was asked to dance or not: 'It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago; I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then. . . . You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance, but I was.'

She was to spend the remainder of her life in the centre of family interests, and by degrees to become engrossed in the exciting business of authorship. She could afford to laugh at the suggestion that she should marry the Rector of Chawton, and promise to do so, whatever his reluctance or her own. She retained to the end her freshness and humour, her sympathy with the young: 'We do not grow older, of course,' she says in one of her latest letters; and it is evident that this was the impression left with the rising generation of nephews and nieces from their intercourse with her.


[63] All the letters in this volume from Jane to Cassandra, as to the source of which no statement is made, are quoted from Lord Brabourne's collection.

[64] Sailor Brothers, pp. 233 et seq.

[65] North Cadbury is the correct name of the parish.

[66] The Blackall family had been established and respected in Devonshire since the episcopate of their ancestor, Offspring Blackall, Bishop of Exeter in the time of Queen Anne. Our Sam Blackall (an uncle of the same name had preceded him as Fellow of Emmanuel) was great-grandson of the Bishop; he became Fellow, and was ordained, in 1794; took the living of North Cadbury in 1812, and lived until 1842. His college record (which we owe to the courtesy of the Fellows) corresponds very well with our notices of him. He was evidently a sociable and lively member of the combination-room. The 'parlour-book' contains frequent mention of bets made by him on politics and other subjects, and his own particular pair of bowls still survive. He was tutor in 1811, when a great fire occurred in the College, and took his share in appealing for funds with which to rebuild it, application being chiefly made to those who agreed with the college politics in Church and State. He seems to have been one of a large family of brothers; another being John Blackall, of Balliol College, Oxford, for many years a distinguished Exeter physician, who did not die until 1860.

[67] Mr. Heathcote and Miss Elizabeth Bigg were married in 1798.

[68] Miss Hill (following a family MS.) calls him 'Blackall'; but it seems from what has been said above that the MS. confused two different men. Certainly Cassandra, in telling the story to her niece Caroline, did not give her that, or any other, name; for Caroline speaks of the tale as being--so far as she knew it--'nameless and dateless.' A possible alternative suggestion is that there were two Blackalls concerned: one being the Sam Blackall mentioned above, the other Jane Austen's admirer in the west of England.

[69] The author of the Memoir describes this gentleman as one who had the recommendations of good character and connexions and position in life--of everything, in fact, except the subtle power of touching her heart.