Jane Austen – Single Traveler
By Gretchen Kelly
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen
“It is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her.” – also Jane Austen
The author of Pride and Prejudice, that universally beloved book of feisty first love and ultimate married bliss was never married herself.
“She basically never found anyone good enough for her,” Tom Carpenter, Curator and Trustee of the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton, is telling me as we sit, drinking tea, by the large fireside in Jane’s own kitchen. “But it wasn’t for lack of trying,” he adds mischievously, pointing to a stack of Xeroxed letters in a back office. “Those are all letters to and from her…well in those days they called them gentlemen callers, but you would say, “boyfriends,” wouldn’t you?”
I smile to myself, thinking of everyone’s favorite “spinster aunt,” Austen with a bevy of boy-toys spread throughout the Hampshire countryside. Carpenter, an elegantly turned out English gentleman whom Jane would be proud to have as major domo of her cozy cottage home, explains that Jane often traveled in the area to visit friends, go to balls and to see her favorite “gentleman callers.”
The most serious of these in her early years (she had other amorous encounters and a proposal of marriage—which she turned down–later on) was Tom LeFroy. Tom was a law student who had come from Ireland in 1796 to visit his uncle in the Hampshire town of Steventon where Austen’s father was the village rector. The recent film, “Becoming Jane,” was the poignant almost-but-not-quite love story between Jane (Anne Hathaway) and Tom (James McAvoy). In fact, it’s because of Anne Hathaway, that I’m here sipping Earl Grey with my own Tom in Jane’s own house.
Interviewing Hathaway at a screening of the film, I asked her if she’d been to Chawton or to Bath to research her role. She told me that she’d been quartered in London and had planned to come to Hampshire on a special visit. “The curator (Carpenter) wrote me and told me that the fire would be laid and the staff would be on call whenever Miss Austen cared to return,” Hathaway said. She went on to tell me that it was one of her biggest disappointments that she got sick and then the production schedule prevented her from making that visit. I, however, fueled with Anne’s good intentions, was not so deterred.
“Please tell Miss Austen/Hathaway that whenever she would like to make that call, she will find her staff and her house waiting for her as ever,” Carpenter says with only a hint of irony in his voice. I make a mental note to do just that the next time I’m taking tea with Anne Hathaway and press the curator for more of the true story of Austen’s love affair with LeFroy.
He describes a series of missed chances, a final snub by LeFroy who seemed to have more lucrative marriage plans in mind, and reads me a letter from Austen in which she basically cuts him down to size for bad fashion sense and says and he wouldn’t be suited to her anyway.
He went on to obscurity in Ireland and she went on to make a living by her pen, becoming one of the best beloved authors of all time. Somehow I think Jane got the better end of the bargain.
“She knew her own mind,” Carpenter says as he shows me around to the back of the house where Jane’s own donkey cart is still kept. I’m amazed at how small it is and in what good condition. “But she was hardly a wallflower. I like to think of her visiting her admirers, dancing in her best dress at the ball.” Somehow I think that this Tom has his own crush on Jane, who although single, would never, I felt, have defined her status as “alone.”
Though Austen moved to Bath and traveled to the West of England she came back here to Hampshire and lived in this house with her family until just before her death at age 41. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral and has a plaque dedicated to her memory in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
But it’s here in this house, kept as it was in Jane’s day, that you feel her spirit most closely. A quilt she made by hand, her writing desk, a topaz cross she wore and her own hearth, here in Carpenter’s office, bring her life into intimate focus.
I finish my tea and somehow feel that Jane is an unseen hostess, standing benevolently behind me as I scribble my notes in a journal my own “Mr. Darcy” has just given me earlier that day. I’m no Austen, but I do make my living as a writer, on my own and on my own terms. If marriage eventually changes that I think, looking up at my British boyfriend who is proudly watching me conducting my interview, that will be OK. But if not, I will just sit down and write my own book.
Visiting Jane’s Hampshire and Bath
Tom Carpenter recommends the Hidden Britain Jane Austen tour of Hampshire which takes travelers to Steventon (her birthplace and first home) and to Chawton and the House Museum.
The Jane Austen Centre in Bath is dedicated to bringing Austen’s middle years in Bath to life. The Centre includes a wonderful Regency Tea room (where you can have a “Tea with Mr. Darcy” unfortunately sans Mr. Darcy himself) and a fully stocked gift shop.
The Jane Austen Festival (September 19th to 28, 2008) features a costume parade, dance classes and a town full of potential Mr. Darcys. The British Pullman train will be running a special Jane Austen service during the festival.
The marvelous Jane Austen House Museum is the not-to-be-missed stop on the Jane Austen tour.
Connect with other Austinites at the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Many thanks to Tom Carpenter for the tea and sympathy!
More Great SMW Articles