3. Harris Bigg-Wither
The story of Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal to Jane must have baffled her biographers for years. What made Jane Austen accept an offer of marriage and then turn it down overnight?
Harris Bigg-Wither. Image from Wikipedia.
In December 1802, Jane and Cassandra were invited to stay with their friends, the Bigg sisters, at Manydown Park. Alethea and Catherine Bigg were childhood friends of the Austen children and Jane and Cassandra enjoyed staying with them. Their brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, was heir to the Manydown estate, and Jane remembered him from her childhood as being a plain and awkward boy with a stammer. He had by now grown somewhat more confident and was of a good height.
On the eve of 2 December, Harris proposed to Jane and was accepted. She was fond of him, liked the family, and was comfortable at Manydown, being so close to Steventon. Everyone rejoiced and celebrated the engagement that evening. However, Jane must have spent the night going over her decision, considering the fact that Harris was 6 years younger than her, she was not attracted to him, and that she could not be happy being married to someone she didn’t love. She explained her change of heart to Harris in the morning, and asked her brother James to take her and Cassandra back to Steventon immediately and from there on home to Bath.
The situation must have been awkward for both the families, but fortunately the Austen and the Bigg sisters’ friendship was not affected by it. Later, though, Caroline Austen asked Jane’s biographer, James Edward Austen-Leigh, not to mention the event in his memoirs, as it would have caused embarrassment to the family.
No doubt, Jane must have occasionally regretted her decision. As mistress of a large estate, her future would have been secured, she would have been able to help her ageing parents and sister, and she would have lead a life of comfort. However, for Jane, marrying without love was not an option. As she advised her niece Fanny later on, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.” And she certainly did not love Harris Bigg-Wither, as her niece Caroline remembered in her old age.