Topic: Harris Bigg-Wither

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The young sulky face staring out from an early 19th-century pastel portrait is Harris Bigg-Wither, Trish Hall's great-great grandfather and, for a handful of hours, Jane Austen's fiance.

Jane Austen was a woman who firmly believed in love. She loved her sprawling family and her circle of close friends. She loved writing. The subject of love fills her books, inspiring characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, propelling lives and fuelling plots.

Love also dispatched a storm through the outwardly calm Me of this modest and very private woman - an emotional tempest which eventually spread ripples as far as New Zealand. For Trish Hall, of Hororata, Jane Austen remains an central figure in her family history; a history with distant echoes in the Currently screening BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice".

There is something vaguely Austenesque about Hororata on a brilliant spring morning. The houses are mellow, the gardens filled with daffodils and cherry blossom. The landscape is bucolic and peaceful. One half expects to meet the five Bennet sisters striding across the fields, bonnets a-flutter, or hear the rattle of a carriage splashing through the ford bearing the obnoxious Bingleys to yet another social coup de grace.

In Trish Hall's dining room, pages of family history are spread out on the dining table. Somewhere above the genealogical tables and the photograph of a large 18th-century house hovers the diminutive, neat presence of Jane Austen and the larger, more cumbersome figure of the man who briefly loved her, or thought that he did, 195 years ago. The young sulky face staring out from an early 19th-century pastel portrait is Harris Bigg-Wither, Trish Hall's great-great grandfather and, for a handful of hours, Jane Austen's fiance.

In 1802, Harris was the 20 year-old-son of a distinguished Hampshire family with a coat of arms and a family motto ("I grow and wither both together.") Bigg-Withers had lived, married, and died at Manydown for 400 years, producing magistrates, squires, soldiers, and poets. Harris's father, Lovelace, former Deputy-Lieutenant of Hampshire was a genial, stocky widower with a face that less respectful tenantry said could have been very fine if a horse had not sat on it.

Jane Austen was the 26-year-old daughter of Reverend George Austen and his wife, Cassandra. The Rev Austen was descended from solidly obscure Kentish farming stock. His wife was a sharp-tongued, witty, and eloquent woman with aristocratic connections. Their seven children became a closely-knit and warm collection of personalities and ambitions - resourceful, intelligent individuals determined to make their way in the world, or at least within their own social orbit of it.

As the daughter of the rectory, Jane Austen was certainly considered a social notch below the Bigg-Withers. Harris's sisters, Catherine and Alathea, were among her oldest friends and she had been a frequent visitor to Manydown. Her arrival with her sister Cassandra on November 25, 1802, promised another pleasantly uneventful exchange of news and discreet gossip. "We spend our time here quietly as usual," she had written after an earlier visit. "One long morning visit is what usually occurs." Harris Bigg-Wither probably contributed little to the conversation. Apart from a stutter, he was gangling, awkward, and brusque - "very plain in person - awkward and even uncouth in manner", as someone once described him. Others remembered him as rude and uncommunicative.

In any case, Harris Bigg-Wither was hardly the perfect suitor for the witty, ironic, and quick Miss Jane Austen , who may have imagined herself to be on no more than cordial terms with Manydown's heir.
Harris obviously attached much more importance to his relationship with Miss Austen. Shortly after the Austen sisters' arrival, he proposed marriage to Jane on December 2, 1802. She accepted.

Historians still debate her reasons for agreeing to marry him. At 26 she was almost past marrying age for a woman of the early 19th century. The bleak landscape of spinsterhood loomed before her.

"Single women have a dreadful propensity to be poor," she wrote. Jane Austen was also a realist. She probably recognised that she would not marry Harris for love, but as a duty and an insurance against a penurious old age. Her books are filled with references to the strict social conventions of late Georgian England and the silent codes of conduct that governed them. Only two of her fictional heroines actually marry men who could ever be described as attractive. Everyone else walks down the aisle with solidly reassuring brother figures. Marriage, in the time of Jane Austen, could be a coldly cruel social obligation.

In the drawing room at Manydown on that late autumn day in 1802, she possibly debated the alternatives and decided to take the safer option. Harris, she may have told herself, could improve. They might even find love together.

Jane had already loved. A year before, she had spent a summer holiday with her family in the small Devon resort of Sidmouth. There she had met and fallen in love with a young gentleman. We know nothing about him except that he was young, charming, intelligent and handsome. He may have been a clergyman. Whatever he was, the anonymous suitor with Jane and she loved him. Her sister Cassandra thought that they were seriously in relationship blossomed, family approved. Then, after two or three weeks, Jane's admirer left Sidmouth. He would return, he told Jane. Within days, she received a letter informing her that he had died suddenly.

The story ends here. Jane, a prolific letter writer, did not write for many months, withdrawing from her friends and family. She never wrote or spoke about Sidmouth again.

The visit to Manydown was the first time she had visited friends since the tragedy. Perhaps her rapid acceptance of Harris Bigg-Wither's proposal was a reaction to the death of a man she genuinely loved. Here was a man of position and money, a man of considerable prospects, who loved her and offered her security, comfort, and possibly happiness.

"I am not a romantic, you know. I ask only a comfortable home. I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state," Elizabeth Bennet's best friend, Charlotte, comments on her marriage to the insufferable Mr Collins. Perhaps Jane felt the same emotion for a few hours. While Harris informed his father and family of his proposal and her acceptance, she thought alone in her room. As the house slept, she sat awake m darkness or in the light of a candle, considering the future as Mrs Jane Bigg-Wither.

By the time that Manydown's servants were preparing for another day, Jane reached a conclusion. She could not marry Harris. Nothing could exceed the misery of being bound to one while preferring another, she told her niece, Fanny, years later. She was not a passionate woman, but she was not shallow. She could not live a lifetime's lie by accepting Harris Bigg-Wither while recovering from the loss of a man she had genuinely loved.
Suffering from a "headake and fatigue", she walked slowly downstairs to break off the engagement. It was, one commentator said, the only time that Jane Austen would hurt anyone intentionally.

There were recriminations. Relationships between the Austen and Bigg-Wither households temporarily chilled after Cassandra and Jane returned home. Questions were asked and letters exchanged but Jane did not change her mind.

She never married. She remained a loving daughter, aunt, and friend. She was forgiven by Harris Bigg-Wither's sisters and returned to Manydown to stay. Her sharply ironic mind wrote six of the best English novels ever written. At 41, she died from Addison's Disease.

"The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her connections," her brother wrote on her grave in Winchester Cathedral.

And Harris Bigg-Wither? Two years later, he proposed and married Anne Howe Frith. They had 10 children. One of  their five sons, Charles, emigrated to Zealand with his wife and large family  settling in Nelson. Harris died of a stroke in 1833, and while the New Zealand branch of the family spread, Manydown and a neighbouring property were sold in 1871 to pay debts.

"I always knew about the connection but when I was younger I never paid much attenttion to it" says Trish Hall. "I read Pride and Prejudice' as a girl and I rember that I was bored. You somehow enjoy these things when you are older.

"There are echoes of what happened at Manydown in her books. When you read her you always get the impression of a  wonderful observer of human nature - a woman watching events, tongue in cheek and with a definite twinkle in her eye."

Harris Bigg-Wither's New descendants continue to flourish, only suppose what would have happended to Jane Austen if she had married the young man. "Pride and Prejudice'  by Jane Bigg-Wither certainly does not resounding literary ring.

Says Trish Hall: "Mr Darcy was possibly a more attractive man than Harris Bigg-Wither, but then our conceptions of attractivenes have changed."

The events at Manydown in 1802 are fascinating. Friends recently sent me clippings of a story which appear English newspaper about the connection. Even after 195 years  the story is still an exciting one.

Source The Press, 12 September 1996

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Harris Bigg-Wither

First Names:Harris
Last Name:Bigg-Wither
Date of Birth:1782
Date of Death:1833
Age at death:51
User Name:Selwyn Library