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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Jane Austen... Why Didn't She Marry?

"Jane Austen... Why Didn't She Marry?" was the title of an amusing and well-attended talk given recently at the Museum by Diana Shervington (pictured left). Diana, a long-time Lyme Regis resident, is well-qualified to speak on this subject: her maternal and paternal grandmothers were both granddaughters of Jane Austen's brother Edward. Diana has a wealth of knowledge that has been handed down orally within her family, as well as being fortunate enough to inherit several items of memorabilia that were owned by Jane herself.

Diana began her talk by pointing out that Jane Austen was well-acquainted with the opposite sex. She had six brothers and only one sister, and while she was growing up there were always other boys in the house who were being tutored by her father. So she grew up surrounded by boys! She enjoyed their company, and understood their interests and sense of humour... an understanding she later used to great effect in her writing.

Over the years, Jane had four suitors that we know about. There may have been others, since all her intimate papers were burnt after her death by her sister Cassandra. Jane's first, and arguably most serious, affair was with a student from Dublin named Tom Lefroy. Jane recorded how the two of them did all the most shocking things in the way of dancing and sitting together! Unfortunately Tom was a sensitive young lad, and felt that the other people in Jane's circle were always laughing at him... so he fled back to Dublin. He later became a successful politician.

Jane's other suitors all fell by the wayside for one reason or another. Number Two, the son of an apothecary from Sidmouth, was tragically killed in a riding accident. Suitor Number Three got as far as proposing to Jane, and she even said Yes! But the following morning she changed her mind... after all, the fellow was a hopeless dancer and he didn't like reading -- and Jane's two great passions in life were books and dancing! Suitor Number Four was another Devonian: a young man Jane met while on holiday in Dawlish. He was a nature-lover who got on famously with Jane... but her family couldn't stand him! Jane's mother even went so far as to say he had altogether the wrong sort of nose!

So why didn't Jane Austen marry? One factor, of course, is that she had difficulty finding someone who was on the same intellectual level as herself (not to mention a good dancer)! Another is that she was a firm believer in Love... that people shouldn't marry if they weren't completely in love with each other. She wrote to her niece (the daughter of her brother Edward) that if there was any doubt in a woman's mind as to whether to say Yes, then she should say No!

Diana ended her talk by reciting the poem "Jane's Marriage", written by Rudyard Kipling in honour of Jane Austen -- one of his literary idols.

Amongst the many valuable items that Diana brought to the Museum, and scattered rather casually over glass display cases containing fossils and other geological specimens, were a set of tiddlywinks that had been played with by Jane, and a glove that had been worn by her. The glove is illustrated below.

For more information on Jane Austen's connections with Lyme Regis, see the Jane Austen page of the main Museum website. If you're interested in attending one of the many excellent talks held at the Museum, visit the Events page... or keep an eye on this blog!