Historical women without children: Jane Austen

By Victoria Fryer 

Jane AustenI recently wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert and the making of deliberate choices. And sometimes I forget how fortunate we are to be in a situation in which we, as women, have more financial opportunities to make those decisions for ourselves.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. One of our most revered classic authors, Jane Austen (1775-1817), made her deliberate decision to remain unmarried—and subsequently did not have children—in an age during which women typically were not independent. Instead, they were taken care of by their fathers, husbands, or brothers.

Austen was fortunate in that she had a very supportive family—not only in that they did everything they could to ensure she could pursue her writing career, but they also provided for her as needed so she did not have to enter into a marriage for financial security.

In 1802, a childhood friend of the family named Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to Austen. She accepted. Bigg-Wither came from a wealthy family, and perhaps she believed marrying him would be the sensible thing for herself and her family. But, in what little is known about Austen’s personal life, she never expressed any affection or love for the man. The day after his proposal, she rescinded her acceptance.

One of the recurring themes in Austen’s novels is that of women’s financial dependence upon men, and the subsequent pressure to make a good marriage so as to be provided for and not bring burden onto her family.

In fact, the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice seems to hint at this theme—if from the other perspective: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

From Austen’s choice to rescind her acceptance of Bigg-Wither’s proposal, and from certain readings of her novels, it can be speculated that she didn’t want to lose her own agency by becoming the wife of a man she did not love, just to be financially secure.

And security was not always easy for Austen, her mother, and her sister. After their father George died in 1805, their financial situation became uneasy, despite the help of the girls’ brothers. But as the family found a way to make ends meet, Austen dedicated herself more fully to her writing—a task her family fully supported and went out of their way to make possible.

Though it’s difficult to say if she was truly happy, she’s certainly an example of a woman who made a deliberate decision to follow her heart instead of following the typical path of women partnering for (often necessary) financial reasons.

Victoria Fryer is a 31-year-old writer and content strategist. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two pit bulls. You can find her on Twitter @extoria.


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