The quiet middle years

A move to Bath

In 1801, after Jane spent the first twenty five years of her life in Steventon, Jane Austen’s father made a decision to retire and move his wife and two daughters to Bath. In a later retelling of the move, Jane Austen’s niece, Caroline reports that Jane was very upset to hear this news. Biographers speculate that the prospect of leaving all that was familiar and dear to her about her country home for the hustle and bustle of city life did not appeal to her. Interestingly, Bath is mentioned in all of her novels, and provides the setting for parts of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

A time of upheaval

There is no doubt that the move to Bath, and later to Southampton, was a time of change and emotional upheaval for Jane Austen:

  • Between the years of 1801 and 1809, Jane Austen, her sister and parents moved several times, making extended visits to family
  • In 1804, Mrs. Lefroy, Jane’s cherished older friend, died unexpectedly
  • Jane’s father died in 1805
  • The Reverend Austen’s death left Jane in a vulnerable state financially and made her dependent on her brothers.

Staying single

Painting of Jane by CassandraJane Austen never married. It is quite possible that her parents moved to Bath in the hopes of increasing their daughters’ chances of finding husbands. In 1802, Jane Austen received a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg Wither, the son of family friends. Austen accepted, only to change her mind and withdraw her acceptance the very next day. She understood that the threat of poverty was a good argument for a woman to marry, but was unwilling to enter into a loveless marriage.

Her sister Cassandra never married either. She was engaged to Tom Fowle for five years, but in 1797, before they could be married, he died of a fever. The two sisters were close friends and confidantes. They shared a bedroom for their entire lives and Jane died with her head in Cassandra’s lap.

A period of silence

In stark contrast to her productive years at Steventon, Jane Austen wrote very little during this period. She made a revision of Susan (later Northanger Abbey), and a draft of a novel entitled The Watsons, which was never finished. Some cite depression as the reason for this lack of productivity. At the very least, it is reasonable to assume there was enough turmoil in her life to distract her from writing.

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