The acceptance and subsequent refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal of marriage is a much discussed fact in biographies of Jane Austen. It was a turning point in her life, and if she had not reconsidered overnight on the 2nd December 1802, we may never have had the pleasure of reading some of her novels.
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Marriage to Bigg-Wither would probably have denied Jane the time to devote to her writing, and her rejection of him is something we should all be thankful for, but how much do we actually know about Harris Bigg-Wither , the man who might have become Jane Austen’s husband? He has over the years had rather a bad press, described by Caroline Austen as:
‘very plain in person, awkward and even uncouth in manner’1
A crucial factor about Harris Bigg-Wither is, a few months after being turned down by Jane Austen he joined the North Hants Militia. We do not know his reason for doing this, he may have been planning it for a while, but we can speculate. It is possible he was full of patriotic zeal and military enthusiasm wanting to do his bit for his country at a time when war had recently been declared again between England and France. On the other hand it is also possible that a rebuffing of his proposal was considered by him as a humiliation which necessitated a removal, at least for a period, from his current society. The joining of a militia regiment would enable him to do this without loss of standing and at comparatively little expense to himself. Having failed with Jane he may also have felt he had a better chance of procuring a wife from outside of his immediate circle. Being an officer in the militia offered ample opportunities for balls and socialising in new areas and new societies:
‘For the officers, regimental life could with luck become an agreeable holiday, attendance at drill occupied the morning and some afternoons, but they could make and receive calls and mix in good society…. the officers give balls where ever the regiment went and local gentry entertained officers lavishly’2
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen makes it clear that the arrival of the militia in a community such as Meryton was seen as a good opportunity for girls to find husbands:
‘they could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr Bingleys large fortune the mention of which gave animation to their mother was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign’3
Harris did appear to be slightly anxious about entering militia life, as can be seen by this letter to Colonel Jervoise of 29th June 1803, when he worries about when he should make an appearance and how he should tie his hair
After Harris became Captain of his Company he removed to Lewes where the North Hants Militia were quartered. It was from Lewes that Lieutenant Colonel Frith (who was accompanied by his wife and daughter), wrote to Colonel Jervoise on 21st December 1803:
‘We have been rather gay here of late with balls, concerts, oyster clubs and regimental dinners’4
Harris must have presumably entered into these society functions, for on 15th January 1804, Frith informs Jervoise that his daughter is engaged to Harris Bigg-Wither
From this we can see that Harris was very keen to be married and did not want to wait. Merely thirteen months after being rejected by Jane Austen and six months after joining the militia he was again engaged. Harris must have won his father round, as on 24nd April 1804 Frith wrote again to Jervoise:
‘I find it will be necessary for me and Mr Wither to have a conference to finally arrange family matters, for which purpose he has politely requested that Mrs Frith, my daughter and myself should pay him a visit at Manydown’5
Matters must have been arranged satisfactorily, for on 2nd November 1804, Harris Bigg-Wither married Anne Howe Frith at East Dean, Sussex.
It appears that Lt Colonel Frith was happy with the prospect of his new son in law, if maybe a little hesitant about his manner: a letter from him to Colonel Jervoise, dated 19th November 1804 echoes the sentiments expressed by Caroline Austen:
Little time was wasted by the couple in starting a family: on 19th September 1805, 11 months after the marriage, Frith tells Jervoise:
‘Captain Wither I understand has informed you that his wife has brought him a fine boy, I have just heard from them, they are all well and the Captain this day for the first time has missed his ague’6
It seems at this point, having obtained a wife and started a family there was no reason for Harris to remain in the militia. He appears to have resigned sometime in 1806, though no letter of resignation has been found. A mention of Wither’s resignation appears in a letter from a fellow officer, Stephen Terry, on 21st Mar 1806, which talks of his own desire to resign, but should he defer resigning for a period he would get six months’ pay as did his colleagues Thistlethwaite and Wither. Terry continues in his letter to relate his reason for resigning, which were that he did not want to leave his wife and family claiming that militia life was not conducive to family life. Harris, now with a young family, probably felt the same.
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Harris Bigg-Wither and Anne had ten children and appear to have led a contented married life together. Would he have been as happy with Jane? We will never know. She was not attracted to or in love with him, but perhaps if she had seen him in his uniform, things might have been different.
‘This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming’ 7
Sarah Farley, archivist
This blog is an abridged version of an article which first appeared in the Spring 2017 HAT Newsletter
Hampshire Record Office, Jervoise of Herriard Collection, 44M69
Austen, Jane: Pride and Prejudice (Penguin: Clays Ltd, 1995)
Honan, Park: Jane Austen: Her Life (Phoenix: The Bath Press, 1997)
Weston JR: The English Militia in the Eighteenth Century (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965)