Block 28: Crossroads for Harris Bigg-Wither by Georgann Eglinski
Harris Bigg-Wither (1781-1833)
Romantic marriages were not the norm in Jane Austen’s England, where class, family, money and social standing motivated upperclass mothers to settle their daughters in a family saturated in wealth or titles.
Vintage Embroidered picture
Faded gentry like the Austens had less lofty goals. A good home was an attractive trade, personified in the character of Charlotte Lucas who marries Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.
Recent embroidered picture of Mr. Collins and
Charlotte Lucas by Willow Tree Stitcher
Jane came close to making a similar trade when she accepted the proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither, younger brother of her friends Alathea and Catherine Bigg. While spending a winter holiday with the family at their estate Manydown Park, almost-27-year-old Jane received a proposal from 21-year-old Mr. Bigg-Wither, heir to the estate. With that proposal came promise of a secure future, a mansion and a respected place in local society. Jane accepted.
Jane often visited her childhood friends at
Manydown Park. Illustration by Ellen Hill.
…And immediately had second thoughts. It may have been his youth and unromantic demeanor, but I like to think that she realized she would also be trading independence for the conventional status of helpmeet, mother, hostess, and femme covert, a covered woman with no legal rights.
The Dancing Master’s Ball by Isaac Cruickshank.
Jane Austen and Harris Bigg-Wither grew up dancing at Manydown.
Despite Cousin Eliza’s falling for Henry Austen who was ten years younger, shy younger brothers of one’s girlfriends rarely excite romantic feelings in 27-year-olds.
Silk embroidered picture
Jane was quite familiar with the strict social rules for engagements and proposals. Her novels are based on the prevailing standards of romance, love and propriety. A woman might never declare her feelings first. The man had the right to declare his love or admiration and ask for her hand. She had the right to refuse gracefully.
Illustration for Northanger Abbey by Charles E. Brock
Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey compares marriage to dancing: “In both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal.”
Crossroads by Dustin Cecil
Jane’s acceptance and then rejection was right on the edge of propriety. Women were permitted to change their minds without completely ruining their reputations. Men breaking engagements could be considered a cad and sued for “breach of promise.”
The whole matter was mortifying. Jane’s social faux-pas forced her to cut her visit short. She and Cassandra hurried back to Steventon, a few miles away, and then on to their home in Bath.
Fashion Plate 1808
Mr. Bigg-Wither’s sisters were miffed about the broken engagement but the long-term friendship revived after a cool period between the families. Two years after Jane rejected Mr. Bigg-Wither he married another woman. Alathea and Catherine moved household to Winchester and were very kind when Jane was afflicted by her last illness, helping her find a place to stay near her doctor in the larger city.
Crossroads, an old pattern given the name by the Needlecraft Supply Company in 1938, can represent Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal and Jane’s night of indecision. At this crossroads she again chose an independent path.
Cutting a 12” Block
A - Cut 4 squares 5”.
B - Cut 12 squares 2-3/8”. Cut each in half with a diagonal cut to make 2 triangles.
You need 24 triangles.
C - Cut 3 squares 4-1/4”. Cut with 2 diagonal cuts to make 4 triangles.
You need 12 triangles.
D - Cut 1 square 3-1/2”.
Crossroads by Becky Brown
Illustration by Hugh Thomson
See an essay in PDF form at Jane Austen’s House Museum site about women, courtship and power.