Becoming Jane viewers might not like John Warren who wrote the Judge the nasty letter (in fact, Warren was a pretty much decent guy who drew a sketch of Tom Lefroy and gave it to Jane Austen – letter 9 January 1796), but some viewers develop a sense of sympathy towards poor (well, rich) Mr. Wisley. I consent. I admit that I was not charmed by Laurence Fox’s Mr. Wisley during my first screenings, but then, upon watching the Husbands and Lovers scene again and again in YouTube, he somehow grew in me. Moreover, his last scene with Jane after he ditched his aunt Lady Gresham was touchy. Jane Austen and Mr. Wisley finally understood each other; they parted as friends.
But mind you dear friends, there was no Mr. Wisley in the real Austenian landscape (nor Lady Gresham for that matter). This sensitive guy was created purposely for Becoming Jane, to be Tom Lefroy’s rival. Laurence Fox did his job well; Mr. Wisley was indeed awkward in comparison to James McAvoy’s Tom Lefroy. And when I flipped through David Nokes’ Jane Austen: a Life (1997), I was struck by another ‘awkward’ friend of Jane Austen, a real person this time. He was Harris Bigg-Wither (1781-1833), heir of Manydown Park of Hampshire.
In page 251, Nokes describes Harris as ‘tall, clumsy and awkward, he would shamble through the house, or lounge on a sofa, adding little to the general conversation.’ Caroline Austen even said that Harris was ‘very plain in person – awkward & even uncouth in manner – nothing but his size to recommend him – he was a fine big man – but one need not look about for secret reasons to account for a young lady’s not loving him.’ (Nokes, 1997, p. 258).
Well… that was Mr. Wisley to me. And the fact that in the movie Jane Austen finally accepted Mr. Wisley’s proposal for a very short time (if not hours) before she met Tom Lefroy again in the forest makes me think that perhaps Mr. Wisley’s character was inspired a bit by Harris Bigg-Wither.
Now, to Harris. As I said, he was the heir of Manydown Park, a great house in Hampshire. Jane and Cassandra befriended Harris’ sisters and often stayed in
In 1801, the Austens moved to
Except for Jane. She went to bed, but might not sleep after all. It was in Manydown in January 1796 that she danced with Tom Lefroy in such a ‘profligate’ manner. And now, almost seven years later, she accepted a proposal in the same house. But not from Tom.
We will never know Jane’s train of thought that night, it is possible that she talked with Cassandra about it. In any case, the very first thing she did the next morning was finding Harris and, again in private, cancelled their engagement. Afterwards, Jane and Cassandra simply could not stay longer in Manydown. The Bigg sisters ordered the carriage to take the Austen girls back to Steventon, where Jane later asked her brother James to take her home to
Apparently, Harris dealt with his broken heart well. On
I admire Jane Austen for her decision. She could easily succumb to the grandeur of
Nokes, D. 1997, Jane Austen: A Life, Fourth Estate, London.
Tomalin, C. 2000, Jane Austen: A Life, Penguin Books, London.
Pic 1: Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), from BBC UK
Pic 2: Harris Bigg-Wither, from the Manydown site