It is a truth universally acknowledged (get it?) that Jane Austen was a master at observing the nuances of society, blending the good with the bad, and producing enchanting tales starring some of the most beloved heroines in literature. Happily for me, she found a way to weave jewelry into that equation by making subtle references to its ability to reveal the wearer’s character. Think of Lydia Bennett’s vanity and poor judgement flaunting her ill-gotten engagement ring in contrast to Fanny Price’s sweet and sentimental preference for Edward’s modest gold chain in Mansfield Park. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, do yourself a favor and buy this.
Austenphiles (yes, that’s a thing) will be happy to know that three pieces of the author’s own jewelry are on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton. All have an elegant simplicity that must be a window into the life she led and the person she was. So much jewelry from the Georgian period was taken apart and remounted when the fashion changed, so we are lucky that her family cherished these pieces so future generations can appreciate them.
Jane’s brother Charles Austen was a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars, and won prize money for capturing a French ship. Jane and her sister Cassandra were the reluctant but happy recipients of gold and topaz crosses from their brother after his windfall. In a letter to her sister in 1802, Jane writes:
“Charles… has received 30 pounds for his share of the privateer, and expects 10 pounds more – but of what avail is to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaze (sic) crosses for us – he must be well scolded…”
While she was shocked that he bought them such a gift, she clearly treasured the cross and alluded to it in Mansfield Park – Fanny Price received an amber cross from her sailor brother too.
No record of the exact provenance of the cross exists.
When Sotheby’s announced in 2012 that it would be selling a gold and turquoise ring that has remained in the Austen family since Jane wore it, everyone was curious where the jewel would end up. Could you ever imagine that the dark-horse successful bidder was none other than American pop star and self-professed Austen fanatic Kelly Clarkson? The singer was the successful bidder at 152,450 GBP ($231,227) against a presale estimate of 20,000-30,000 GBP.
While Jane Austen’s House Museum was unable to secure the funds to best the American Idol winner at auction, with the help of the UK Culture Minister (he placed a temporary export ban on the ring citing national treasure status), and an anonymous donation, they made a private deal with Clarkson after the auction that kept the ring in England.
Clarkson seemed pleased with the arrangement (she even wore a replica when she sang at President Obama’s inauguration), and the ring is now happily on display at the museum.
The simple cabochon blue turquoise set in gold was possibly a gift from her brother, but romantics will hope that it was given to her Thomas Lefroy – her only rumored love interest. Jane left it to her sister Cassandra upon her death in 1817. Cassandra gave it to her brother Henry’s finance, Eleanor, in 1820. Eleanor bequeathed it to her niece Caroline before her death, and the lot at Sotheby’s included a note from Eleanor to Caroline. Caroline never married and passed it to her niece Mary.
Glass and Ivory Bracelet
Arguably the least compelling of the three pieces, Austen’s six strand bracelet consisted of glass beads, ivory beads and pinchbeck (a gold substitute made of copper and zinc popular in the Georgian period). While no record of its provenance exists, the piece was donated to the museum by Helen Wilder in 1973. It was given to her by her cousin Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh in 1912 whose father was Jane Austen’s nephew.