Everyone has heard of Jane Austen, and whether you like her or not, that’s solely up to you. For me, Jane Austen has this immense icon status, shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Her books highlight distinct social situations, and describe simpler times ruled by etiquette and primogeniture.
When I lived in England, I made several pilgrimages to Jane Austen haunts: Jane Austen’s home in Bath, the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, the house where she died in Winchester, her family’s cottage in Chawton ( Jane Austen’s House Museum,) and finally, her resting place in Winchester Cathedral. I was obsessed (and still am to a degree). And while I’ve put my obsession on hold (it flares when I head to book sales-looking for old editions of her works), there are some things that continue to peak my interest. Because there are so few of her possessions, (The Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton has a majority of them) I’m interested whenever there is a mention of a possible Austen artifact. And I realize that all of the above makes me sound crazy, but I’m ok with that.
Over a year ago, a peculiar turquoise and gold ring arrived at Sotheby’s in London.
Handwritten documentation from Jane’s niece, Eleanor Austen, dated 1863, states the following, providing a solid provenance:
“My dear Caroline, The enclosed ring once belonged to your Aunt Jane. It was given to me by your Aunt Cassandra as soon as she knew that I was engaged to your uncle. I bequeath it to you. God bless you!”
The ring’s provenance after that gets a bit crazy, since several of the women who obtained the ring never married or had children. Here it is for you from the Southeby’s catalogue:
Jane Austen (1775-1817); her sister Cassandra (1773-1845); given in 1820 to her sister-in-law Eleanor Austen (née Jackson), second wife of Rev. Henry Thomas Austen (d. 1864); given in 1863 to her niece Caroline Mary Craven Austen (1805-1880, the daughter of Rev. James Austen); her niece Mary A. Austen-Leigh (perhaps first to her mother Emma Austen-Leigh, née Smith); her niece Mary Dorothy Austen-Leigh; given to her sister Winifred Jenkyns on 27 March 1962; thence by descendents.
The Sotheby’s catalogue also included this write up with the ring at the time of auction:
An intimate personal possession of Jane Austen’s hitherto unknown to scholars, that has remained with the author’s descendants until the present day. The stone is probably odontalite, a form of fossilized dentine that has been heated to give it a distinctive blue colour, which came into fashion in the early 19th century as a substitute for turquoise. It is an attractive but simply designed piece, befitting not only its owner’s modest income but also what is known of her taste in jewellery. Fanny Price is given a gold chain by her cousin Edmund ‘in all the neatness of jewellers packing,’ with the comment that when making his choice, ‘I consulted the simplicity of your taste’ – in contrast to the more elaborately decorated chain that she had been given by Mary Crawford. Similar sentiments are found in one of Austen’s letters when she informed her sister Cassandra that ‘I have bought your locket…it is neat and plain, set in gold’ (24 May 1813).On Jane’s death her jewellery, along with other personal possessions, passed to Cassandra, and she gave a number of pieces as mementoes. After Jane’s death Cassandra wrote to Fanny Knight that Jane had left ‘one of her gold chains’ to Fanny’s god-daughter Louisa, and she appears to have given the best-known piece of jewellery known to have belonged to her sister, the topaz cross given to her by her brother Charles in 1801, to their mutual friend Martha Lloyd.
Three years after Jane’s death, Cassandra gave the ring to Eleanor Jackson, on hearing that she was about to marry her brother Henry…Eleanor, his second wife, was the niece of the rector of Chawton, Rev. Papillon, and seems to have been known to the Austen family for many years. Eleanor bequeathed the ring to her niece Caroline in the crucial year of 1869; this was the year that Caroline’s brother, James-Edward-Austen-Leigh, wrote A Memoir of Jane Austen, and Caroline herself had assisted this project. It seems likely that Eleanor felt that the ring should pass to a woman in the family who was deeply engaged in preserving Jane Austen’s memory, and who had many childhood memories of her. Caroline never married and the ring passed in turn to James-Edward’s daughter Mary, at which point it passed beyond the generation who had personal memories of Jane.
American Idol winner and singer Kelly Clarkson won the ring with an astonishing bid of $231,227. Unfortunately for Kelly, (and thankfully for English pride, and their love for their heritage), the Minister of Culture, Ed Vaizey, has placed an export ban on the ring (along with a ban on several other British items sold overseas). This means that the ring cannot leave England. The Minister has given the Jane Austen House Museum, or any other UK buyer, a chance to raise the money needed to purchase the ring. Kelly Clarkson can refuse the offer from whatever UK buyer decides to make a bid on the ring; however, the minister can refuse her refusal, making it extra complicated.
The export ban will last until September 30th, with the possibility of a further extension to the end of the year. If a private collector purchases the ring, the collector must lend the ring to a public institution for display 100 days each year.
If you are interested in keeping this ring in the UK, and more importantly, in a local museum’s collection, where it can be correctly cared for and preserved, then visit the Jane Austen House Museum’s website to donate. As of Saturday, August 17, they were still £35,200 short of their goal of £152,435 ($231,227) to purchase the ring from Kelly Clarkson.
Because of this article, I have now started my copy of Becoming Jane Austen, by Jon Spense, which I purchased at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton-the home where the majority of her writing took place.
On another note, 2013 marks the 200th year of publication of Pride and Prejudice!
BBC. ‘Jane Austen museum given £100k to match Kelly Clarkson’s ring bid.’ BBC. 12 August 2013. Web. 16 August 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-23664433
Burchall, Diana. ‘Jane Austen’s Ring.’ Austen Authors. 21 June 2012. Web. 23 August 2013 http://austenauthors.net/jane-austens-ring/
Cullinane, Susannah. ‘Kelly Clarkson purchase of Jane Austen ring hits snag.’ CNN. 2 August 2013. Web. 16 August 2013 http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/02/world/europe/uk-jane-austen-clarkson-ring/index.html
Jane Austen’s House Museum. http://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/
Kellogg, Carolyn. ‘Jane Austen’s ring goes up for auction.’ Los Angeles Times. 5 July 2012. Web. 23 August 2013 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2012/07/jane-austens-ring-goes-up-for-auction.html
Pederson, Nate. ‘Britain Bans Export of Jane Austen’s Ring.’ Fine Books & Collections. 12 June 2013. Web. 23 August 2013 http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2013/08/britain-bans-export-of-jane-austens-ring.phtml
Sotheby’s. ‘Lot 59: Austen, Jane, gold and gem set ring.’ Sotheby’s. 10 July 2012. Web. 24 August 2013 http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2012/english-literature-history-childrens-books-and-illustrations/lot.59.lotnum.html
Zincavage, David. ‘Jane Austen’s ring sold at London auction.’ Never Yet Melted. 11 July 2012. Weblog. 16 August 2013 http://neveryetmelted.com/2012/07/11/jane-austens-ring-sold-at-london-auction/