You may have read the news that Jane Austen’s ring is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s. Of all the various artefacts assocated with her, this must be one of the most important and meaningful, and it seems to have been previously almost unknown in the Austen world.
The ring’s provenance is that Jane, of course, left it to Cassandra, who gave it in 1820 to her sister-in-law Eleanor Jackson Austen, second wife of Rev. Henry Thomas Austen. Eleanor gave it in 1869 to her niece Caroline Mary Craven Austen (1805-1880, the daughter of Rev. James Austen). It then passed to her niece Mary A. Austen-Leigh; then her niece Mary Dorothy Austen-Leigh, who gave it to her sister Winifred Jenkyns in 1962. My Austen genealogist friend Ron Dunning tells me that Violet Winifred Jenkyns died in 1973, so there is a generation missing in this provenance. However, it seems that the ring has been in the family of Professor Richard Jenkyns, the Oxford classics professor who is the author of the sublimely written appreciation of Jane Austen, A Fine Brush on Ivory. Who is the exact seller, Sotheby’s does not say, though it is a family member.
More from the Sotheby’s catalogue, which can be perused here:
“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.”
The catalogue does not say who gave the ring to Jane; perhaps a tradition has come down in the family and it may yet be revealed. Also not mentioned is that turquoise was Jane Austen’s own birthstone, as her birthday was December 16. The fact that it was made from odontolite is interesting; odontolite (like cabochons, which are stones that have been polished rather than faceted) is out of fashion now, but the ivory or fossilized bone colored by proximity to copper/turquoise, is softer in color than turquoise itself. Judging from the picture it has an almost milky quality that’s gentler than the more piercing turquoise colors we see from New Mexico. The cheaper price also gives mute eloquence to Jane Austen’s modest financial situation, whether she bought the ring herself, or alternatively, if it was given to her as suitable for her circumstances.
This was published by Tiffany’s in 1870, showing that turquoise was associated with December at least as long ago as that:
So it seems possible that Jane Austen knew her birthstone to be turquoise; and perhaps one of her brothers gave her the ring. Or there may be a more romantic story. In any case, my research filled me with a desire to own a turquoise ring as much like hers as possible – particularly since my own birthstone is the turquoise. Where to find one? On eBay of course; but Jane’s design is really much too elegant and simple to find easily. This one on Etsy is the closest I can find so far:
Most of the rings available, even expensive ones, look so shoddy next to Jane Austen’s, as to give testimony to the delicacy and elegance of the jewellers’ work in her day.
Then I remembered that I actually HAVE an antique turquoise ring already. It belonged to my husband Peter’s great-grandmother Kobak, a Lithuanian Jewish woman who supported her family after her husband’s death as a travelling bookseller in Poland and Russia. She probably bought the ring around 1880. This certainly ties in with my research about Polish Jewish gem merchants, doesn’t it? And, to my surprise, when I went to look at the ring, I realized that it very well may be odontolite, like Jane Austen’s ring! It has that soft, robin’s-egg-blue colour. Doesn’t it look like that to you? You can also see that it has that old-fashioned little ring guard, very like Jane Austen’s.
A family ring
In Jane Austen’s novels, rings are signs of luxury, foolishness, and vanity, with only one exception. First we have Lydia, absurdly showing off her wedding ring:
“Oh! mamma, do the people hereabouts know I am married to-day? I was afraid they might not; and we overtook William Goulding in his curricle, so I was determined he should know it, and so I let down the side-glass next to him, and took off my glove and let my hand just rest upon the window-frame, so that he might see the ring; and then I bowed and smiled like anything.”
Also in Pride and Prejudice we have the vain and idle Mrs. Hurst:
“Mrs. Hurst, principally occupied in playing with her bracelets and rings, joined now and then in her brother’s conversation with Miss Bennet.”
Another frivolous and shallow character who has rings in the forefront of her mind is Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey:
“She saw herself at the end of a few weeks, the gaze and admiration of every new acquaintance at Fullerton, the envy of every valued old friend in Putney, with a carriage at her command, a new name on her tickets, and a brilliant exhibition of hoop rings on her finger.”
The exception to these frivolous examples is in Sense and Sensibility, in which the ring forms a rather ominous plot device. The ring, you will remember, is worn by Edward Ferrars:
“his hand passed so directly before her as to make a ring, with a plait of hair in the centre, very conspicuous on one of his fingers.”
The hair, of course, belongs to Lucy Steele, to whom he is secretly engaged. What would Edward’s ring have looked like? Here is an early 19th century English gold locket ring containing the plaited hair of Napoleon Bonaparte, shown on the Three Graces website:
This beautifully worked late Georgian gold ring was auctioned by Christie’s in 2009, with these notes: “When Napoleon was exiled, a second and final time, on St. Helena in 1815, he befriended the family of William Balcombe, and in particular the youngest daughter Elizabeth, who was called Betsy. According to her memoirs, before the family left the tiny 47 square mile island in 1818, Napoleon gave her a lock of his hair. Once ensconced in Devonshire, England, Betsy gav the memento to Sir John Sloane, a keen admirer and collector of all things relating to the Little General. He had a this ring made with an inscription engraved on the back citing the owner of the dark braided hair that rests beneath its crystal.”The hair is braided, as in Edward Ferrars’ ring, but is certainly far more ornate than anything Edward would have worn. Perhaps this one is closer:
But in our cogitations about rings of the period, we are straying away from Jane Austen’s own little bit of turquoise. At first I did not think it very pretty, but after thinking about it and examining the pictures I have come to see that it is in accordance with the simplicity of her perfect taste, and seems to reflect blue of a clear English sky on a soft summer day in Hampshire, long ago.
Now we only need Sandy Lerner to acquire it for Chawton, so we all can have the chance to gaze upon it in person!