Monday, July 23, 2012

The Mystery of Jane Austen's Ring

 Jane Austen's gold and turquoise ring sold by Sotheby's London this month.

The Mystery of Jane Austen's Ring


Earlier this month this exquisite thing sold at  Sotheby's, the venerable London auction house, for 152,450 pounds, which works out to about $240,000 or what could get you a small house in some places. The thrilling detail that jacked the price 10,000 times over what may have been the turquoise and gold ring's intrinsic value?  It once belonged to Jane Austen and has been making its way through the top bureau drawers and safe deposit boxes of her female heirs for nearly 200 years until a final anonymous shoot on the family tree decided to cash in on the author's enduring and bankable popularity. It was previously and deliciously unknown to Austen scholars.

The buyer, also anonymous and one of eight contenders, bid by phone.  (The ring had been given a very low estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 pounds.)  Three first editions, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and  a combined volume of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, also changed hands. A copy of Emma failed to make the reserve price. All books bore the bookmark of one Bridget Mary McEwen.
This first edition of Pride and Prejudice sold for 22,500 pounds at Sotheby's As the auction's catalogue noted "Twenty million copies of Pride and Prejudice have been sold worldwide since publication, and it continues to inspire multiple dramatic, cinematic and other adaptations."

Although the ring's auction and sale were duly noted in newspapers and websites, for Janeites (and I count myself a humble amateur among them)  news of the ring brought equal parts thrills and questions. Like Elizabeth Bennet looking for Mr. Wickham at the Netherfield ball, I searched in vain through the farthest reaches of the internet for the identity of either buyer or seller or any tiny shred of information on the gorgeous piece. Nothing substantial surfaced, although if the last know owner, Winifred Jenkyns followed the tradition of ownership set by her ancestors, the seller would be one of Jenkyns's female relations. More on that below.

 But still. It thrills. It was Jane Austen's ring. She wore it on her talented  fingers. Did she love it? Hate it? Wear it everyday? When she wrote? Or only on special occasions?  Balls? Concerts in Bath? Church?  Where did she get it?

Kiera Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in the recent film adaption of Pride and Prejudice.

It was auctioned in what Sotheby's called "a contemporary box," which looked like brown leather box with a cute little metal latch.  Inside the lid in beautiful, curlicue Regency style letters is the jeweler's imprint, "T. West / Goldsmith/Ludgate Street/ Near St. Paul's." Can you imagine owning such a thing? In The Guardian, Sotheby's expert Gabriel Heaton is quoted surmising that the box is a clue that Jane's brother Henry purchased the ring. "The ring is in a box fashioned by a goldsmith in the City of London, and Henry worked as a banker there so would have been in the right place and had the money to buy it," he said. Hmm. If Henry bought it, was it a gift or something she asked him to get for her?

The very most romantic among us may want to believe it was a present from Tom Lefroy, so sexily portrayed by actor James McAvoy in the loosely based on reality biopic Becoming Jane and the young man about whom she admits to well, quite liking. In an oft-quoted letter to her older sister and confidant, Cassandra, Jane famously wrote of dancing and flirting with him at a ball and said, "imagine everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together." But Lefroy was a young law student who met up with a young Austen while visiting  a branch of his family in the country. The family expected him to continue studying law and marry an heiress, which he did. Theirs was a brief flirtation. Even if one wants to entertain the idea that the ring came from him, there is no record to support the idea.

Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy as Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy in Becoming Jane.

Yet as Janeites know. Cassandra torched a bunch of Jane's letters after she died. Could the history of the ring have gone up in smoke?  Does the unnamed family member who auctioned off the ring have a choice tidbit she is keeping to herself? For now, she is letting the ring, the box it came in and accompanying letters tell the tale.

Provenance is auction speak for the ownership trail. The letter (pictured with the ring above) was written in 1863 by Eleanor Austen, who was the second wife of Jane's brother Henry. According to Sotheby's there is also an address on the back and a seal. In the letter she gives the ring to her niece Caroline.  Eleanor Austen wrote,  "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."  Wow! Sotheby's says there are also "three further notes by Mary Dorothy Austen-Leigh" detailing the ring's later stewards, from 1935-1962 as it was handed down ending with a woman named Winifred Jenkyns. If Jenkyns followed the recorded tradition, it seems she would have passed it on to a younger female relation.

As to who will be adding their name to this privileged list of owners?  Software pioneer and Austenophile Sandy Lerner is one suspect. She has the money. She bought Chawton House Library, the manor house  once owned by Jane's brother Edward and made it into a museum of early women writers in an effort to better understand the climate in which Austen created.  She has said the Japanese are huge collectors. Could the buyer by someone from Tokyo? Or could it be a suddenly flush Chinese industrialist? An American movie star? Who knows?

Closeup of the ring from Sotheby's.

Even surrounded by all these questions, the ring does speak to us about the much scrutinized author. She was slim. It's a British size K 1/2, which corresponds to an American size 5 1/2,  a little smaller than the average size 6 ring. It also has a sizing band across the back to make it even smaller, for her or a later owner.

The stone is turquoise, which was exciting for me and other Janeites as well. (See Diana Birchall's post here on the excellent Austen Authors website.)  Like Miss Austen and Miss Birchall, I was also born in December and turquoise is our birthstone.   I often wear it often. Now whether or not this is why Austen had a turquoise ring is also a question. The tradition of birthstones dates theoretically to ancient times but according to gemstone history was experiencing something of a rival in 18th century Poland. Had this fad reached England by the Regency period?

Two of my favorite pairs of turquoise earrings.

Startlingly contemporary in its simple design, Austen's ring looks like something you would find in boutique jewelry store, carrying handmade things, confirming that in both jewelry and prose Miss Austen's unerring taste endures.

The ring is one new tidbit about the author who 195 years after her death continues to inspire (Nora Ephron was working on an American version of the British Lost In Austen series when she died.)  The other is this cunning and controversial picture, known as the Rice Portrait, which Austen's descendants have long held to be the 13-year-old Jane and the omnipotent British National Gallery has long held not to be Jane. (Read about the whole story on the Rice family's blog here.) However, lately swayed by new evidence - photos of the painting taken before some restorations occurred in the early part of the last century which obscured the name of the artist, Ozias Humphrey, and his subject, Jane Austen - art experts are siding with the family.


Isn't she adorable? What would that wonderfully intelligent, impish teen do with iMovie, Twitter and Instagram today? Cassandra was also painted in a companion portrait. According to the Rice's website that painting might be somewhere in France. Wouldn't you love to see Jane and Cassandra together some day in a museum? Smiling out at us, so many secrets intact.

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