A JOINT CONTRIBUTION FROM KAREN IEVERS AND DR SOPHIA HILLAN
At the beginning of the year, the story hit the headlines - an album of photographs purchased on eBay was found to contain previously unknown photos of Jane Austen’s family members. This discovery is one of the most important literary finds in recent years and we at the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation are delighted to feature a contribution from the album’s owner, Karen Ievers, and Dr Sophia Hillan, who has written extensively on the people featured in the photos.
My interest in collecting Victorian era photographs started only about a year ago, when in an effort to share some of my husband’s Irish “Big House” family history, I began posting 19th & early 20th century photographs from our family archives on my social media accounts.
Eventually I ran out of family photos to post and decided to look for historical photos from external sources, including eBay, where after logging into my account, I typed into the search field “Victorian photo album Ireland”. The first item to catch my eye was being offered by a US antique photograph dealer. The description was written as follows: “George A. Hill, Earl of Hillsborough [sic], Ireland, antique personal 120+ photo album 19c.”
Next to the description were at least a dozen scanned photographs of well-dressed men & women posing with their children, a unique Victorian wedding photo, and even an image of a handwritten 19th century manuscript in French. The sitters’ names were inscribed underneath each photograph. I decided to buy the album when I recognised the names of some Irish “Big-House” owners of historical importance and, though the album was beyond my budget, I made an offer of $1000 which, to my astonishment, the seller accepted almost immediately.
I then set about researching the inscribed names. I have always admired Jane Austen’s novels, but knew virtually nothing about the backgrounds of the Hill & Knight families prior to finding the album. Googling “Lord George Hill” I found a review from 2011 by Dr. Jerusha McCormack for The Irish Times on Dr. Sophia Hillan’s book, May, Lou & Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2011) and read that Lord George Hill of Donegal was married to not one, but two of Jane Austen’s nieces! The pieces of the puzzle all started to fall into place and I realised what a find I actually had.
When news about the Hill album finally broke in the media, the story went viral, reaching places that I never thought possible such as China and Iran. When the news about it finally died down, I had time to start looking for other “long lost” items and have since made some interesting finds: a long-lost miniature portrait of Cassandra Jane Knight/the 1st Lady George Hill who died in 1842; a portrait of novelist Jane Porter, whose father was born in Ireland; and most recently what may be a photo of Lady Wilde, “Speranza”, mother of Oscar Wilde.
The discovery of the Hill/Knight album has undoubtedly changed my life for the better and has led me on a personal journey of learning & self-growth. In the process, I have made some wonderful connections with Jane Austen fans and experts from around the world who have greatly enriched my life. In order to give something back, I have made tentative plans to exhibit the Hill album at Chawton House and Donegal Museum in Ireland, and it is my fervent hope that members of the public will enjoy the Hill album as much as I have.
Not long before her death, Jane Austen wrote of her niece Cassandra Jane Knight: “I always loved Cassandra, for her fine dark eyes and the sweetness of her temperament”. Yet when my book, May, Lou and Cass came out in 2011, Cassandra’s image remained elusive. Thanks to Karen Ievers, we can see not only the remarkable Hill album but also, at last, Cassandra’s “fine dark eyes”.
The album itself supplies an even more detailed series of images, showing Marianne (May) and Louisa (Lou) in the place most famously associated with Jane Austen, Chawton. We see Marianne — whose handwriting I believe it may be in the inscriptions beneath the photographs and, perhaps, of the French manuscript at the back of the album — walking with an older Lord George and her brother Charles outside St Nicholas’ Church, where Jane Austen also worshipped. It was Charles who, as a small boy, was left disconsolately excluded with May, Lou and Cass and the youngest, John, from the room where their older sisters were privileged to hear their aunt Jane reading her latest work. Now Charles, as Rector of Chawton, lived with Marianne at the bottom of the laneway up to their brother’s great house, much as the Austen women had a generation before. Also in that photograph is the first image I had ever seen of young George Hill, Louisa and Lord George’s only child, born when Louisa was forty-four, the child whose legitimacy, like his parents’ marriage, was called into question by Parliament.
Marianne’s wry wit and her love of the garden shine through her letters: here she is, her basket of cuttings on her knee, watching, with one quizzical eyebrow raised, her nephew George - who may just have been in a spot of bother. We see Jane Austen’s goddaughter Louisa, the noisy, uninhibited child Jane Austen named in her will who, at eight years old, heard Aunt Jane firmly rejecting Aunt Cassandra’s suggestion of a change to the ending of Mansfield Park. She is there before us, merrily laughing up at the camera.
The Ievers/Hill photographs take us from portraits and sketches of the Regency to the pioneering days of Victorian photography. Many appear to date from 1858-59 and show us Lord George and Cassandra’s daughters Norah and Cassandra Hill; Norah first appearing at the time of her engagement and marriage in 1859 to Captain Somerset Ward of Castle Ward, and later with their daughter Norah, the future Lady Dunleath, who would herself become a pioneering photographer; and the teenage Cassandra Hill, after whose birth her mother died, looking directly at us from the garden of Chawton Rectory.
These are just samples of the remarkable photographs from Karen Ievers’ Hill album. I believe that, in conjunction with the Dunleath archive which I have been privileged to see, they not only enhance the story of Jane Austen’s family in Ireland, but also make a significant contribution to the history of photography, and to women’s history, documenting the gradual emergence of women from the passivity imposed on them in the heyday of Victoria to the more active roles assumed as the new century approached.
© Karen Ievers and Dr Sophia Hillan, author of ‘May, Lou & Cass, Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland’ (2011). All images copyright to Karen Ievers.
The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation works with the Jane Austen community and industry to provide literacy resources for communities in need across the world. Reading and writing skills empower individuals to participate in society and achieve their dreams. Literacy gives a child pride and opens up a world of possibilities.
Image credit: Karen Ievers and Julia B. Grantham.