WOULDN'T ALL OF US LIKE TO HAVE BEEN JANE AUSTEN'S FRIEND FOR REAL?
Imagine sitting by the fire whilst she read out her novels, at just the right pace and with all the correct voices. Imagine receiving one of her wonderfully humorous (and at times, merciless) anecdotes in a letter – the perfect remedy to cheer up a cold day.
Jane drew together a close circle of friends including her beloved sister and the governess, Miss Anne Sharpe, who shared her love of the theatre and writing and putting on plays. The friendship with the Bigg sisters looms large in Jane’s letters and she was a generous companion to many, including her neighbour, Miss Mary Benn. However, there was another friend who Jane loved to include in her “schemes” who you may not know much about - Martha Lloyd.
Martha Lloyd was born in 1765 to Reverend Nowes Lloyd, rector at Enborne, and his wife, Martha Craven. They sent their sons to the school run by George Austen, Jane’s father. Martha had two sisters, Mary and Eliza, and in 1789 after the death of Reverend Lloyd, the Lloyd family women rented Deane Parsonage from George Austen. A life long tapestry of kinship began to weave itself together. Mary was later to marry James Austen as his second wife, and Martha herself, aged about 63, became wife to Francis Austen, the creative, capable, god-fearing “officer who knelt in church” (who would later make her Lady Austen when he was ennobled as an Admiral of the Fleet).
Through the happy coincidence of these connections, Jane met Martha when she was 13 and Martha was already 23. Martha’s sister Mary was apparently sensible and good humoured, unaffected and very pleasant, and at 18 would have been perhaps a more obvious match as a friend. But Jane chose the humorous Martha and welcomed her into a circle of sisterhood with her beloved Cassandra. For Martha too, the difference between Jane and her sister would have been striking. Mary was very well received by the highest social circles within her Hampshire environs especially whilst married to James Austen. Her emphasis on propriety and her very good sense shines out from her personal diaries, with references to her own husband as simply ‘Austen’ and visits from Martha logged as ‘dining with Miss Lloyd’. Her own love of the theatre, balls and the races receive far fewer lines in her journal than in Jane’s letters.
Martha and Jane became very close. When the Lloyd family moved out of Deane to Ibthorpe near Andover, Jane visited Martha often and together they ensured that there were regular return visits. It was to Ibthorpe and Martha that Jane turned after the storm blew down treasured trees behind the house at Steventon. Martha was there when Mrs Austen broke the news to Jane of their removal to Bath, and Jane is said to have been very much distressed. Jane’s family lent assistance when Mrs Lloyd became ill at the end of her life and Martha was there to support the Austen family in their grief when Mrs Elizabeth Austen Knight died in childbirth. The children in the wider Austen family loved Martha and included her in their greetings and kindnesses in their letters and visits. The melding together of the family via shared nieces and nephews grew into a considerable bond that went beyond the bounds of remote “sister’s in law” and extended to a special level of friendship.
After the death of Mrs Lloyd, Martha moved in with the Austen women. Martha got on very well with Cassandra and by taking on extra domestic responsibilities the two women greatly supported Jane’s endeavours in writing. Martha’s practical help was immeasurable in helping Jane to escape the everyday and focus on other thoughts and the extension of her friendship to Mrs Austen would have been a comfort to Jane also.
Martha was thoughtful in looking out for others’ welfare and she and Jane appear to be united by the importance that they placed on charitable work as a demonstration of their religious faith. Jane was quick to offer Martha suggestions of what she could provide to poorer villagers, and Martha would nurture community relations, such as when she and Jane made sure that a piece of wedding cake made its way to her former housekeeper.
Martha and Jane shared a love of humour and teasing and fun. They loved to attend balls, separately and together. Jane knew how much Martha loved a ball, and even joked that Lord Portsmouth would have to host a ball just for her, that “Martha comes and a ball there must be”. On one such night, a decade into their friendship, Martha and Jane came away early before the end of the party and lay in the nursery at James’ house, having turned out the nursery nurse and the new born baby from their very bed. The two friends talked together until the early hours of the morning. Jane was effusive in her appreciation of her friend on occasions like this, saying that she loved her “better than ever”. Jane loved nothing better than “a snug fortnight” together with Martha and Cassandra.
Jane was knowledgeable about Martha’s love life, and we glean hints of Martha’s possible romantic connections from her letters. One with a mysterious Mr W, who, according to Mrs Austen and her “sprack wit”, was a much-discussed preferred suitor for Martha amongst the family. Some have even wondered if, following the failure of this liaison, Jane and Cassandra were matchmaking away between their brother Frank and Martha (who ironically did marry him but thirty years later). Jane was very worried about her friend following the disappointment of her hopes of marrying Mr W and saw the sorry effect that it had on her “looks and spirits”. In her customary way, she tried to use humour to help Martha snap out of her melancholy.
After a worrying delay in Martha’s return from a visit Jane noted that Martha “signs by her maiden name we are at least to suppose her not married yet.” Jane also poked fun suggesting that Martha was having an immoral love affair with a married rector: “Martha and Dr. Mant (Rev Dr. Master of King Edward’s School and Rector of All Saints Southampton) are as bad as ever;” wrote Jane to Cassandra, in a scene reminiscent of one her novels. “He runs after her in the street to apologise for having spoken to a Gentleman whilst SHE was near him the day before. Poor Mrs Mant can stand it no longer; she is retired to one of her married daughters.”
Martha later married Frank on the anniversary of his first wedding day (which might seem strange to our 21st century sensibilities), on July 24, 1828 in Winchester. Some conjecture that this might be due to the matchmaking of the sisters three decades earlier and all within the close family seem to agree that it was a prudent choice of companion and housekeeper. Mrs Austen Leigh had been hinting at leaving her estate ‘Scarlets’ to Frank, but was angered by the marriage and so gave him £10,000 instead - which actually suited him well and enabled him to buy his own house at Portsdown. Martha would live out the rest of her days here, visited by Cassandra who remained dear to her all her life.
Jane was always anxious for Martha’s return if she was called away or visiting friends and family and she loved it that Martha missed her. She loved to tease Martha about her “impudence” in expecting or proposing a letter from her and joked that receiving a letter from Jane would mean that Martha did not have as much money to spend on clothes (as the receiver was liable for the postage charge).
Jane and Martha loved to walk together - on any given occasion they would get out together and revel in the freedom of “a very favourable state for walking”. On a “Prince of Days” one November in 1808 the pair had “the most delightful walk we have had for weeks” and neither of them knew “how to turn back.” On some occasions in the depths of winter they were “desperate walkers thwarted by the dirty fields” - an image evocative of Marianne wandering the fields in lament for Willoughby, or Lizzy Bennet walking across the fields to reach her unwell sister in Pride and Prejudice. Jane and Martha would have revelled in the disdain of the Misses Bingley at the state of their skirts and petticoats.
Martha and Jane loved to talk about clothes, fashion and shopping. Martha was a talented seamstress and Jane would often consult her on alterations and the making up of a new gown. In her letters to Martha, Jane wrote in detail about the fashions that she observed in relation to petticoats, bonnets and sleeves. Jane clearly valued Martha’s opinion of her clothes and style, and even teased Cassandra that if Martha liked her dress, then Cassandra was sure to want one herself of the very same style. Jane copied Martha’s clothes and even had her hair done in the style of Martha’s. The age gap between them meant that Martha was something of a role model for Jane; she thought her truly elegant.
They made the most of opportunities to shop in Alton or Basingstoke, and even gave their shopping lists to each other if one or other of them were going to Bath or London. When Martha asked for some shoes once, Jane joked that she should not be trusted with this task as she hated ordering shoes, and warned “that the heels would all be flat“ and that she would have no space to bring them home in, as she needed it for her purchases and all “the important shopping” that she had done. She teased Martha along with Cassandra, joking that they were taking liberties with their requests and shopping lists - “you were just in time with your commissions, for two o’clock on Monday was the last hour of my receiving them; the office is now closed”.
The closeness between the two naturally included Jane’s writing. Jane dedicated one of her earliest stories to Martha just months after they met. In the style of writing long dedications, as per the emerging print culture of the time, Jane dedicated Frederic and Elfrida to Martha as “a small testimony of the gratitude I feel for your late generosity to me in finishing my muslin cloak.” When Martha moved from Deane to Ibthorpe three years later, Jane wrote her a poem as a present. Decades later when Jane was on the verge of becoming a published author, Martha was one of only a handful of people to know of her authorship. One can’t help but conjecture that Jane discussed little bits about characters or plot with Martha. She often asked her to find out or verify facts for her and joked with Cassandra about how much Martha knew of the works themselves, teasingly accusing Martha of planning to memorise First Impressions and publish it from memory as her own work.
That Jane chose to share information and her feelings regarding the financial agreements in regard to her work shows just how much Martha shared Jane’s confidence. When it came to the question of including a dedication to the Prince Regent with the publication of Emma, Jane told Martha about it, and likely received a gentle teasing from her friend in return who knew that Jane had many sympathies for his wife and little sympathy for the Prince Regent himself.
Martha’s own income was a topic of discussion for the friends too. There is a hint in a letter from Jane that Martha may have even won the lottery. Tickets were sold as whole, or in half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth shares and Jane hopes that “Martha finds herself of a 16th of the £20,000” - the top prize available. We have no idea if Martha won a substantial amount of money (it could have been another example of jesting and teasing, as we ourselves boast of ‘lottery wins’ that are just £2 in total), but four months after the hint of a win, Jane writes to say that she expects her friend is “too busy, to happy and too RICH I hope, to care much for letters” and that it gave her “very great pleasure to hear that your Money was paid, it must have been a circumstance to increase every enjoyment you can have had with your friends and altogether I think you must be spending your time most comfortable.”
Jane spoke movingly of Martha as a “friend and sister under every circumstance.” When writing from Winchester in her final days, Jane commented to Anne Sharpe that “Miss Lloyd too has been all kindness” and she included her in a reference to her beloved family at this most private and intimate of times near the end of her life. “In short, if I live to be an old woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a family, and before I had survived either them or their affection.”
Precious little proof of the relationship between Jane Austen and Martha Lloyd remains, but that which does speaks of a most precious and valued friendship and of an enviably strong bond between the two women. When we walk around the Jane Austen’s House Museum or tramp across the fields to see Chawton House, it is the closeness to Jane that sparks fantasies of our own friendship with Jane. Of course, Jane was a close observer of her acquaintances and there is much discussion surrounding which people or personalities she drew upon to add to her imaginings. Did Martha creep in to any of her stories? Now that would be telling!
© Zoe Wheddon - writer, teacher and blogger
Diaries of Mrs Mary Austen (catalogue number 23M93/62/1) Hampshire Record Office, Winchester
Austen-Leigh, W. & Austen-Leigh, R. A. (1989). Jane Austen: a Family Record (Revised and enlarged by Deirdre Le Faye). The British Library
Hubback, E, & Hubback, J.H. (1906, 2012) Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. Cambridge University Press
Huxley, V. (2013). Jane Austen and Adlestrop: Her other family. Windrush
Jennings, C. (2012). A brief Guide to Jane Austen: the Life and Times of the World’s Favourite Author. Robinson
Kelly, H. (2016). Jane Austen, The Secret Radical. Icon Books
Le Faye, D. (1997). Jane Austen’s Letters (New Edition). Oxford University Press
Le Faye, D., & Black, M. (1995). The Jane Austen Cookbook. The British Museum Press
Tomalin, C. (1997). Jane Austen: a Life. Viking
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