Issue 38: 'We Shall Be Unbearably Fine'

LITERACY AMBASSADOR CASS GRAFTON DISCUSSES A BELOVED GIFT FROM JANE'S BROTHER

The Jane Austen's House Museum (formerly the cottage in Chawton, Hampshire where Jane Austen once lived), is a charming place and as unlike a museum as you can imagine.

There is no stuffiness or pretention there, no signs forbidding photography or dire warnings of what may happen if you so much as dare to touch something. From the moment you step over the threshold into the house, you realise this a home. 

Filled with a wonderful collection of things connected to the author and her immediate family, you can feel Jane walking by your side as you go from room to room, so much so that you can hardly bear to leave her when your visit draws to a close.

One of the most appealing items is the small collection of jewellery once owned by Jane. It's a modest display, as you would imagine, but surely one of the most cherished things Jane possessed would have been the topaz cross given to her by her brother, Charles, in 1801. 

Jane records the gift from Charles in a letter to Cassandra written across two days (the 26th and 27th of May, 1801) from the Paragon (their aunt and uncle’s house) in Bath. Jane has been out for a ‘pleasant drive’ to Kingsdown in a phaeton, and returns to the house to see that ‘one pleasure succeeds another rapidly - on my return I found your letter and a letter from Charles on the table’.

She goes on to say:

I give Charles great credit for remembering my Uncle’s direction, and he seems rather surprised at it himself. He has received 30£ for his share of the privateer and expects 10£ more - but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters. He has been buying Gold chains and Topaze Crosses for us; - he must be well scolded.”

She continues, after speculating on Charles’ proposed next movements:

He will receive my yesterday’s letter to day, and I shall write again by this post to thank and reproach him. - We shall be unbearably fine.

Both crosses given to Jane and Cassandra are on display in the museum and they are very beautiful, rich in both colour and their personal history. We can imagine that perhaps the ladies only wore them on special occasions and, despite Jane’s humour over being ‘unbearably fine’, would have felt incredibly pleased when they did!

The following description of the jewels comes from the Jane Austen in 41 Objects exhibition at the Jane Austen's House Museum: the story of Jane Austen’s life and legacy told through a selection of 41 objects (one for each year of her life) from the museum’s collections: “The jewels are, indeed, very fine. Set in gold, the topaz stones are extremely good quality (stones during this period were often foiled and enclosed at the back to enhance their colour; these have no need). We do not know for sure which cross belonged to which sister; perhaps they borrowed each other’s crosses, in the way that sisters often borrow each other’s possessions.”

 The George III topaz crosses that belonged to Jane and Cassandra Austen.  Credit: Jane Austen's House Museum, photography by Peter Smith

The George III topaz crosses that belonged to Jane and Cassandra Austen. Credit: Jane Austen's House Museum, photography by Peter Smith

As Paula Byrne writes in her book, The Real Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things:

Topaz was all the rage, but the fact that Charles chose crosses rather than lockets is significant, alluding as it does to his sisters’ deep Christian faith as well as marking their delight in fashion.”

The pride Jane took in the naval careers of her brothers, Frank and Charles, and her attachment to this gift from the latter, is reflected in her 1814 novel, Mansfield Park. The heroine, Fanny Price, receives an amber cross from her own sailor brother, William (though he can’t afford a gold chain to go with it), but when Fanny wishes to wear the cross to attend her own ball, she faces a dilemma:

The almost solitary ornament in [Fanny’s] possession, a very pretty amber cross which William had brought her from Sicily, was the greatest distress of all, for she had nothing but a bit of ribbon to fasten it to.”

Fanny is anxious. She has worn the cross with the ribbon once, but is worried it won’t be fine enough amongst ‘all the rich ornaments which she supposed all the other young ladies would appear in’.

Before the ball, however, Fanny is presented with two gold chains. One is from Mary Crawford, who insists on her having a chain from her own collection of jewellery, originally a gift from her brother, Henry. Then, Fanny’s cousin Edmund, whom she loves, presents her with a simple, plain gold chain much more to her taste. Under duress to use the more ornate gift from the lady, Fanny begins to dress for the ball:

All went well - she did not dislike her own looks; and when she came to the necklaces again her good fortune seemed complete, for upon trial the one given her by Miss Crawford would by no means go through the ring of the cross. She had, to oblige Edmund, resolved to wear it; but it was too large for the purpose. His, therefore, must be worn; and having with delightful feelings, joined the chain and the cross, those memorials of the two most beloved of her heart, those dearest tokens so formed for each other by everything real and imaginary - and put them round her neck, and seen and felt how full of William and Edmund they were, she was able, without an effort, to resolve on wearing Miss Crawford’s necklace too.”

It is a fine tribute to her love for her brother and how much she cherished her necklace that she chose to commemorate it in this way. Whenever I visit the museum and stand before the topaz crosses of Jane and Cassandra Austen, I recall with fondness the touching story behind the gifting of them and the beautiful way Jane chose to preserve the gesture in her writing - a true testament to familial love.

© Cassandra Grafton - JALF Literacy Ambassador, writer, and co-author of 'The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen'. Find her on Twitter and Facebook. Cassandra manages the Literacy Ambassador program for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation - you can email her at admin@janeaustenlf.org to find out more and get involved!

References:

Austen, J. (1814). Mansfield Park. Thomas Egerton.

Byrne, P. (2013). The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. William Collins.

Le Faye, D. (Ed.). (2011). Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Jane Austen in 41 Objects - Jane Austen's House MuseumA project begun in 2017, this was an evolving exhibition alongside a series of online posts by guest writers, published weekly throughout Jane’s bicentenary year. Read all about it on the museum’s website at https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/41-objects

 
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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.

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