Yesterday we looked at the health benefits of asses milk. Today we shall look at the use Jane Austen made of donkeys towards the end of her life at Chawton.
After Jane Austen had visited Chetleham in May 1816 it was obvious that her health was beginning to fail and a cure had not been effected. Chetlenham was an inland spa famed, as reported in The Guide to all the Watering and Sea Bathing Places etc (1803), for its mineral waters which were especially noted for treating
She retuned to Chawton on 11th June. She must have begun to find it difficult to walk, and began to use her mother’s donkey cart and donkey, so that she could remain mobile. She was famous for being a desperate walker, and to find her energy levels so depleted that she could no longer go for walks around Chawton must have been devastating.
This is a picture of the cart that I took on my last visit to Chawton :
But if you go here you can see a picture of the donkey cart, together with modern occupant and donkey , in a photograph taken in the garden at The Jane Austen House Museum which gives you a better idea of the size of the carriage.
The firt mention of it in her letters is in one written to her nephew, James Edward Austen, dated 9th July 1816;
May Jane and I have been wet through once already today, we set off in the Donkey Carriage for Farringdon as I wanted to see the improvements Mr Woolis is making, but we were obliged to turn back before we got there but not soon enough to avoid a Pelter all the way back home……
By March 1817 however, Jane Austen was further weakened by her illness and this mention of the donkey appears in her letter of 13th March written to Fanny Knight. It would appear that Jane Austen did not like driving the carriage and preferred to ride the donkey:
I am got tolerably well again, quite equal to walking about and enjoying the Air; and by sitting down and resting a good while between my walks, I get exercise enough. I have a scheme however to accomplishing more as the weather grows springlike. I mean to take to riding the Donkey. It will be more independent and less troublesome than the use of the Carriage & I shall be able to go about with Aunt Cassandra in her walks to Alton and Wyards.
In her letter of the of the 23rd March 1817 again written to Fanny Knight, Jane Austen announced with some understandable excitement of the forthcoming arrival of the saddle for the donkey and her desperation to be out and about in the countryside and open air:
We are going to have Rain and after that very pleasant genial weather ,which will exactly do for me, as my Saddle will then be completed and ari and exercise is what I want….
The final mention of the donkey is in her letter to Caroline Austen of 26th Marcy 1817:
I have taken one ride on the Donkey and like it very much-and you must try to get me quiet mild days that I maybe able to get out pretty constantly….
For the financially-challenged Austen ladies- by this time Henry Austen’s bank had failed and the financial depression consequent upon the ending of the Napoleonic wars was causing them much distress- a donkey was an ideal means of transport , basically because it was the cheapest available .
This picture shows donkeys being kept by the Spurling family from Diana Spurling wonderful collection of watercolours published in the book, Mrs Husrt Dancing and Other Scenes form Regency Life 1812-1823
Donkeys cost very little to purchase and were easily fed. But the biggest saving was that unlike horses, donkey were not subject to tax.
This is a picture of three donkeys learning to draw a carriage again by Diana Spurling.
Horse used for riding for pleasure and for driving carriages were subject to tax in England from 1784 (agricultural horses and horses used in industry were taxed at lower rates and this tax was introduced in 1796,) Donkeys were exempt from this tax. Pleasure carriages however were subject to tax, and this was first imposed in 1747, but the donkey carriage, though subject to the tax, was subject to the lowest form of it.
The donkey cart was a two wheeled affair as you can see from the photograph of Mrs Austen carriage, and was the cheapest form of carriage one could buy at the time :the equivalent today of the tiniest cheapest car. Anna and Been Lefroy- who were also in financially straightened circumstances having little income and many children- had a donkey carriage too. I suppose Jane’s donkey was the early 19th century equivalent of a mobility scooter for her.
Donkeys were thought of as excellent animals for drawing carriages. This is what the agricultural “improver” and commentator Arthur Young had to say about them, reporting about the Earl of Egremont’s experiments with them:
The problem with donkeys is that they can be stubborn beings. And they do not make for a very elegant figure while riding one.
Which is something of which the townie Mrs Elton does not appear to a be aware when she wants to cut a dash riding to the Donwell Abbey Strawberry picking party in Emma by donkey:
“I wish we had a donkey. The thing would be for us all to come on donkies, Jane, Miss Bates, and me — and my caro sposo walking by. I really must talk to him about purchasing a donkey. In a country life I conceive it to be a sort of necessary; for, let a woman have ever so many resources, it is not possible for her to be always shut up at home; and very long walks, you know — in summer there is dust, and in winter there is dirt.”
Jane Austen knew all about them I’m sure: and as we can see from those touching extracts from her last letters, was grateful for the opportunity her donkey gave to her for affording her some of her last glimpses of the Hampshire countryside that she loved so well.