The other main item of interest that held sway during the Summer-I-was-absent-due-to-injury was the rather contentious issue of the sale of Jane Austen’s turquoise ring and its purchaser, Kelly Clarkson.

Jane Austen's Ring, and Note from Eleanor Austen neé Jackson to Caroline Austen ©Sotheby's

Jane Austen’s Ring, and Note from Eleanor Austen neé Jackson to Caroline Austen ©Sotheby’s

You will recall that this ring first surfaced in the public sphere last June when it was announced by Sotheby’s, the auction house, that it was going to be sold at their auction on 10th July. Apart from a small mention of the ring in an article by the late Elizabeth Jenkins in the Jane Austen Society Report for 1960,  few people knew of its existence. A note written by Eleanor, which was included with the ring in the sale, delineated some of its history. The ring was Jane Austen’s and, on her death, it became the property of her sister, Cassandra. Three years after Jane died, in 1820, Henry Austen, her brother, married for the second time.  Eleanor Jackson was his choice. She was well known to the Austen family, and was a niece of Mr. Papillon, the Rector of Chawton (who was, you will remember, the subject of a joke between Mrs Knight( the adoptive mother of Edward Austen) and Jane Austen. Once she learned of the engagement between Henry and Eleanor, Cassandra gave the ring to Eleanor.  Deirdre Le Faye in the Jane Austen Society’s Report  of 1989 wrote about Eleanor and Henry’s marriage:

The last of the nine sisters-in-law was Eleanor Jackson, Henry’s second wife. Jane had always expected that Henry would marry again, and before his bankruptcy in 1816 there had been several ladies in his circle of wealthy London friends to whom he seemed equally attracted and on whom he sought Jane’s sisterly opinions. However, his sudden reduction to near-poverty meant that any thoughts of re-marriage had to be indefinitely postponed, and it was only his succession to the Steventon living in 1819,  following James’ (Austen’s jfw) death, which enabled him to support a wife once more. Not much is known about Eleanor, save that she was the niece of the Reverend John Papillon, Rector of Chawton at the time the Austens were living there; her home was in Chelsea, so Henry could have met her in either place. It is not certain whether Jane ever knew her, but it seems probable she is the ”Eleanor” mentioned in Letter no. 75 in January 1813.  In 1819 she was referred to in family correspondence as having ‘a very good pair of Eyes”  but no other description or picture of her is known. Persumably she was intelligent- one cannot imagine Henry choosing a dull, stupid woman-and they were married in 1820. Despite her ill-health, (by the 1830s she had developed a semi-crippling ailment, probably something rheumatic,) Henry was devoted to Eleanor: ”one dearer to me than life and for whose comfort I am solicitous beyond my own existence “. Cassandra was happy to think that he had found such an excellent wife to support him in his last role in life and an impoverished country clergyman. It is thanks to Eleanor that the miniature of Mrs Hancock, now on display at the Cottage survives; after Henry’s death in 1850 one of Frank’s granddaughters came to live with Eleanor and was in turn bequeathed the little picture( see below- jaw). It descended in that branch of the family until Mr Edward Carptenter was able to acquire it on behalf of the Jane Austen Society.


Eleanor was well aware of the ring’s history and significance: this is clear from the text of her note, below written:

Note written by Eleanor Austen, Née Jackson to Caroline Austen in 1869 ©Sotheby's

Note written by Eleanor Austen, Née Jackson ©Sotheby’s

The sale took place, and the ring was sold for £126,000, which, when the buyer’s premium and VAT was added to it, made a total purchase price of £152,450. This far exceeded the original auction estimate which was between  £20,000-30,000. The purchaser’s identity was kept secret, until eventually it was announced that the American country singer, Kelly Clarkson, had bid for the ring via a telephone link and had won it. She also brought the first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion offered at the sale. It then became known that Ms. Clarkson was a Janeite, and had even visited Derbyshire and Chatsworth on a mini Pride and Prejudice sightseeing spree while she was on a concert tour in the UK during the previous year.

Then things began to get complicated. Ms Clarkson was refused an export license to take the ring home to the US. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, a part of the Arts Council, placed a temporary ban on its export, in order for an appeal to be raised to purchase the ring and keep it in the UK. This Committee has a duty to advise the Government on the principles which should govern the control of export of objects of cultural interest to the UK under the terms of the Export Control Act 2002 and on the operation of the export control system generally. It also has a duty to advise the Secretary of State on all cases where refusal of an export licence for an object of cultural interest is suggested on grounds of national importance, and  can also advise in cases where a special Exchequer grant is needed towards the purchase of an object that would otherwise be exported. It investigated and considered the case for keeping the ring in the UK. In order for an item to qualify  it has to meet one of the three Waverley Criterior : they are

a) is the item  so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?

b) Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?

c) Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

The Expert’s Statement submitted to the Reviewing Committee proposed that

…the ring meets the third Waverley criterion because there are reasonable documentary grounds to believe that it was owned by Jane Austen. Thanks to her stature as a novelist, and the affection as well as respect in which she is held, this elegant and appropriately simple ring has caught the public imagination as a rare and intimate object associated with one of the greatest English writers. The ring has been almost entirely unknown for many years. It is likely that it will be illustrated in future biographies.

A temporary ban on export was eventually granted. At the hearing the case was made for keeping the ring, and here is an extract from the submission:

The Expert Adviser stated that Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton exhibits only two pieces of jewellery as having been owned by Jane Austen: a turquoise bead bracelet which previously belonged to Mary A. Austen-Leigh and a topaz cross, which Charles Austen sent to Jane in 1801. The topaz cross is believed to be the model for the amber cross given by William to Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Jane Austen’s modest lifestyle and her early death mean that objects associated with her of any kind are rare; even her letters were in part destroyed by her family.

Jane Austen showed an appreciation of the significance of jewellery in personal relationships both in her life and in her novels. Furthermore, rings reflected the characters of wearers in her novels and jewels were often much more than symbols of vanity and excess. In Mansfield Park the giving of a jewel and its implications are explored in detail. It was precisely because Jane Austen understood so minutely the social and emotional nuances, including pain and pleasure, which could be associated with a piece of jewellery, and because jewellery has such potency as an intimate possession, that this elegant and appropriately simple ring aroused such interest when its auction was announced last year. Furthermore, the ring under consideration was little known to the present generation of Austen scholars and entirely unknown to the great majority of her readers.

The Committee eventually decided that 

… the design of the ring appeared broadly comparable with other rings of the 1760s. There was particular interest in the significance of the use of a turquoise stone in a gold setting. Turquoise was believed to have protective qualities since at least the middle ages and had long been a symbol of love. It was observed that while not one of the more obviously expensive gem stones, such as a ruby or an emerald, the cabochon turquoise was a large example (later on, in the 19th century, it was more usual to find small beads of turquoise set in silver or pinchbeck as well as gold). It was understood that the simple and elegant ring would have been appropriate and befitting of Jane Austen’s status as a member of the Hampshire gentry.

The Committee noted the extreme scarcity of objects associated with Jane Austen. The two pieces of jewellery on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum together with the novelist’s writing slope held by the British Library were the most notable. It was agreed that this elegant and evocative object would be of interest to a wide range of people and that it contained the potential for further research. 

The Committee then voted on whether the ring met the Waverley criteria. All eleven members voted that it met the first Waverley criterion. No members voted that it met the second Waverley criterion. One member voted that it met the third Waverley criterion. The ring was therefore found to meet the first Waverley criterion. The Committee then recommended that the sum of £152,450 was a fair matching price and agreed to recommend to the Secretary of State that the decision on the export licence should be deferred for an initial period of two months for that price to be met by public appeal but if, within that period, the Arts Council England received notification of a serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to purchase the ring, the Committee recommended that there should be a further deferral period of three months. The  Jane Austen House Museum launched an appeal to keep the ring in the UK, in line with the terms of the temporary export ban.

And in the first few days of the appeal it soon became apparent that the Museum would succeed; an anonymous donation of £100,000 was made, and the rest of the money soon followed within a month. The ring was therefore saved for the nation and will go on show at the Musuem sometime next year.

Kelly Clarkson was very gracious about it all and issued a statement saying:

The ring is a beautiful national treasure and I am happy to know that so many Jane Austen fans will get to see it.

It seems she was so enamoured of it however, that she commissioned a replica, or something approaching it: the eagle-eyed amongst us spotted her wearing it when she sang at President Obama’s inauguration in January.

Kelly Clarkson wearing her replica Jane Austen turquoise ring at President Obama's Inauguration.

Kelly Clarkson wearing her replica Jane Austen turquoise ring at President Obama’s Inauguration.©BBC

Isabella of the excellent The Two Nerdy History Girls blog wrote this interesting post comparing the tone of the reporting of the story on both sides of the Atlantic. It is sad but true that the reporting on both sides of the pond left much to be desired, in my humble opinion. So, to conclude… Kelly Clarkson has been recompensed, the ring has been saved and will now go on display at Chawton Cottage. All very neat…but….I feel some real unease about all this. Whilst I appreciate that there are few objects associated with Jane Austen on public display, this item only recently came to our attention. It is not, as far as I am aware, mentioned in any of Jane’s letters, nor did she make mention of any similar ring in her writings. Unlike her topaze cross which is on display at Chawton, together with a similar one given to Cassandra Austen.

The topaz crosses owned by Cassandra and Jane Austen now on display at the Jane Austen house Musuem ©Hampshire County Council

The topaz crosses owned by Cassandra and Jane Austen now on display at the Jane Austen house Musuem ©Hampshire County Council

These are, without doubt, very important items. A symbol of Jane’s very fervent faith and of fraternal love, it was clearly highly prized by her. As you probably know these crosses were purchased by Jane’s younger brother, Charles, as gifts for his elder sisters, Jane and Cassandra. He purchased them while he was serving in the Royal Navy and was involved in the capture of a French ship. He received a share of the prize money associated with this capture and used the money to buy the crosses for his sisters. As Jane Austen wrote in her letter to Cassandra of the 27th May, 1801:

Charles… 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…

Jane Austen seems to have been so understandably touched by this magnificent gesture that some years later she recreated the event in her novel, Mansfield Park. Her heroine, Fanny Price, receives an amber cross from her sailor brother, William:

The ball was now a settled thing, and before the evening a proclaimed thing to all whom it concerned. Invitations were sent with despatch, and many a young lady went to bed that night with her head full of happy cares as well as Fanny. To her the cares were sometimes almost beyond the happiness; for young and inexperienced, with small means of choice and no confidence in her own taste, the “how she should be dressed” was a point of painful solicitude; and the almost solitary ornament in her 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; and though she had worn it in that manner once, would it be allowable at such a time in the midst of all the rich ornaments which she supposed all the other young ladies would appear in? And yet not to wear it! William had wanted to buy her a gold chain too, but the purchase had been beyond his means, and therefore not to wear the cross might be mortifying him. These were anxious considerations; enough to sober her spirits even under the prospect of a ball given principally for her gratification.

Mansfield Park, Chapter 26.

There is also a small blue and white beadwork bracelet on show at the Museum, which once belong to Jane Austen.

Jane Austen's beadwork bracelet

Jane Austen’s beadwork bracelet

This is a sweet thing…but we know relatively little about it and its association with Jane Austen, beyond the fact that she owned it. And while I like to see it there, for me it does not have the same resonance as the cross. It is merely something she owned and wore. And that’s my problem with the ring. It was owned by Jane Austen, probably worn by her…and that really is the full sum of it. She didn’t write about it in either books or surviving letters. As far as we know the identity of the person who to gave it to her is unknown. She may even have bought it herself with some of the profits from her novels …but we can’t prove that. And probably never will be able to. The ring’s history of descent through the Austen family is, frankly, as interesting as it gets for me. It does not offer any new insight into Jane Austen’s personality or works. We know she was fashionable person who strove to keep up with trends on a very limited income and appears to have liked jewellery, though she had precious little of it ( admittedly 50% more than we thought 18 months ago).the jewellery she had was not particularly valuable, save for the cross, which without its Austen premium might be valued around the £800-1200 mark (in my humble estimation). So was it wise to spend all that appeal money on saving this ring for a grateful nation? I’m not so sure it was. And might it have been better for Kelly Clarkson to  been able to keep it? I tend towards that view. Despise me if you dare.