Friday, 15 March 2013

Why 'Miss Jane Austin' really is Jane Austen

Jane Austen sketch by Cassandra
Last week I went to a fascinating talk given by Dr Paula Byrne about her new book on Jane Austen. Inevitably the subject of the 'new' portrait came up. Dr Bryne says that her husband bought her the portrait as a gift for their wedding anniversary, at the time he bought it, it was assumed that the portrait was either of another 'Miss Jane Austin' or that it was not drawn from life. Paula Byrne however, felt instinctively that the portrait was of Jane Austen, not least because of the family resemblance, especially the Austen nose. This short clip on BBC news discusses the nose and the portrait. When I watched the BBC documentary about the picture broadcast late in 2011 I too was convinced it was her. Or, as I posted last year, I really wanted it to be her.

Perhaps understandably, there was a lot of scepticism about the portrait when the programme was first aired. The portrait was in a frame with Jane Austen's name on it, but the name on the back of of the portrait was 'Miss Jane Austin. The background was a view of a church with no obvious connection to Jane Austen. The Austen family apparently were oblivious to the existence of the portrait. The sitter was wearing fashionable clothes and jewellery. There was a cat on the table. The portrait could be of another Jane Austin, or it could have been someone's idea of Jane Austen, drawn from imagination. It didn't look that promising.

Last year I did some research on the provenance of the portrait which had ended up in the possessions of human rights barrister John Foster. This ended up in a complete dead-end and for a while I forgot about it, concentrating instead on research for my next book about cycling around Ireland. Then, earlier this year my daughter Anne and I decided to take a trip away for a few days. We stayed at Salisbury and as Anne is a big Jane Austen fan we went to visit Chawton House. The portrait was there on display, and I stared at it for a long time. I loved it.

Chawton House

When I got home I decided to take time out from Ireland and do some more research into the portrait. Since last year things had moved on somewhat. Dr Byrne had written an article for the Times Literary Supplement summarising developments. It seemed that the background to the portrait had been located - it was a view of St Margaret's Church, Westminster and Westminster Abbey - but a very particular view - consistent, according to Dr Byrne's research, with the view from the window of the Sanctuary, a house belonging to Reverend Smedley the Elder. It had also been pinpointed by fashion experts to a very specific period - 1814-1816. The article prompted several replies, including one from Deirdre Le Faye who pointed out, amongst other objections, that any connections with the Smedleys was circumstantial. There is an excellent summary of the debate on the Austenonly blog here. It was a fair point, what did Edward Smedley have to do with Jane Austen, if anything?

Since then my own book has been sadly neglected as I became more and more fascinated with this question. Over the past few weeks I have posted my discoveries on this blog. What I have discovered has convinced me that the portrait is of Jane Austen herself. I hope it convinces you too.

Edward Smedley the Elder (1750-1825) is aged around 64/65 at the time the portrait was drawn. He lived for another ten years at the Sanctuary. Edward Smedley had two sons, Henry Smedley (1785-1832) and Edward Smedley (1788-1836).

The name on the verso of the portrait

I personally have no doubt that the writing on the back of the portrait is that of Edward Smedley (Jnr). In his letter to John Murray (Smedley and Austen's publisher) dated February 28, 1831 he spells her name 'Miss Jane Austin'. The writing is also very similar - especially the 'e' as shown here:

Edward Smedley's letters show he was very familiar with Austen's novels whilst Henry Smedley, antiquarian and collector of art is a strong candidate for being the artist. I have posted about them herehere and here.

The link with Jane Austen

This is all very well, but nothing so far indicated that either Henry or Edward Smedley knew Jane Austen. I speculated that Edward may have known her through Maria Edgeworth, who knew both Henry and Edward, but there is no evidence that Maria Edgeworth ever met Jane.

I was, therefore, very pleased to discover that there is a link between Jane Austen and the Smedleys, and I think it's a strong one. It comes, not from any literary contacts, but from the church. As Irene Collins points out, Jane Austen was the daughter of a clergyman, the sister of two others and the cousin of four more. (I have not yet read Irene Collins book, having only come across it recently, but it's just risen to the top of my must read list!) Maybe because, although I am not a Christian, I come from an Anglican family myself, with vicars and vergers, bishops and missionaries in my immediate family, it's not hard for me to understand how Jane can both lampoon individuals and yet still maintain a strong faith. (You should have heard how one local vicar got a regular slating over the Sunday lunch in our house!) There were a lot of clergymen in Jane's life and the church was important to her.

Henry Austen's church in London was St James's, Piccadilly. When Jane was in London this was the church she attended with her brother. She mentions it twice in her letters:

1 July 1808 to Cassandra: "Mr. Tho. Leigh is again in Town - or was very lately. Henry met up with him last Sunday in St James's Church"


24 May 1813, again to Cassandra: "our being prevented by the rain from going to evening Service at St James".

Why St James's? I think for a very good reason - the vicar was known to the family. From 1802 until his death in 1825 the rector of St James's, Piccadilly was Gerrard Andrewes.

Gerrard Andrewes Snr
Gerrard Andrewes (1750-1825) was the son of a Leicestershire clergyman. After becoming a priest he was something of a hit with Lady Talbot and was presented with the Living of Mickleham in Surrey in 1800 which he kept for the next thirteen years.

Mickleham was the next parish to Great Bookham, less than two miles away, and both within the Diocese of Winchester. The vicar at St Nicholas, Great Bookham for 52 years from 1769-1820 was Rev. Samuel Cooke (1741-1820), Jane Austen's godfather. Cooke had married Cassandra Leigh (1744-1826), Jane's mother's cousin, in 1768. Cooke would definitely have known Andrewes, and in fact on Cooke's death in 1820, Andrewes son, Gerrard Thomas Andrewes (1795-1851) became rector for a year until the latter's brother-in-law, William Heberden (1797-1879) was ordained in 1821. William's father, also William Heberden (1767-1845) the renowned royal physician and resident of Great Bookham, had bought the living in1820 for his son.

Jane Austen's letters are sprinkled with references to Bookham and the Cookes, we know she visited them and corresponded regularly. This from her letter to her sister Cassandra on 11 January 1809:

"Easter Monday, April 3rd is the day; we are to sleep that night at Alton, & be with our friends at Bookham the next, if they are then at home;-there we remain until the following Monday, & on Tuesday April 11th hope to be at Godmersham. If the Cookes are absent, we shall finish our journey on  5th."

From May 1811 to Cassandra again: "I have a message to you from Mrs Cooke;-the substance of it is that she hopes you will take Bookham in your way home, & stay there as long as you can"

Mickleham was also well known to Jane Austen, as was Box Hill to the south of the village, scene of the rather unsuccessful picnic in Emma. (Juniper Hall in Mickleham was earlier in 1792/93 leased to a group of French émigrés including Madame de Staël and General D'Arblay. D'Arblay married Fanny Burney at Mickleham Church in 1793 and subsequently lived for four years at Great Bookham and wrote Camilla there.)

These are not large places, in 1870 the Parish of Mickleham had a population of 721 and the Parish of Great Bookham 1106.

We know then that Henry and Jane and no doubt other members of the family would have known Rev. Gerrard Andrewes. Andrewes' close friend, born in the same year - 1750 - and who coincidentally died in the same year- 1825 - was Edward Smedley Senior. They attended both Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge together, both graduating in 1773. Only natural then, that Andrewes should assist his friend's son. From Edward Smedley's Memoir:

That admirable preacher and excellent man, the Rev. Gerrard Andrewes, Dean of Canterbury and Rector of St. James's, was the earliest and most intimate friend of Mr. Smedley's father, and was much attached to his son, and anxious to promote his interests. He had given him a preachership at St. James's chapel, Tottenham Court Road; and in July, 1815, he appointed him clerk in orders to St. James's parish; an office of moderate emolument and considerable labour. 

Mr. Smedley held the clerkship five years; and during this time, became acquainted with the most arduous and most important duties of a clergyman. He preached every Sunday at either St. James's chapel or church, to highly cultivated and fastidious congregations, to whom truth must be presented with every allowable ornament, and who often listen in the spirit of critics rather than of Christians.

Edward Smedley
Edward Smedley then, was clerk in orders at St James's at the period in 1815 when we know Jane Austen was in London, negotiating her contract with John Murray and visiting the Library of the Prince Regent, and no doubt attending church at St James on Sundays when the weather allowed. By now, the fact that Jane Austen was the author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility was an open secret. Smedley had been published by Jane's new publisher, John Murray, contributed to his magazine QuarterlyAccount and was a friend of his. We know that Maria Edgeworth two years earlier had been reading Pride and Prejudice when she visited Smedley at his rooms in Cambridge. Gerrard Andrewes, a close friend of the family, also would have known Jane Austen and the family from his connections to Mickleham. Edward Smedley is an admirer of her work. He must surely have known who she was. That Jane should call on the Smedleys, perhaps for afternoon tea, and that her likeness was drawn whilst she was there, seems now to be the most natural thing in the world.

Jane Austen died in 1817 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. As the website 'Literary Winchester' remarks, her burial in the nave of the Cathedral is perhaps surprising, but she does have some serious literary and clerical clout behind her:

By the time of her death, she and  her books were gathering an influential band of admirers and she was enjoying the literary attention. This band naturally included Mrs Elizabeth Heathcote, widow of a cathedral canon, resident in the Close and still with firm connections there; her father-in-law, Sir William Heathcote Bt of Hursley Park; brother Henry, ever enthusiastic and curate at Chawton; brother Edward Knight, lord of the manor at Chawton; and brother the Revd James, the eldest and like Mrs Heathcote, well acquainted with the Dean Thomas Rennell. Taken altogether, there was considerable social and literary weight behind the family’s undoubted desire for Jane to be laid to rest in the cathedral (rather than the crowded graveyard outside on the north side) and the Dean and Chapter appears to have played its part handsomely.

It was not only Rev James that was well aquainted with Dean Thomas Rennell. Rennell was a member of the 'Hackney Phalanx', a group of Anglican Ministers committed to defending Anglican orthodoxy whose mouthpiece during this period was the British Critic, a publication to which Edward Smedley Jnr was also a frequent contributor. Both men were members of the 'Club of Nobody's Friends'. Perhaps Edward Smedley also put pressure to bear on the authorities to have Jane buried in the Cathedral.

Samuel Cooke died in 1820 at the Vicarage in Great Bookham. Gerrard Andrewes senior died at St James's in 1825 but was also buried at Great Bookham, in a family vault which presumably belonged to his son, Gerrard Thomas Andrewes.

Memorials to Samuel Cooke and Gerrard Andrewes
in St Nicholas Church, Great Bookham
Henry Smedley died at his home in the Sanctuary in 1832 aged 42, I have been unable to establish the cause. Edward Smedley Junior died in 1836 aged 48 after a long battle with a progressive neurological disease which had resulted in him becoming totally deaf some years earlier. The year after Edward Smedley's death his Memoirs were published. There were an impressive number of subscribers including Rev. Gerrard Thomas Andrewes and four members of the Heberden family of Great Bookham.

The links between the Smedleys and Jane Austen, far from being tenuous or circumstantial are, on the contrary, strong ones forged through the organisation that both the Austens and the Smedleys knew so well - the Anglican Church. Nothing I've discovered suggests anything other than the fact that the portrait owned by Paula Byrne is that of the author Jane Austen, drawn by either Henry or Edward Smedley, in around 1814/1815. What do you think?


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