Saturday, 14 January 2012

Jane Austen and Eliza Chute

I'm looking at this 'Austen' picture again...

I think the woman in it looks beautiful, so assured. I really want it to be Jane Austen. I dislike the Victorian images of Austen that make her look like a vacant doll. The gloriously perceptive, witty and sarcastic author of Pride and Prejudice and all the rest would never have looked so dim.

Many Austen fans argue there is no need in any event to know what Jane looked like, and it's true that her character comes through her writing much more than any image. But it would be nice if every book that's published wasn't plastered in images like this one:

Of course wanting something to be so doesn't make it so. It also clouds the judgement. But at the same time wanting it to be her doesn't mean that it isn't. If you see what I mean. However at the moment, it does seem that the documentary evidence is still rather thin. Austen Only has some very interesting posts and comments on the subject.

With regard to Eliza Chute, it seems she is now out of the frame (as it were!) and Dr Byrne is now investigating other possible candidates as being the artist responsible. But I decided that it wouldn't hurt to have a little nosey through some of Eliza Chute's journals in any case, as I've become quite interested in her and her relationship with the Austens. And what nicer way to spend a day than reading through 200 year old diaries?

So I headed down to Winchester to the Hampshire Record Office. I only had a few hours so decided on this occasion to restrict myself to the later journals. The collection of journals is incomplete, and years 1808-1812 are missing so I decided to start with 1813. 1814 and 1818 are missing, but we have 1815, 1816, 1817 and 1819. Then there's a big gap - the other years in the collection at HRO are 1833, 1834 and 1840.

As soon as I looked at the first journal I realised I wasn't going to get an account of Eliza's innermost thoughts. It was more a log - the weather each day, who had visited, what was for dinner. What was immediately clear was that the Austens visited quite a lot. Jane Austen's brother James, of course was vicar of Sherborne St John, the parish in which The Vyne was situated, so visits would not be so surprising, but it seems that the families were quite good friends. In June 1813 for example, Mrs Austin came 'to dinner and to stay,' she stayed from the 16th until the 19th June. On 24th Eliza dined at Mrs Austin's, and the following evening she dined at Mr Cotterell's in the company of Mrs Austin and others. And so on. So I found that quite interesting, altough it doesn't necessarily mean that she knew Jane Austen that well, and I gather that it is thought that Jane did not like Eliza Chute very much, although the only evidence I have found for this is an off-the-cuff comment made by Jane in a letter.

What also interested me in the 1813 Journal was the back page, a list of items Eliza wanted in London. I've taken a copy of the page.

Titled 'Things wanted in London' it lists, among other things: book to hold drawings; camel hair pencils of various sorts; black lead pencils, sort (?) marked black; A Blinder (?) - a few brushes; oil colours 'of all sorts left'. It goes on to list currants, coffee, chocolate etc. but you get the picture. Eliza was clearly enjoying her art at this point.

The other interesting thing about this page was the handwriting. It's less careful than the journal, presumably because it's a shopping list. Eliza normally writes 'm' with a little scroll, like this:

But on the list it is more careless:

As Kelly McDonald notes, the 'm' on the back of the Byrne portrait is odd. This 'm' in the shopping list is more like the 'm' in the portrait signature although it doesn't have that funny little hook at the start - which almost looks added on:

To my untrained eye,  the word 'Austin' look similar to the name on the portrait, but I'm far from being an expert.

However, I also noticed that throughout all her journals Eliza consistently uses the long 's' when writing 'miss'.

Here is an entry from 6 Jan 1815 with a long s.
'Went to the Bramstons - Mrs Austin Edward and Caroline and the two Miss Austins in the evening.'

I take Mrs Austin to be Mary Austen, wife of James. Edward and Caroline are their two children, at this point aged seventeen and ten. Am I right in assuming the two 'Miss Austins' are Cassandra and Jane?

For the rest of 1815 there are plenty of references to James and his family  - who appear to have spent Christmas 1815 with the Chutes, but little on the rest of the Austens/Austins - save a mention I am unable to decipher from 31.July 1815 which mentions a visit to Mrs Austin at Chawton, presumably Jane's mother. 

1816, 1817 and 1819 are more of the same, Edward being a regular visitor. There is no mention of Jane Austen's death even, which is perhaps a little surprising given how well she knew Jane's brother, however as I have said, the 'diaries' for these years are little more than visitor logs and weather reports.

There's then a massive gap in the journals and we fast forward to 1833/34. By now (James) Edward Austen has married Eliza's neice, Emma and the family are fequent visitors. Eliza has started writing a little more in them than just the weather, there are some reports of what is happening in Parliament and she also starts noting at the bottom of each page what she is reading. Most of it seems to be Christian texts or history accounts, but I assume she also enjoyed Jane Austen's work as in the eight months between June 1833 and February 1834 she read Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Emma. 

'Read Miss Austin's Persuasion together'

'Finished England and the English and likewise Mansfield Park'

'Finished Emma together'

So Eliza apparently liked Jane's novels, although at what point she became aware of them, is difficult to say. But, given her closeness to Jane's brother and his family, I wouldn't be surprised if she knew about them quite early on. But by the same token, given how close I now realise she was to James and Edward Austen and their families, is it really feasible that had she been the artist, she wouldn't have told them about the portrait? 

Sketch in Eliza Chute's 1813 journal

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