Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Cambridge Jane Austen Society birthday lunch

The Rice Portrait
Last month I was delighted to be invited to speak to the Cambridge Branch of the Jane Austen Society, at their annual celebration of Jane Austen's birthday. The subject was my ongoing research into Jane Austen's portraits, and especially the Rice Portrait.

What's more, the owner of the Rice Portrait, Mrs Anne Rice, very generously agreed to arrange to bring the portrait to Cambridge; the first time that the portrait has been displayed in public in this country for many years. What a delightful day it was, and what a wonderful experience to be able to talk about this portrait in the beautiful location of Queens' College Cambridge with the picture being in the very room!

Firstly, however, a note about the name of the college itself. As I learned from my hosts, Queens' College is, as far as I am aware, the only college in the country about which there is a lively debate on punctuation. Queens' college was founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou and refounded in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville. But it was only later  - much later - that the apostrophe moved to the end of the word 'queens' - the first known use is in 1823. Before this the college was known as Queen's  - in the singular. You can read more about Queen's vs Queens' debate on the college website HERE.

Cloister Court, Queens' College
photo © Joana Starnes
Within Queens' College, the Mathematical Bridge leads to the oldest building in Cambridge, the President's Lodge which dates to around 1460. Tour guides will tell you that the bridge was built by Newton using nothing but wood with no bolts to hold it together. The story goes that after the great man's death, Newton's students took the bridge down and attempted to rebuild it but failed - and so were forced to use iron pins, nuts and bolts to reassemble it again. Its a lovely story but fanciful. In fact the bridge was built later in the seventeenth century and you can read more about the history of the Mathematical Bridge HERE. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful construct and I cannot imagine a more wonderful means of crossing the River Cam and to enter the historic older buildings of Queens' College.

The Mathematical Bridge
photo © Steff

Before lunch, I was invited to take a look at the stunning Old Hall, the medieval dining hall which has been restored to the opulent and magnificent decor created by William Morris in the 1860s. I love William Morris's designs and to see this hall, restored to such beauty, was an additional extra treat.

The Old Hall
photo © Joana Starnes
Keith Mills in the Great Hall
photo © Joana Starnes

So, on to the pre-luncheon gathering and to see the Rice Portrait on display. The portrait has been painstakingly restored by art restorer, Eva Schwan over a period of two years. Reproductions do not do it justice. It is only when you view the portrait itself that you can appreciate the beauty of this picture; the delicate spots and patterns of the muslin dress, the texture of her hair and the way she seems to look at you from whichever angle you stand. It is also only when you view the portrait itself that you can see the monogram of the artist in the bottom left quadrant. An H within an O, the monogram of Ozias Humphry, which Eva Schwan described in her report when she had finished her work.

Some members of the society dressed in period costume for the event and looked fabulous. It was definitely a good opportunity for a photo shoot!

Hazel and Keith Mills
photo © Vicki Smith

Vicki Smith and Hazel Mills
photo © Vicki Smith

Me and Mrs Anne Rice
photo © Vicki Smith
We and the portrait moved into the adjoining room for luncheon. I was a little overawed to be given the seat at the head of the table and even more so when I realised how knowledgeable the group are about all things Austen. I had been asked to speak for thirty minutes and I wondered whether I would be able to talk for this long. Of course I needn't have worried. The group were so interested in the story and with the presence of Mrs Rice and her son Johnnie who shared their story, the time flew by. Before I knew it, one of the party said that they had enjoyed the talk immensely but really had to leave - and it was only then that I realised that I had been speaking for over an hour and a half.

That's me in the distance!
photo © Joana Starnes

Preparing for lunch!
photo © Vicki Smith

The event was covered in the local press and a lively debate, primarily on the dating of the dress of the girl in the portrait followed. You can read the article HERE.

During lunch I also learned something from the Society which I had not really registered before - that the male heroes in Austen's novels are Oxford men, while the Cambridge men are cads. This set me thinking and when I returned home I did a little research.

Helpfully, Charles Issawi wrote a short essay on this topic some thirty years ago. Sure enough, of the characters whose education we know about, Henry Tilney and James Morland (Northanger Abbey), Edward Bertram (Mansfield Park) and Edward Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility) are all Oxford men. George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice) and Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park), on the other hand, are Cambridge men. And as Charles Issawi pointed out, both Wickham and Crawford, in addition to their other sins, both elope. Wickham elopes with Elizabeth Bennet's younger sister Lydia but only after having run after Mary King and her ten thousand pounds. Henry Crawford has an adulterous affair with Maria Bertram after her marriage. In Austen's world Cambridge men, it seems, are not to be trusted.

Which leads me back to the family of old Francis Austen, who I believe commissioned Ozias Humphry to paint the portrait of Austen which we know as the Rice Portrait.

I have speculated before on this blog that the Rice Portrait may have been an embarrassment to the Austen family for some reason, which may explain why it was so readily given away. I also think there may have been bad feeling between the Hampshire Austens and their cousins, the family of Francis Motley Austen. This is supported by a letter from Jane's brother Henry Austen to his nephew James Edward Austen Leigh written in 1847. (You can read the full letter on the excellent 'Reveries under the sign of Austen' blog HERE.) Henry says of his relatives: 'It is better to be lucky than wise; It is no scandal to say that my aforesaid relations of West Kent never raised any alarming fears of their setting even the Medway on fire'.

Henry goes on to say that the living of Wickham, in the gift of Francis Austen, should rightfully have gone to his father George Austen rather than his cousin Henry, 'not that he preferred him but because he was the son of an older Brother than my father. Primogeniture, with all its ramifications, was more in those days than since the Reform Bill.'

Jane's letters also reveal resentment to the wealth of her relatives in West Kent. 'Such ill gotten Wealth can never prosper!' she wrote to her sister, on hearing that Francis Motley Austen's third son John had inherited the old Austen family home of Broadford at Horsmonden.

I think it is possible, although of course I have no proof, that old Francis Austen, who had always looked after his nephew George and his family, may have intended that George Austen's two daughters Cassandra and Jane would marry his own grandsons, Francis and Thomas, the eldest sons of Francis Motley Austen, who were exactly the same age as Cassandra and Jane respectively. Perhaps this was the reason the portraits of Jane and Cassandra were commissioned (for more on Cassandra's missing portrait see HERE).

If so, obviously the plan never came to fruition. Old Francis Austen died in 1791 and his son Francis Motley inherited his father's considerable wealth. His eldest son Francis Lucius married Penelope Cholmeley in 1805. His second son, Colonel Thomas Austen, married Margaretta Morland in 1803. She was the daughter of wealthy Thomas Morland of Lamberhust. (Margaretta's grandmother Ellen Johnson was the daughter of slave trader and 'founder of Liverpool' Sir Thomas Johnson).

Unlike his father, his brothers and Jane' Austen's own father and brothers, Colonel Thomas Austen did not attend Oxford. He was admitted to St John's College Cambridge on 28 June 1793. By October 1794 his name was off the roll as in that month he joined the 94th Regiment as captain. He remained in the army until he inherited from his father, his elder brother Francis having pre-deceased his father.

Colonel Thomas Austen

It's hard to resist a comparison with George Wickham. Both are Cambridge men. Both bought into positions in the military. (Breihan and Caplan on Jane Austen and the Militia is an excellent read on this topic.)

George Wickham played by Adrian Lukis
Then there is Austen's choice of name for her anti-hero. Wickham is the name of the manor which belonged the family of old Francis Austen's second wife, Jane Chadwick. Henry Austen explains what happened in the letter to his nephew James Edward Austen Leigh mentioned above:

'Wickham estate & advowson was the property of a Mr. Lennard some ninety years ago. He left it to his widow for life, & afterwards to his and her only child, a Lennard. The widow was legally attacked by the nearest male relatives of this defunct - she flung her cause into the hands of my Great Uncle, old Frank Austen; he won the cause and the wealthy widow's heart and hand. A very pleasing woman she was; I remember her about 1780, & thought her a great deal handsomer than her Daughter who always lived with her & my uncle until her death.'

The widow, Jane Chadwick, had married Samuel Lennard of Wickham Court in about 1750. He was the illegitimate son of Sir Samuel Lennard and four years after his death in 1754 she married Francis Austen. Jane Chadwick's young daughter Mary Lennard evidently came to live with them too, according to Henry. It seems that during this time Wickham Court was let to Samuel Beachcroft, Governor of the Bank of England from 1775-77.

Wickham Court
Jane Austen née Chadwick was later named as one of Austen's godmothers. She died in 1782 and  two years later her daughter Mary Lennard married Major Sir John Farnaby of Kippington. The couple moved into Wickham Court sometime after her marriage; Farnaby is certainly listed as resident in 1798. Wickham Court remained in the Lennard/Farnaby family until it was sold in 1929. It is now a private school and wedding venue.

George Wickham is one of the most unpleasant of Austen's characters. A scoundrel, a layabout, a gold-digger and a liar. Was it coincidence that, like Thomas Austen, he was a Cambridge man and a military man? Was it also a coincidence that Austen gave him a name which was bound to resonate with that branch of the family, being the name of the estate belonging to Francis Motley Austen's half-sister Mary Lennard?

Or was Jane Austen exacting revenge for some past wrong in the only way she could, through the pages of her novels?

I would like to extend my grateful thanks to Hazel Mills and to all the members of Cambridge Jane Austen Society - for inviting me to speak, for lively and erudite debate on the Rice Portrait and on Jane Austen and her life, and for offering me the most wonderful experience of joining you all in the magnificent surroundings of Queens' College, Cambridge.

My lovely gift -
A beautiful watercolour of Queens' College


  1. I've often wondered if Cassandra declined a proposal from Francis Lucius-in much the same way as Fanny Price did in Mansfield Park because she was already dreaming of being married to Tom Fowle (despite the age gap and her tender age at this time. I agree, Ellie- alliances cemented by portraits might explain why the paintings disappeared from sight, and why they were commissioned.

    1. That's fascinating Jane. I hadn't considered a parallel with Fanny Price. But we know how much Francis Austen did for Austen's father and I think it is very possible this was his intention and would explain a great deal. Glad you agree!

  2. Wonderful post Ellie, and I'm so glad that the comment about the Cambridge cads set you off on such an interesting journey. We thoroughly enjoyed your talk/discussion and I am so pleased that you enjoyed the surroundings so much.

    1. Thank you Hazel - it was your remark that set me thinking about this. I had previously thought the name of 'Wickham' was interesting but had not made the Cambridge connection. I had the most marvellous time in Cambridge, thank you so much for inviting me.

  3. Ellie you were so worth listening to and your knowledge is so extensive and you knew all the dates! It fair put me to shame. Please do come again sometime and talk to us, I for one would be delighted to see and hear you.

    1. Thank you Vicki, that's very kind of you. I would love to come and see you all again sometime. I am optimistic that 2017 will bring some real progress!