“My dear Caroline, The enclosed Ring once belonged to your Aunt Jane. It was given to me by your Aunt Cassandra as soon as she knew that I was engaged to your Uncle. I bequeath it to you. God bless you.”
This was the note that came with a simple gem-set gold ring, once owned by Jane Austen, offered at Sotheby's on July 10. Something that has escaped the attention of those many admirers and ardent chroniclers of her life and works, it was sent for sale by a descendant and bid to £126,000 by a collector.
The stone is probably odontolite, which came into fashion in the early 19th century as a cheaper substitute for turquoise, and the ring (still in the original London jeweller's box) is a simple but attractive piece that, as the cataloguer observed, befits not only its owner's modest income but also what is known of her taste in jewellery.
When Jane died in 1817, her jewellery and other personal possessions passed to her sister, Cassandra, who appears to have given away a number of pieces to family and friends as mementos.
Three years after Jane's death, Cassandra gave this ring to Eleanor Jackson, who was to marry her brother, the Reverend Henry Thomas Austen. Jane's favourite brother, and one who had been closely involved in getting her work published, Henry had failed as a banker but by this time was a member of the clergy and curate at Chawton, where Cassandra still lived and where Jane spent the last eight years of her life. Eleanor, his second wife, was the niece of the rector.
Eleanor kept the ring for many years, but in 1869 gave it to her niece, Caroline, who had been assisting her brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in writing his Memoir of Jane Austen, published that very year. It seems likely that Eleanor felt the ring should pass to someone who had been so active in helping preserve Jane's memory, and who had so many childhood memories of her own.
In that same Sotheby's sale, an 1813 first of Jane's most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice (someone has apparently worked out that it has sold 20 million copies worldwide over the last 200 years) was sold at £18,750.
Not a high price where this book is concerned - the record currently standing at £115,000 - but this was a copy, in repaired and rebacked half calf and marbled boards, that lacked half-titles and advertisement leaves, showed some gatherings standing proud, one leaf crudely opened and had some spotting and browning to the text.
Bearing the ownership signatures of the novelist Hugh Walpole, along with his Brackenburn bookplates and a short note in his hand, dated 1938, an 1847 first of Charlotte Brontë'sJane Eyrewas sold for a record £55,000 in the New Bond Street sale. A few leaves were slightly stained or spotted, and the hinges remain a little fragile or starting, despite earlier repairs, but the price betters the $95,000 (then £49,350) paid at Sotheby's New York in 2004 for the extraordinarily well preserved copy in the Insley Blair library.