Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 24 2019 01:00PM

Six years ago, the singer Kelly Clarkson was forced to part with a charming little piece of jewelry she had just picked up at auction in England: a turquoise ring that had once belonged to Jane Austen.

Upon hearing that a precious bit of the nation’s cultural heritage was about to depart for America – oh, the horror! – the UK government slapped an export ban on Clarkson’s ring. Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton cottage, launched a public appeal that collected the $250,000 necessary to buy the ring back and put it on permanent display.

Apparently, it’s time again for public-spirited Janeites to dig into their wallets and help the museum preserve a treasured piece of Austeniana. A fragment of an 1814 Austen letter is for sale, and although the museum has already raised most of the £35,000 (about $44,500) purchase price, it must come up with the remaining £10,000 ($12,700) by July 31.

If the fundraising succeeds, the letter-fragment will go on display this year at the museum, which also owns another dozen Austen letters. But if the appeal fails, the fragment will likely disappear into a private collection.

The letter in question -- #112 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence – is dated November 29, 1814. While staying in London with her brother Henry, Austen wrote to her niece Anna Lefroy, discussing some family comings and goings and describing her underwhelmed reaction to a theatrical production of an eighteenth-century tragedy (“I took two Pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either”). As Austen letters go, it’s fairly routine: interesting because we are interested in everything about Our Author, but not all that exciting in itself.

The text of the letter has been known from family and scholarly sources since the nineteenth century, but sometime after the 1869 publication of the Memoir of Jane Austen, written by Anna Lefroy’s half-brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, the physical letter was cut up into at least five pieces.

One of these five pieces is in the British Library, and one is in private hands. Two are apparently lost, and as recently as eight years ago, when Le Faye published the fourth edition of her collection of Austen correspondence, the fifth section, which comprises about three-quarters of the text, was also believed lost.

But sometime since then, this lost section apparently resurfaced, and the museum is eager to get it. Signs look pretty good, I’d say: As of this morning, an online appeal had raised £2,871, nearly 29 percent of the required total.

But just in case things still look dodgy a month from now, the museum is hosting a July 23 benefit party featuring a talk by Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland at an antiquarian bookstore in London. Tickets are going for £48 (about $61), with proceeds supporting the fundraising appeal.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 29 2016 01:00PM

And here’s an interesting footnote to the tale of Jane Austen’s ring – bought at auction four years ago by American singer Kelly Clarkson, then bought back by Jane Austen’s House Museum, after British authorities refused to let Clarkson take this priceless piece of British heritage out of the country.

Turns out Clarkson isn’t the only rich collector to run afoul of this particular element of UK export law. Just yesterday the BBC reported that a sapphire-and-diamond coronet Prince Albert designed for Queen Victoria to wear at their 1840 wedding is under the same temporary ban that ultimately prevented Clarkson from exporting the Austen ring.

In the past decade, the ban, which gives potential UK buyers time to match the price offered by the would-be exporter, has also been invoked, with mixed success, to thwart the removal of an 1842 landscape by JMW Turner, a classic Bentley racing car, a medieval Italian panel and a beloved Picasso, the BBC reports.

I get why objects owned or created by British artists or rulers count as British national treasures, but not why Italian and Spanish paintings that just happen to be owned by UK collectors earn this designation. A teensy bit colonialist, no? But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to encounter this attitude in a country that still won’t return the Elgin Marbles.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 11 2016 01:00PM

Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of a Janeite teapot tempest – the purchase at auction, by American singer Kelly Clarkson, of a turquoise ring that once belonged to Jane Austen.

As you will recall, Clarkson paid £152,000 -- pre-Brexit, the equivalent of about $236,000 -- for the rare Austen relic, only to be legally barred from taking a national treasure out of Great Britain. A year later, Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton raised enough money to buy the ring back from her, and it’s now on permanent display. Clarkson had to make do with a replica, a gift from her fiance, which she wore when she sang at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

For a mere fraction of what Clarkson paid, it’s possible for any Janeite to fairly drip with Austen-ish turquoise jewelry: Through the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, you can now buy a replica of the ring, plus matching pendant and earrings, for $332. (What, no bracelet? No nose ring?)

Jane Austen and I share the same December birth month, and thus the same turquoise birthstone, so you’d think I would be lining up for these items. But – shh! Don’t tell! – I think the ring is kind of ugly. I’ve never much liked turquoise. Sorry, Kelly. And Jane.

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