• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1811. . .

Seventy-sixth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen’s novels famously contain few detailed descriptions of clothing, houses, or furniture, and relatively few of Austen’s own possessions survive. As a result, every glimpse of the material culture of her time can feel like a tiny epiphany.


So it is that a certain frisson accompanies our reading of the letter that Austen wrote exactly 211 years ago today, in which she gives her sister, Cassandra, exciting news about . . . the arrival of new china, apparently purchased to fill out an existing set, from a company as well-known in our time as in hers.


“On Monday I had the pleasure of receiving, unpacking & approving our Wedgwood ware,” Austen writes in the letter (#75 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “It all came very safely, & upon the whole is a good match, tho’ I think they might have allowed us rather larger leaves, especially in such a Year of fine foliage as this. One is apt to suppose that the Woods about Birmingham must be blighted.”


The Wedgwood in question is not the purple-and-gold dinner service currently on display at Jane Austen’s House, as Austen scholar Linda Slothouber makes clear in a 2011 article: That set, whose purchase Austen describes in a letter written two years later, was originally bought for Chawton House, the nearby mansion owned by Austen’s older brother Edward Knight.


Since records of the 1811 purchase are incomplete, or at least were when Slothouber published her article, we can only speculate what it was about the pattern on the new china that made Austen joke about blighted leaves.


“In the early nineteenth century, decorations on tableware became progressively larger and more exuberant than in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, with designs covering more of the surface area of the pieces,” Slothouber writes. “If Austen had seen this newer style, yet ordered an older, more disciplined pattern to match existing dishes, then the border of woodland leaves may well have looked outdated or unpleasing to her eyes.”


A set of tableware that no longer exists, decorated in a pattern we can only guess at: The letter offers us barely a glimpse into Austen’s daily life. But better a partial, tantalizing glimpse than nothing at all.

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