A gold and gem set ring that once belonged to Jane Austen sold for £152,450, more than five times its presale estimate.
DUBLIN - What makes the personal possessions of great writers and historical figures so enticing? I had a chance to ponder this question when, last Wednesday afternoon, a colleague and I travelled to Dublin with the carefully-packed highlights from our English Literature and History auction next week for a short exhibition.
Most of the cabinets were taken up by Irish political papers and literary highlights, including letters by one of Dublin’s greatest writers, Jonathan Swift. The exhibition was busy – including I think every tour guide from St Patrick’s Cathedral, bustling with enthusiasm at the Swift letters – however the item that drew most visitors was not a printed book or a manuscript, but a small gold ring set with a turquoise, of pleasingly simple design but of no great intrinsic value, that is of interest for one reason only: it once belonged to Jane Austen.
Throughout the day we had a steady stream of people who wanted to see Jane’s ring, including quite a few who had made a special trip to Dublin. As we talked, it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of these Janeites (as Austen’s legions of enthusiasts are known) and to feel the tangible power of great literature. So many people feel a deep connection to Austen, find that her writing speaks to them and their lives, and that they have what almost amounts to a personal relationship with the author.
A personal artefact comes as close as possible to dissolving the barrier between writer and reader. The fact that this is a ring, such an intimate and personal possession, makes it even more powerful and poignant. Much pleasure was had in spinning out speculation of who gave the ring to Jane. Could it have been the Irishman Tom Lefroy, who became known as her “Irish lover” in our conversations (and has been cast as the original Mr Darcy)? Jane described Lefroy as a “gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man” (she was even willing to forgive the deplorable colour of his morning suit) and they danced and flirted – but there is no mention in her letters of the gift of a ring. Alternatively, a highly respected scholar has suggested to me that the ring may have come from Jane’s brother Henry when he was working as a banker in London. This makes sense on several counts: Henry would have had the money to buy her the ring, it is in a jeweller’s box from a goldsmith in the City (although this may not be original), and Jane’s sister Cassandra later gave it to Henry’s second wife, but in the end it is still speculation.
I am not sure if the ultimate buyer for this ring will come from Dublin, but it was wonderful to see such a range of people (from schoolchildren onwards) so enjoying a Sotheby’s exhibition, and the pleasure of the day more than made up for the dreary traffic back to the airport and our delayed flight back to London…
The ring is offered Jane Austen’s descendants and is accompanied by an 1863 letter from
Eleanor Austen bequeathing it to her niece Caroline Austen.
Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra in 1810.
Tom Lefroy, who may have given the ring to Jane Austen. This miniature of him was offered
by Judy and Brian Harden at the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair in 2008.