This week I have been immersed, not in the Regency period of Emma and Mary’s girlhood years, but in the 1830s.
June has turned into a ‘big’ month for me: the publication (finally!) of Persuasions, the Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America, which contains my article on Emma Austen; and the release (June 12th), in England, of Local Past, the Journal of the Alcester and District (Warwickshire) Historical Society. This contains my article on Emma’s sister Fanny, who married the Rev. Richard Seymour and settled in Kinwarton (about ten miles from Stratford on Avon) for the rest of her long life. This last has spurred me on to finish an article I hope the editor will accept for the December issue, which continues Fanny’s story with the birth of her first son in October 1835.
Unfortunate for Fanny, the child – which was described by Emma as ‘very fine’, died after little more than a day.
What affected me most was reading months earlier a later letter, written by Fanny in 1837. In this letter she relates a little story that shows just how much Richard enjoyed his baby daughter’s company, enjoyed making her laugh, enjoyed puzzling out whom she looked like. Oh, he sounded such a wonderful father! Only upon further investigation into their lives, did I realize that this little girl was not their first child, but their second. How heart-breaking to have gone through pregnancy and birth only to see your child begin strong and then die!
The time-period is one of the interesting parts of this research. Taken together, the lives of these people span the early years of the nineteenth-century (of this generation, Edward Austen, born in 1798, is one of the elder members), and, for the longer-lived, extend into the middle and later years of Victoria’s reign. From George III to Victoria; from horse to the ‘iron horse’; from war abroad to strife at home; from the Age of Austen to the Age of Dickens.
However, in looking at the children one can never forget the parents, and even grandparents. And this moves us back to the 1760s and the birth of the parent-generation.
I began writing an article about the Goslings recently, which just has to start off with two ladies: Mrs Eliza Gosling née Cunliffe and Mrs Eliza Chute née Smith. I like to think of them as The Two Elizas. Funny thing is, they both married men named William! (Very confusing for the casual reader, no?)
One Eliza, Mrs Gosling, was mother to Mary Gosling; the other Eliza, who had no children of her own, was aunt to Emma Smith. Therefore, for two generations these two families had what they themselves described as relationships between ‘sisters-of-the-heart’. Friendships so close that the two women involved felt like sisters. Eliza Chute had three sisters; Eliza Gosling alas had only one. Emma Smith had five sisters, while Mary Gosling had two, but one to which she had a close-close bond.
I cannot prove that either Mrs Gosling, or the two girls, Emma and Mary, ever met Jane Austen (until there comes a new diary, or an as-yet-unread letter…). But Eliza Chute knew her, entertained her even.
In recent years, researchers have begun to look into the diaries of Eliza Chute of The Vyne. This estate, which can be visited as it belongs now to the National Trust, is located in the parish of Sherborne St John (some few miles from Basingstoke). The man who ministered to the congregation on Sundays was none other than the Rev. James Austen, Jane’s eldest brother. Even a cursory review of Deirdre Le Faye’s wonderful Chronology of Jane Austen and Her Family (2006) shows how many Sundays James returned to The Vyne for a repast. In later years he would be accompanied by his son, James-Edward (known as Edward in the family). This little boy grew up to write A Memoir of Jane Austen under the name he took in 1837: James Edward Austen-Leigh.
I’m still digging into the short life of Eliza Gosling and the early life of Eliza Chute – and am actively seeking any information on the Two Elizas, in the form of letters, diaries, even mentions in published books. For instance, Eliza Gosling, when a girl and still Eliza Cunliffe, met James Boswell. She and her sister (‘Miss Cunliff’) are mentioned in Boswell’s letters! Sometimes it is a very small world. I have cause to say that over and again.