“Jane, is that you?”

November 22, 2014 at 2:04 pm (history, people, portraits and paintings) (, , , , )

The “Jane” in question here is not Jane Austen but Jane Perceval, wife then widow of Spencer Perceval the British Prime Minister murdered in 1812.

Although my first volume of Smith & Gosling biography begins in 1814 – the history surrounding the PM’s death two years prior is vital: Spencer Perceval was a relative of Mamma Smith’s brother-in-law Charles, 1st Marquess of Northampton. The Marquess’s son, young Lord Compton, ended up in Parliament soon thereafter. Several letters discuss the Percevals — Jane and her children — during the immediate aftermath of the assassination.

One letter, written by Jane herself, has her on the defensive against an out-cry caused by the widow’s upcoming remarriage. Emma Smith mentions the fact of her marriage to “Sir H. Carr” (no embellishments) in her 1815 diary.

The woman, obviously distraught at the negativism, and combating an illness, was pleading her case at such length, that I simply had to find out more about her. And that’s when I came across this purported portrait on the blog PottoingAround. It went up for auction in May 2014.

janeperceval_vigee lebrun

A major  “anniversary” year in 2012 (200 years since the assassination), there started some thoughts on commemorating Perceval; at least one biography came out; some press articles &c. It is less his death than how the family responded and coped that interests me. I’ve read of similar backlash when Mrs Thrale (who made no bones about how unhappy Henry Thrale made her) married Mr. Piozzi. “Public opinion” as well as private sentiments were making themselves felt in this case, however — especially as Mrs Perceval had been granted a generous “pension”. This remains an area I’ll have to delve into a bit more, just out of curiosity.

This portrait, a pastel by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, dates to 1804. The French artist was resident in England at the time, so the fact of it being her work seems not in question. What IS questioned is the identification of the sitter.

It’s difficult to compare portraits – and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on various representations looking like each other: there are too many portrait series where the sitter is KNOWN and the portraits look very little alike (I might, as a quick for instance, mention Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire’s several portraits).

For my purposes, I sure HOPE this is Jane Perceval. Hands-down, it would win my case; for I wish to call Jane Perceval, in May 1812, a ‘vibrant’ woman in her forties. No one viewing this portrait would be immune to the charms of this face just eight years later.

* * *

  • More info on Vigée Le Brun, the terrific Batguano site (this pastel is near the top of the page)
  • the “hidden in plain sight” family history of an MP
  • recent news on a Spencer Perceval memorial plaque


  1. Ronald said,

    Hi Kelly

    I hope you will excuse the following genealogical distraction! Family relationships can become very complex, through intermarriages, and the Smiths were related to as many people as the Austens. As you mentioned, Spencer Perceval was related to Charles Compton, the Marquess of Northampton – they were first cousins – and Charles’s wife was Maria Smith. Spencer’s wife was Jane Wilson, the daughter of the General Sir Thomas Spencer Wilson. (He got the name Spencer from his Godfather, the Earl of Wilmington.) One of Jane’s sisters, Margaretta Elizabeth Wilson, married Spencer Perceval’s older brother, Charles George Perceval, Baron Arden. Margaretta and Charles had a daughter, Caroline Frances Perceval, who married the Rt Hon Sir William Heathcote – whose father was Rev. William Heathcote, Prebendary of Winchester. Sir William’s mother was Elizabeth Bigg – the sister of Harris Bigg-Wither., and we know all about him.


    There has always been a puzzle concerning why Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral. It makes sense to us now, but at the time of her death she was relatively unknown. Elizabeth (Bigg) Heathcote, the Rev. William’s widow, as a member of the Winchester establishment, may have had a role.

    Jane Austen still had six years of life ahead of her in 1812, but if she wrote about Spencer Perceval’s death, it isn’t listed in the index of Deirdre Le Faye’s Letters.


    • Janeite Kelly said,

      HI, Ron – good to hear from you again!

      It IS amazing how far-reaching the tentacles of familial relations reach. And a lot of “inter” connections.

      Food for thought, indeed, as to Austen’s place of burial. I’d be interested to hear more about Mrs Heathcote and Winchester!

      I cannot image that in some letter to someone, Austen indeed mentioned the news of the day, that May of 1812. So many lament for Jane’s letters to Cassandra — but they, surely, were the tip of a large iceberg. ‘Correspondence networks’ are known to be quite vast (in number of letters, as well as number of correspondents). If nothing else, word surely passed from Castle Ashby (Comptons/Northampton) to The Vyne (Chutes) to Steventon (the James Austens) to Chawton Cottage.


  2. Charlot said,

    Even allowing for the artist’s commercial drive to flatter the sitter, and for the fact that, yes, some women do keep a wonderful fresh natural beauty, can we really believe that the subject was born in 1769 and had had eleven children?

    • Janeite Kelly said,

      Hi, Charlot — I’ve done a bit of thinking since first reading your comment. And ‘yeah’ comes to mind, in answer. Even back in 1804 there HAD to be women, in their “30s” who looked good. Vigee-Lebrun’s portraits are GORGEOUS; I remember being so enticed by her Countess Skavronskaia at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre… BUT: being over that age (ah-hem), I have to wonder, even “back then”, whether women couldn’t have been vital and youthful, yes even despite a large “brattery”. That idea certainly comes to mind when I think of remarriages: the man, in need of a wife and mother for his children (and potentially more children!) = thumbs up; the woman, in need of a husband = HIGHLY discouraged. Double standards, ah, how they never change.

      Thanks for writing! k

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