Note: This article was published in the most recent JASNA News (Jane Austen Society of North America’s newsletter), in an abbreviated form. The pictures (by Mike in Tring; thanks, Mike) looked GREAT! But the story I wanted to tell was only half-told.
Here is the story of my Spring Fling (last May, 2014) in a place that is THIS YEAR celebrating it’s 700th anniversary (chartered in 1315), Tring in the county of Hertfordshire, England.
In the Shadow of James Edward Austen
The recipient of the (in)famous “piece of ivory” letter, Jane Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen authored two late-in-life books: Recollections of the Early Days of the Vine Hunt (1865) and A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869; 1871); and served as the subject of a memoir by daughter Mary Augusta Austen Leigh (1911). In concentrating on his wife Emma Smith — one half of my “Two Teens in the Time of Austen” project — it’s easy to overlook the young husband who joined the predominately-female Smith household on 16 December 1828.
The wedding ceremony took place in the parish church of Tring; Edward was to serve as curate until the Austens left in November 1833. His stipend: ₤20 per annum. “The place must have a curate,” wrote Emma’s sister Fanny Smith, “as there are three churches to serve”. With an income of £850 a year (not counting the stipend, earmarked for Edward’s own substitute when he had to be away), the couple had the opportunity to build a nest egg by living with Emma’s large family at Tring Park, a substantial estate once owned by great uncle Sir Drummond Smith. Five sisters and two brothers, under the watchful eye of the widowed Mrs (Augusta) Smith, provided Edward Austen with a bustling household that he came to adore. Edward’s superior, the Rev. Mr. Charles Lacy, was an unmarried man (though with an intended), only three years older than himself, who had held the living for nearly ten years. The Smiths all commented favorably on their vicar’s preaching, conversation, and singing. Edward looked back on the Tring years, during which the Austens welcomed their first three children, with great fondness.
During the wedding breakfast, the servants had danced in the hall. The day I visited Tring Park (now a performing arts school), the pale light of a rainy English day filtered through the super-sized window on the far side of the stair well, weakly illuminating the hall that echoes still with notes from violins and dance. My tour guide, Mike, was able to show the nooks and crannies thanks to school being out for the week. The soft rain dampened thoughts of tramping the grounds, so we ventured no further than the small church where Edward Austen “did the duty,” to use the phrase Edward used [see uppermost photo]. Vestry Minutes for September 1832 marked a milestone in the church’s history: “The Revd J.E. Austen proposed on the part of the Miss Smith’s [sic] of Tring Park to present the Church with an Organ.” A vote was moved, seconded – and passed! Mr Lacy was tasked with conveying the news to Emma’s sisters. Mike and I had hoped to glimpse the little organ, as it may still exist – but the church of Long Marston was unfortunately closed, except for service.
The third church – at Wigginton – was open to visitors! Described by Mary Austen Leigh as “a scattered village on a picturesque common,” it was in the “damp and cold little church” at Wigginton that chills caught while preaching and teaching affected Edward’s throat to such an extent that his voice grew weak and was never again the same. His diary entry for January 13 (1833) places him in Wigginton, and ends in the remark “I did no more Sunday duty on account of my throat”. His ability to read aloud, his family’s “evening enjoyment” since Edward “could always make the characters, to use his Aunt Jane’s expression, ‘speak as they should do,’” was also affected. During months of inactivity, Edward Austen cut keenly-observed silhouettes, now published as Life in the Country with Quotations by Jane Austen (2008).