Amid the bustle of this year’s Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), where many attendees sport Regency garb from dawn to dusk, one curious piece of material history is provoking sustained, triumphal glee.
Last year, Kelly Clarkson, winner of the first American Idol, in 2002, bought a turquoise-and-gold ring that Austen had bequeathed to her sister, Cassandra. Clarkson is a devotee of the novelist and, by virtue of her fortune, a serious collector who already keeps a first edition of Persuasion in her personal library. Sotheby’s had placed the ring’s reserve price at £30,000; Clarkson paid £152,450.
Original Austen totems are hard to come by. Slivers of her library have survived, as have a few likenesses by Cassandra, various small items of jewelry (including a topaz cross that Paula Byrne is especially fond of), and whatever portion of the novelist’s letters Cassandra didn’t burn. The scarcity of such items, and the national importance of the writer Rudyard Kipling once called “England’s Jane,” prompted furrowed brows on at least two continents over the prospect that this ring—perhaps she wore it as she wrote Persuasion!—might find an unceremonious home in southern California. Austen blogs and listservs lit up, as did the Republic of Pemberley.
The Jane Austen’s House Museum, in the Hampshire village where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, marshaled this general unease into a pledge-drive campaign. Meanwhile, England’s culture minister, Ed Vaizey, enforced a rare “temporary export bar” that kept the ring in the U.K. and gave the museum until the end of December 2013 to match the Clarkson bid. Vaizey’s statement was simple: “Jane Austen’s modest lifestyle and her early death mean that objects associated with her of any kind are extremely rare, so I hope that a UK buyer comes forward so this simple but elegant ring can be saved for the nation.”
As of two days ago, with the help of an anonymous six-figure donation, the Jane Austen’s House Museum had raised £157,740 and now owns the ring. Clarkson will have to be content contemplating her own vast “wealth and grandeur,” as Marianne Dashwood would say.
Spirits in Minneapolis are predictably high, and the identity of the anonymous donor is treated as an open secret.
“Sandy,” one lady (in costume) whispered to another (in civilian garb). “I mean we all know it’s Sandy, right?”
The “Sandy” in question is Sandra Lerner, cofounder of Cisco Systems, who made extensive refurbishments to Chawton House, Austen’s final home, where the ring will be on display next year, and established it in 1992 as a sort of mecca for Janeites.
Similar conversations peppered the Meryton Market, a book-and-bonnet emporium on the third floor of the Hilton on Marquette Street. Famous Austen scholars milled about and seemed happy to share a portion of the triumph. Deborah Yaffe, author of Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, expressed pleasure, if not surprise, at the ring’s new home, and seems mainly impressed with minister Vaizey’s power move.
“It’s funny,” Yaffe told me, “because my mother actually went to school with Ed Vaizey’s mother.” (Both mothers attended the Brearley School on the upper east side of Manhattan.)
The Englishwoman manning the Chawton House table on floor three was far more coy. “Oh, you can unravel it,” she assured me. “Consider who can spend that kind of money, and then consider which of those people is, shall we say, involved at Chawton.”
Whether or not the Lerner rumor is true, the glee in its circulation is revealing. Chatter over “anonymous benefactors” in Austen’s novels turns normally rational creatures into parodies of Miss Bates, and secrecy where money is involved remains a fascinating topic to whisper about behind fans. Half of the people dishing about the ring are wearing Regency gowns, which lends an air of gravity to some and looks merely ridiculous on others.
The modern world of Austen fandom is vast, highly networked, not so much insular as well connected. The novelist once wrote to her niece Anna LeFroy that “three or four families in a country village” offered a very reliable model for a novel, and this highly circumscribed society feels eerie in its similarity to the web of Jane Austen societies the world over. Even with JASNA attendees from South Africa, India, and Australia, there remains a certain intimacy within the diaspora of Janeites. Gossip travels faster and farther now—but the Austen world always feels like a small one, and certain subjects will never go out of fashion.
Ted Scheinman is a doctoral candidate and culture reporter based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His essays, reporting, and criticism have appeared in Slate, the Oxford American, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter at @Ted_Scheinman.