Jane Austen’s bracelet

Text by Hazel Jones, author and editor of the Jane Austen Society Annual Report

In 1914 Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh gave to a great-niece a turquoise glass and ivory bead bracelet with a pinchbeck clasp. Helen Wilder kept it until 1973, then decided that it belonged at Jane Austen’s House. ‘It is only of sentimental value as it is of beads but it is a charming thing’, she wrote to the President of the Austen Society; ‘she gave me the bracelet telling me it had belonged to Jane Austen’.

Dating the bracelet itself is problematic. Experts at the V&A have considered in particular the decoration of the gilt metal clasp, which features densely arranged flowers around a rectangle with a symmetrical foliage motif, a decoration which was fashionable between 1810 and 1815. A gold watchcase made in  Liverpool and a London gold box both made 1815 – 1818 have similar features. The conclusion is that if it is correct to identify a Neoclassical element in the catch which was falling from fashion, and to date dense floral decoration as arriving in the years before 1815-16 … then it could be argued that the most likely date of the bracelet is 1810 – 20 rather than later.

If the bracelet is genuine, as family tradition claims, it must date to Jane Austen’s last years, yet she does not mention it in the numerous letters to Cassandra written between 1815-1816.

How the bracelet came to Mary Augusta is unrecorded, but the likeliest explanation is that Cassandra either left it to her, or to Caroline Austen. Caroline’s will specified that various ‘trinkets’ were to be divided between three nieces, including Mary Augusta. Given that the bracelet had little monetary value it would have counted as a mere ‘trinket’ albeit one of great sentimental worth.

What value would be placed on such an item today?