Portrait miniature of Mary Pearson

Text by Emma Rutherford, Independent historian and portrait miniatures specialist

Mary Pearson, wearing white muslin dress, her dark brown hair curled and upswept, c. 1798

By William Wood (1769-1810)

Watercolour on ivory

Oval, 3 ½ in (91mm) high

Gold frame, the reverse with plaited hair

Provenance: by family descent

This portrait miniature is of Mary Pearson, who was briefly the fiancée of Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850), brother of Jane. Mary was the daughter of the distinguished naval officer Sir Richard Pearson (1731-1806) and his wife Margaret.

In 1796 she became engaged to Henry and met Jane at Rowling in Kent (where their brother Edward Austen lived) during the late summer. Jane’s thoughts on her brother’s choice of future wife are recorded in her letters to Cassandra;

‘If Miss Pearson should return with me, pray be careful not to expect too much Beauty. I will not pretend to say that on first view she quite answered the opinion I had formed of her. My Mother I am sure will be disappointed. From what I remember of her picture, it is of no great resemblance’. It is probable that Jane refers to a portrait miniature in her letter, as these personal, portable portraits were considered to be the most faithful portrayals.

The engagement between Henry and Mary was short-lived, Henry’s affections moving swiftly to his cousin, the widowed Eliza Hancock, whom he married the following year. Eliza also had plenty to say on Mary’s appearance, (perhaps jealously) commenting; ‘She is a pretty wicked looking girl, with bright black eyes which pierce through and through’.

Jane and her family were shocked by the brevity of Henry’s engagement to Mary. Jane continued to stay in touch with Mary up until 1799, but in 1807, when Mary was living with her sisters in Southampton, Jane described their home as ‘the only Family in the place we cannot visit’. This portrait miniature, dated 1798, probably marks Mary’s tentative foray back into society. This cannot have been easy as a rejected fiancée and in fact Mary did not marry until 1815.

As a young, pretty girl who jumped into a short-lived engagement with a dashing young soldier, it has been suggested that Mary Pearson may have been an inspiration for the character of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice. Whilst this cannot be proved, it is true that Jane began writing her militia novel First Impressions, later to be renamed Pride and Prejudice, in around 1796, just as Henry and Mary’s engagement was at the height of interest.