Topaz crossesText by Annalie Talent, Learning Officer at Jane Austen's House
These topaz crosses belonged to Jane and Cassandra Austen. They were gifts from their younger brother Charles; ‘our own particular little brother’ as Jane Austen once fondly described him. Charles, an officer in the Royal Navy, bought the crosses with prize money he received from the capture of an enemy ship. In a letter to Cassandra, dated 26/27 May, 1801, Jane Austen writes with mock indignation (but obvious delight): ‘…of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters. He has been buying Gold chains and Topaze (sic) Crosses for us; – he must be well scolded…I shall write again by this post to thank and reproach him. We shall be unbearably fine.’
The jewels are, indeed, very fine. Set in gold, the topaz stones are extremely good quality (stones during this period were often foiled and enclosed at the back to enhance their colour; these have no need). We do not know for sure which cross belonged to which sister; perhaps they borrowed each other’s crosses, in the way that sisters often borrow each other’s possessions.
What we do know is that a few years after this gift was made, Jane Austen was writing Mansfield Park. The heroine, Fanny Price, has a sailor brother called William, who, like Charles Austen, gives his sister a ‘very pretty’ cross (an amber one), although he cannot afford to buy a gold chain to go with it.
Jewels have always been seen as symbols of social power. As Jane Austen would have been aware, however, their worth also lies in something more profound; for Jane and Cassandra, as for Fanny Price, their crosses were symbols not only of their religious faith, but also of their sincere affection for a much loved brother.