Jane Austen's Embarrassing Aunt
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
We all consider Elizabeth Bennet's mother the most embarrassing relative imaginable, but the extremely readable Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins, suggests otherwise.
In August 1799 a Mrs Jane Leigh-Perrot was arrested for stealing lace worth twenty shillings from Elizabeth Gregory's shop in Bath. She was refused bail, but instead of being held in the County Goal at Ilchester was permitted to live with her husband in the adjacent prison-keeper's house.
For a woman of rank, even this was intolerable. A sympathetic letter written to her from a cousin says: "You tell me that your good sister has offered you one, or both, of her daughters to continue with you during your stay in that vile place, but you decline the kind offer, as you cannot procure them accommodation in the house with you, and you cannot let these elegant young women be your inmates in a prison, nor be subject to the inconvenience which you are obliged to put up with."
The "two elegant young women" were Jane and Cassandra Austen. Mrs Leigh-Perrot was their aunt.
At that time, high value theft was a capital offense, though juries usually refused to convict because of this. The gentry also had their own ways of avoiding the transportation to which would have been the lot of a maidservant accused of stealing such a piece of expensive frippery.
Mrs Leigh-Perrot was acquitted, with rumours of the shopkeeper having been bribed to bring this about. The light-fingered lady was subsequently accused of stealing a plant, in 1804, though no prosecution followed. An eighteenth-century case of kleptomania, perhaps?
It does make one wonder whether Jane Austen was tempted to make use of this incident in one of her novels.