Of Jane Austen’s known jewelry, her topaz cross came from her younger brother, Charles, who bought one each for his sisters with his first navy prize in 1801. Her turquoise bracelet probably came from another brother, Edward, as a memento relating to the death
of his beloved wife Elizabeth in 1808. (Photo by Michael Maggs, Wikimedia Commons)
But what is the provenance of the turquoise ring, the one that American singer Kelly Clarkson sought to buy at auction in 2013? And could that ring have drawn Jane Austen into a search for fossils along the cliffs of Lyme Regis?
The possible loss of the Austen ring—to an American!—a rock star!—set off a controversy unlike any since Lord Elgin spirited the Parthenon marbles out of Greece and into England during Austen’s day. Pooling their farthings in 2013, England’s Janeites raised £152,450 ($232,836) to secure the ring for posterity.
But whence the ring originally? The only reference I have been able to find to a Jane Austen ring during her lifetime is her Stoneleigh Abbey inheritance of a “Single Brilliant Centre Ring.” This came when her aunt and uncle Leigh-Perrott accepted a financial settlement in exchange for any claim to the Stoneleigh estate when the last of the direct Leigh line died in 1806.
That settlement, even with a ring or other trinkets, was a bitter disappointment to the Austens. In a letter, Jane called it a “vile compromise.” If the Leigh-Perrots had pressed their claim—and won—the oldest Austen brother, James, would have eventually inherited the magnificent estate from the childless Leigh-Perrots.
Could this brilliant centre ring from Stoneleigh be the same brilliant turquoise that now rests, safe from marauding Americans, at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire?
Even if the ring originated elsewhere, its composition raises fascinating questions in itself, for it could provide a new perspective on a paleontological family in Lyme Regis whom Austen knew. The blue stone is odontolite: fluorophosphate infiltrated by hydrous ferrous phosphate. In plain language, it is an ancient tooth that has been stained blue by the soil. In plainer language still, a fossil.
Fossils were contentious science in the early 1800s and for long after because they contravened the officially accepted age of the Earth. Bishop Ussher in 1650 had set Creation at precisely 6 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C.—5,779 B.J. (Before Jane). Though only one-sixth of his sources were biblical, the Church adopted his estimate as fact.
Yet here were these cliffs, composed of layers and layers of soil, deposited slowly over time, each layer containing its own collection of life as shown in the fossilized remains. A calculation based on God’s rocks rather than on Man’s generations would put the age of the Earth—and its lifeforms—at many, many millions of years (185 million is today’s estimate of the Lyme deposits).
Fossil exploration in the Regency era was part of a drumbeat of discoveries pouring out of studies in astronomy, chemistry, and geology that put the literalness of Scripture—and ecclesiastical authority—at risk. Though this was half a century before the theory of evolution, Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, had already postulated the existence of a mechanism by which one species might turn into another. Fossils supported that view.
Consider then that Austen knew a cabinetmaker named Richard Anning, who came to the family quarters in Lyme Regis at least once, to provide a bid for a furniture repair in 1804. Anning also sold fossils, dug from the nearby cliffs, to tourists. He used the proceeds to supplement his meager wages and to fund more serious excavations.
Because the Anning family sold the more common fossils at the small village market, Austen must have seen Anning from time to time. If she had the ring then, he might have recognized the stone as a fossil and perhaps discussed its origins with her. A woman who loved to walk the cliffs, Austen would have been fascinated by the natural philosophy involving the ground beneath her feet.
Very likely, Austen met the family’s young daughter, Mary, peddling those same wares at the market. Could Austen have resisted buying a modest fossil from the scruffy but precocious girl? Would Jane’s interactions with the Anning family have led her to scrape out a fossil here and there along her walks?
Mary Anning grew up to become one of the leading paleontologists in the world. Among her finds, mostly at Lyme Regis, were the first complete skeletons of the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur. As a woman and religious dissenter, she seldom received full recognition for her work, was denied membership in the Geological Society of London, and lived most of her life in poverty. She once wrote: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”
Two centuries later, the Royal Society named Anning one of the ten most important British women in the history of science. Lyme Regis now has a fossil festival and celebrates an annual Mary Anning day.
One supposes that, years later, Austen might have slipped away from Chawton to travel back to her beloved Dorset coast—to refresh her memory of the Cobb, perhaps, for Persuasion?—and have come upon Mary Anning once again. In 1815, Mary would have been sixteen and as mature in her science as Jane had been in her writing at the same age.
It is tantalizing to imagine that there could have been a day along the cliffs when one of the greats of English literature joined with one of the greats of English science—both largely unrecognized in their time—to dirty their petticoats in a hunt for the elusive pterosaur hidden within the Blue Lias.
(This article was originally published in Jane Austen’s Regency World.)