Mrs Unwin’s Spectacles

Mrs Unwin's spectacles

Contributor: Kathryn Sutherland

Location: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire

Description: With oval frames of honey-coloured horn and silver hinges, Mrs Unwin’s spectacles have a fashionable air. One sidepiece is missing and only one lens survives to indicate slight long-sightedness of the kind that comes with age. Prescription lenses were in use at this time but we do not know whether Mrs Unwin’s were prescribed or an ‘off-the-shelf’ purchase. Spectacles to correct long-sightedness are useful for reading and other close work such as the embroidery William Cowper describes as among the comfortable pleasures and ‘fire-side enjoyments’ of ‘The Winter Evening’, when beneath the flying needle a pattern grows of buds, leaves, and flowers ‘that cannot fade’ (The Task, 4. 150-8).

Their friend, Cowper’s cousin Lady Hesketh, describes another such evening by the hearth when she and Cowper spread themselves in two large chairs, ‘leaving poor Mrs Unwin to find all the comfort she can in a small one, half as high again as ours, and considerably harder than marble. However, she protests it is what she likes … Her constant employment is knitting stockings … She sits knitting on one side of the table in her spectacles, and he on the other reading to her (when he is not employed in writing) in his’ (Poems … with Anecdotes, 65-6). In art and life Mrs Unwin sits bespectacled, sewing, knitting, attending patiently to her ‘busy task’. As confirmation of the scene, her workbox and bobbin winder have also found space in the Cowper and Newton Museum at Olney.

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A Fragment of a Letter in Jane Austen’s Hand

Image of a two-page manuscript letter

Contributor: Kathryn Sutherland

Location: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire, England

Description: This fragment is a single leaf, pages 1 and 2 (20 + 20 lines; 281 words) of a letter bifolium, of which the second leaf is missing. The paper is weak at the original folds, with a short tear at the head. There is no signature, no date, and no address. An origin-address and date [‘From Hans Place | Nov. 29 1814’] have been added in pencil in another hand at the upper edge of page 1. The ink (iron gall) is bright, showing little evidence of light exposure. Written in Jane Austen’s clear, round hand, the leaf corresponds to the first section of Letter 112 in the authoritative Oxford edition. Austen writes from her brother Henry’s London home to her niece Anna Lefroy. The fragment opens ‘I am very much obliged to you, my dear Anna’; it ends at the foot of page 2 with the words: ‘& hugs Mr Younge delightfully’. In between, Austen discusses her social life during a London stay that includes a disappointing trip to the theatre (‘I fancy I want something more than can be. Acting seldom satisfies me. I took two Pocket handkercheifs, but had very little occasion for either’). These two pages are a resilient survival of an act of loving destruction, representing the largest part of a four-page letter, dismembered for keepsakes, into at least five portions, one of which is now lost; two are in the British Library’s Charnwood Autograph Collection; and a further portion was sold at Sotheby’s into private hands on 11 July 2017, at which time the present portion failed to sell. We might see the dismemberment, private, and public fortunes of this letter as an expression in miniature of the fate and import of Austen’s letters, and indeed celebrity author’s letters, more generally.

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