Research is rewarding, but it’s easy to get sidetracked by fascinating snippets that have nothing to do with your own historical novel…
We all think Mrs Bennett the most embarrassing relative possible, but Jane Austen had an aunt who was even worse.
In August 1799 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 allowed to live with her husband in the adjacent prison-keeper’s house.
For a woman of rank, even this was intolerable. A sympathetic letter 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 inconveniences 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 which would probably have been the lot of a maidservant accused of stealing a piece of lace.
Mrs Leigh-Perrot was acquitted, with rumours of of the shopkeeper having been bribed to bring this about. She was subsequently accused of stealing a plant, in 1804, though no prosecution followed. An 18th century case of kleptomania, perhaps?
- From the extremely readable Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, by Roy & Lesley Adkins