In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney tells Catherine Morland, “I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!”
Catherine replies, “Not very good, I am afraid.”
In Austen’s world, girls stitched a series of samplers as part of their education; learning the alphabet, learning Scripture, and practicing sewing stitches they might use all their lives. Stitching verses sounds to me like a fun way to learn them! If the child didn’t already know them by heart, she must have by the end.
Jane Austen’s Sampler
At the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, I found a facsimile print of a sampler that was supposedly stitched by Jane Austen. Since I love to cross-stitch, I was excited to buy a copy of something Austen may have sewn when she was 12 years old. The actual sampler was sold for over 2000 pounds in 1996. The seller claimed to have received it folded in a tobacco tin, with a note saying it had been left as a memento of Jane’s life to someone in her family. This is quite possible, but can’t be proven.
The sampler is on linen, and quite worn. Such samplers might be mounted on the wall to show off a girl’s education; perhaps the Musgroves of Persuasion had Louisa and Henrietta’s samplers displayed. Others were kept in a sewing box and used as a pattern when sewing other items.
Jane has cross-stitched “Jane Austen 1797” at the bottom of the sampler. The number “9” seems to have originally been an 8; some stitches were picked out to make it a 9. This might have happened by accident, or might have been done to make a woman seem younger. If it was stitched in 1787, Austen was 12 years old, which seems the right age for the work in the sampler. (If the number was changed when she was in her 30s, it would have been so she could seem to be in her 20s.) Austen was known for her skill in sewing.
The sampler showcases a series of verses from the Psalms, surrounded by a border, flowering trees with a bird, and capital letters she was obviously practicing (the P’s are backwards, though they are correct in the Psalms).
I don’t know whether she was stitching from a pattern, or who chose the verses. Austen uses no punctuation, and occasionally changes the wording a bit. To me, this implies that she might have been remembering verses she had often heard, rather than looking them up. Perhaps she chose her favorite verses, or those most familiar to her.
She capitalized some nouns, such as Name and Being, that are not capitalized in the Bible. Austen also capitalized nouns in the middle of sentences when she wrote letters to her sister. In the sampler, she also capitalized the beginning of each line, though it is usually the middle of a verse. Perhaps she wanted to practice her capital letters more, or perhaps she simply enjoyed creating beauty and symmetry.
The verses are from the Coverdale Bible (1535), which is older than the King James version (1611). The Book of Common Prayer used this version of the Psalms for daily readings, and they were usually including in the prayer book (the daily liturgy and readings for the Church of England).
The Austen family probably read morning and evening prayers together each day with Jane’s father, who was a minister. If so, or if she read them on her own, Jane would have heard all the Psalms read aloud every month. So the words were all quite familiar to her.
She may have also heard the Psalms sung in church. These verses, however, are from the Scripture, not from the versions that were sung.
The Verses, as stitched
Praise the Lord o my Soul and all that is within me
Praise his holy Name as long as I live will I praise
The Lord I will give thanks unto God while I have
My Being sing unto the Lord o ye Kingdoms of the
Earth o sing praise unto the Lord Give the Lord the
Honour due unto his Name worship the Lord with holy
Worship in the Time of trouble I will call upon the
Lord and he will hear me Turn thy Face from my
Sins and put out all my Misdeeds ABC
Do any of these verses look familiar to you? Next week in Part 2 we’ll untangle them into separate verses, and think about what they mean.
If you were sewing a sampler of Bible verses, to keep all your life, which ones would you choose? Which verses speak most strongly to your heart?
Update: Did Jane Austen Stitch This?
Austen scholar Deirdre LeFaye recently told me that she believes this sampler “was probably the work of Jane (Motley) Austen of Kippington in Kent, not JA of Steventon.” She wrote an article on the topic for the Jane Austen Society’s Annual Report. In a separate post at Jane Austen’s World I discuss the reasons that it might not be by “our” Jane Austen, and who else might have stitched it.
It at least seems likely that it was a contemporary of Austen’s who stitched it, so it gives us some idea of the type of sampler Austen herself may have sewn.
Sources, Recommended for Further Reading
“Schoolgirl Embroidery in Regency Britain” by Julia Buck
For anyone who’s interested in a chart so you can sew this pattern, Inspired Needleworks in Australia offers one. It looks excellent; very close to the original sampler and the pattern even helped me see more details of the original!
Update, March 2020:
A genealogist and embroidery specialist has now found strong evidence that the sampler was not by the novelist Jane Austen, but by another Jane Austen of a lower social class. Read about it at Jane Austen’s World and in detail at “Is This Jane Austen’s Sampler?”