The Jane Austen Sampler: The Mystery Unraveled

By Brenda S. Cox

A few years ago, I bought a printed copy of the “Jane Austen sampler” at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. In 2018 I posted thoughts on my blog about that “Jane Austen Sampler,” in two parts. However, I had no idea whether “our” Jane Austen had stitched it or not.

Then Deirdre Le Faye saw that post and directed me to her article for the Jane Austen Society. She speculated, for various reasons, that the sampler may have been done by a cousin of Jane Austen’s. In 2019 I wrote about her ideas in Jane Austen’s World. At the end of that article I asked if some genealogist might try to track down the history of the sampler.

Jane Austen sampler - complete
Print of a Photograph of the “Jane Austen Sampler”

Now the plot continues to thicken. Months later, Alden O’Brien, curator of the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C. saw those posts and wrote to me for details. She then did extensive research based on her specialties: the history of needlework and genealogical research. Exactly what we needed!

Ms. O’Brien recently posted her conclusions. I highly recommend that you read her complete post, “Is This Jane Austen’s Sampler?” In summary, she says:

For it to be “our” Jane Austen’s sampler, we need to assume that it originally said 1787 and stitches were pulled out to make it say 1797. Deirdre Le Faye thought this was highly unlikely. Alden O’Brien thinks it even more unlikely. From the photos we have (which admittedly are not great), there is no evidence in the fabric that stitches were removed. O’Brien also compared the sampler to Cassandra Austen’s sampler which includes all the numbers. Presumably the sisters would have been using the same style of numbers. The “9” in the “Jane Austen sampler” looks much like Cassandra’s 9, but not completed. Cassandra’s 8 is a different shape, so it’s unlikely that the original said 1787.

Jane Austen sampler - name and date
Disputed section of the Jane Austen Sampler–is it a somewhat short “9,” or was it originally an “8” with part of the number picked out later?
Cassandra sampler closeup - 1
Closeup of Cassandra Austen’s sampler, showing her style of “9.” (Courtesy of Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton)

Even more conclusively, O’Brien was able to trace the provenance given for the sampler. She found clear records from the sampler’s previous owners back to a Jane Austen who would have been about 12-14 in 1797, the right age for making such a sampler. It appears that this Jane grew up to marry the owner of a pub. One of her sons was a servant, and her daughter married an oyster fisherman. So she was from a lower social class than the author Jane Austen. O’Brien points out that even young women of this class often went to schools where they might produce samplers like this one.

The Mr. Frederick Nicholls of Whitstable who once owned the sampler is claimed to be “a grandson of a cousin of Jane Austen.” However, from this evidence, it appears he actually was a grandson of this (alternate) Jane Austen.

Deirdre Le Faye, the well-known Jane Austen expert, commented on Ms. O’Brien’s research, “I think she’s absolutely right in her researches and conclusions drawn therefrom.”

So, the bad news is that the sampler almost certainly was not sewn by the author Jane Austen. Still, it did come from her time period. And unraveling the mystery has been a story in itself!

As for me, I’m still in the midst of stitching a copy of the sampler, and I’ll continue, as it’s a lovely piece. (The pattern is available from Inspired Needlework, if you are interested.)

Austen sampler in progress - 1
My own copy of the “Jane Austen sampler,” in progress!

Some concern was expressed to me that Austen fans might not want to hear this information. But I responded that we all want to know the truth. The comments and responses I’ve been getting confirm that. Personally, I was very excited the evening I discovered that someone had tracked down this information. I stayed up quite late that night sharing Ms. O’Brien’s post with others! How about you: Do you long to know the truth (not just based on someone else’s opinions, but on solid information), even when it shatters your illusions? 

 

This post was originally published on Jane Austen’s World, a site I highly recommend!

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