From the Desk of Jane Odiwe
I was very excited to read about some of the discoveries made during the dig at Jane Austen’s childhood home in the village of Steventon, Hampshire, which took place in November 2011. The rectory was pulled down in the 1820s and what is known of its appearance is only recorded on old maps and drawings or writings made from the memories of Austen descendants. It seems that the actual foundations of the rectory have now been located as a result of the dig – formerly, the only clue to its situation was the presence of an iron pump.
Jane was born in Steventon Rectory and lived happily for the first twenty five years of her life until her father decided to retire and move the family to Bath. It was here that she drafted her first three novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, all between the ages of 19 and 23.
Anna Lefroy, niece of Jane, wrote about her memories of the house:
“The dining room or common sitting-room looked to the front and was lighted by two casement windows. On the same side the front door opened into a smaller parlour, and visitors, who were few and rare, were not a bit less welcome to my grandmother because they found her sitting there busily engaged with her needle, making and mending.
Jane Odiwe writes from the heart. This is evident to anyone who has ever read one of her novels, but particularly so in her newest work, Project Darcy. Published just in time for Christmas, it is surely her gift to Austen fans everywhere.
The story centers on a group of friends who join an archeological expedition at the site of Steventon Rectory. The five girls mirror the Bennet sisters in personality and even name choices, and just as in Pride and Prejudice, Ellie (our heroine) and Jess share a special bond.
The purpose of the dig is to discover the actual layout of the Austen’s home, and it is clear from the writing that Ms. Odiwe is intimately familiar with the Austen haunts mentioned throughout the book, from Steventon to Ashe and Deane, Bath and London. Relationships among the other workers and staff form the backdrop of a fairly straightforward retelling of Pride and Prejudice, cleverly repackaged though, in order to drop twists and turns throughout, and laugh out loud moments at just the right time.
This is, however, a time travel story, as well. Like her previous book, Searching for Captain Wentworth, Ellie has the ability to travel between the 21st century and Regency England. Unlike the other book, however, these time jumps are uncontrolled by temporal items, and are brought on by the proximity of so many Austen locations. In Ellie’s jumps, she literally becomes Jane Austen, creating a story within a story, as she relives many of the poignant memories of Austen’s past, and seeks to shed light on her oh-so-mysterious relationship with Tom Lefroy.
Although the archeological dig takes place in summer, Ellie’s jumps, for the most part, return her to the winter of 1795/96 when we know, from Jane Austen’s own letters, that she met Tom while he was visiting his aunt. The descriptions of Christmas at Steventon and the Manydown ball are delightful, and it is fun to fill in the gaps in what we do know, fleshing out a story of love won and lost. Traces of Austen’s “later” works are visible and it is clear that Ms. Odiwe let her imagination have full reign in giving Jane the romantic past that we all might wish for her. While many scenes are reminiscent of Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane, we are also treated to the history of Jane’s turquoise ring which came to public attention this past year.
Jane Austen was a very hands-on aunt, with numerous games and activities in her repertoire. Her nieces and nephews recall with fondness the many games, from paper ships to Battledore and Shuttlecock, that she would play with them by the hour. One activity, Spillikins, was remembered with fondness, by Jane, herself:
“Our little visitor has just left us, & left us highly pleased with her;-she is a nice, natural, openhearted, affectionate girl, with all the ready civility which one sees in the best Children of the present day; -so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment & shame.-Half her time here was spent at Spillikins; which I consider as a very valuable part of our Household furniture, & as not the least important Benefaction- from the family of Knight to that of Austen.”
Jane Austen to Cassandra
February 8, 1807
In her letter, Jane Austen refers to her personal set as “a very valuable part of our household furniture.” The “Austen Spillikins”, along with other artifacts of Jane’s daily life can be found on display at the museum in Lyme. Ivory fish, like those Lydia gambles with in Pride and Prejudice, and letter blocks, similar to those used in Emma can also be found in the display. It is clear the Austens were serious about their fun and games.
So just what was this engrossing game? Spillikins is played the same way that early versions of Jack Straw and the American “pick up sticks” are. The difference comes withe the playing pieces. Jack Straws were originally played with uniform pieces of straw (though now wooden or plastic farming tools are generally used.) Pick up sticks are made of wood or plastic, of uniform length, sometimes with knobs on the ends. Spillikins, were crafted from wood or ivory and could be blunted or rounded depending on the set.
When playing with sticks of uniform size and shape, like those that belonged to Austen, the rules are, as follows: Continue reading Spillikins