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The Life and Crimes of Jane Leigh-Perrot

“Bath is a charming place, sir; there are so many good shops here. We are sadly off in the country. . . . Now, here one can step out of doors, and get a thing in five minutes.”
Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen’s first entrance into Bath was facilitated by a visit to her Uncle and Aunt, James and Jane Leigh-Perrot. Wealthy and childless, Uncle James was the older brother of Cassandra Leigh Austen, Jane Austen’s mother. In a turn of events, not unlike what would later happen to Austen’s own brother, Uncle James inherited a fortune from another childless relative. Upon inheriting the Northleigh Estate (which was promptly demolished and sold) James added the surname of his late Uncle Perrot to his last name, becoming James Leigh-Perrot. He then went on to build a new home in Berkshire, which he named “Scarlets”.

For many years the Leigh-Perrots were quite happy spending their summers at Scarlets and their winters in Bath. From their home at Number One, the Paragon, they were able to enjoy society, take the waters, and offer their nieces from Steventon a chance at seeing something of the world. Surely young Catherine Morland’s visit to Bath in Northanger Abbey is taken from Jane Austen’s own first visit there in 1797.

Soon after that visit, an incident took place which would cast a pall over the Leigh-Perrots stay in the City and bring Aunt Jane into the annals of history. In August, 1799, Mrs Leigh-Perrot had stopped in at a linen drapers to purchase a length of black lace. Upon leaving, she was accosted by the owner of the shop who asked to inspect her package. At that point it was discovered that a card of white lace, worth twenty shillings (£1), was also included in the packet. Mrs Leigh-Perrot insisted that it was a mistake by a clerk who had accidently wrapped the white lace along with the black. The owner called it shoplifting.

Mrs Leigh-Perrot forcefully denied the claim and continued home. A few days later, she was arrested for theft and help for an additional eight months in jail until the March Assizes would be held. Due to her station as a gentlewoman, she was not lodged in the public gaol, but instead, lived with the jailer and his family, thoug in relative filth, while awaiting trial. Her ever devoted husband stayed by her side, regardless of the “Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from morning till night…Cleanliness has ever been his greatest delight, and yet he sees the greasy toast laid by the dirty children on his knees, and feels the small Beer trickle down his Sleeves on its way across the table unmoved.” No doubt Jane Austen was relieved when her aunt turned down Mrs Austen’s offer of allowing her daughters to travel to the Ilchester gaol to keep her company.

The crime which Mrs Leigh-Perrot was charged with, was no small thing. At that time, theft of any item worth five shillings or more was punishable by hanging or, as was more likely in her case, deportation to Australia for 14 years. The trial took place on March 29, 1800. Fortunately for the Austen-Leighs, the jury took only a few minutes to return with a “not guilty” verdict and the matter was soon hushed up.

Most essays that have been written about the matter since, have been by Austen family members and it is usually said the male in the shop at the time sought to blackmail Mrs Leigh-Perrot. As in most cases, the evidence is complicated, and the arguments on both sides have to be paid attention to.

In The Trial of Jane’s Aunt, Albert Borowitz argues a careful examination of what happened at the trial suggests that the woman was probably guilty and that the jury came in with a “not guilty” verdict because one, she was a wealthy gentleman’s wife, and two, the punishment for the crime was so severe.

The case is still known and the details available for anyone who wants to study it because the individual arraigned for grand larceny was Jane Austen’s aunt, Mrs Jane Leigh-Perrot. With very little and discreet commentary, Sir Frank MacKinnon reprinted all the original documents having to do with the case in a 4 volume set of books containing documents and essays and letters pertaining to Jane Austen. Borowitz and MacKinnon agree the case created a local furor of sorts because the woman was wealthy and a known personality in Bath.

The actual evidence is somewhat damning. The day Mrs Leigh-Perrot left the shop with the lace stuffed awkwardly into a package made up for her by the a clerk, Mr Filby, another woman, Miss Gregory, the shop’s owner, accosted and accused her, and then went right to the magistrates and demanded she be arrested.

Miss Gregory and Mr Filby (with whom she was having an affair) went for three days in a row to ask that Mrs Leigh-Perrot be arrested and the crime admitted to. It is true that a week later the man made the mistake of trying to blackmail Mr Leigh-Perrot (he had been getting nowhere with the magistrates as yet), but if you read his letter it seems to be reaction, an afterthought. However, it was used as evidence against him but in a mild way: the four defense attorneys (that’s four) who defended Mrs Leigh-Perrot never accused the man of blackmail but argued he had by mistake put the white lace into the package.

Borowitz provides a detailed drawing to show where the man was standing, where Mrs Leigh-Perrot was standing, and reprints testimony to suggest the man could not have mistaken a white lace hanging on one side of a shop with black lace lying on a counter on the other.

Two people were brought into court to say that this man had put extra things in their packages, but both incidents happened after Mrs Leigh-Perrot was arraigned (so there is suspicion that they were currying favor with the Leigh-Perrots and their connections). The judge told the jury to ignore one of them (as not worthy evidence) and the other did buy the same colour lace as the one she said the man put into her package.

Then there was an attempt to blacken the character of the shopkeeper. It was shown the attorneys for the shopkeeper and people who helped the couple in the shop were respectable citizens who had been involved in philanthropic activities. So another “countercharge” that the milliner and her boyfriend were unsavoury types was at least not thought to be so at the time. In any case it was irrelevant to whether Mrs Leigh-Perrot stole the lace. The judge pointed this out.

Finally, the two letters which Mrs Leigh-Perrot and her husband produced which accused this man of having a bad character are said by Borowitz to be suspicious, to be in the same handwriting and have the same phrases in them.

The above is a summary of answers to most of what has been said on behalf of the idea that Mrs Leigh-Perrot was utterly innocent and framed by bad people.

Now for the evidence Jane’s Aunt Jane did it. This is usually not brought up by the many who want to argue she didn’t. One of the employees in the shop persistently testified that she saw Mrs Leigh-Perrot do it — under some sharp barrages from Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s lawyer. This is long and convincing. And of course the others said she did it, and she had the lace on her. The sketch by Borowitz shows how easily she could have done it and just as she was accused of doing it.

There was an attempt on the part of Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s lawyers to get the arraignment squashed but the man and milliner in the shop were able to stop this partly because shopkeepers in Bath were influential. Shopkeepers saw a not-guilty verdict as against their interests. Not to have arraigned her would allow the already privileged “company” (wealthy visitors and people who were society) a kind of “carte blanche”.

Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s lawyers wrote a statement for her in which she basically appealed to the jury to suppose that a woman as wealthy as she would have no reason to steal such a piece of lace. While she read it, her lawyers wept. Mr Leigh-Perrot paid something like £2000 for a row of character witnesses to appear to tell the jury what a respectable pious wealthy woman Mrs Leigh-Perrot was.

Then the judge gave a very even-handed summing up until he reached the last part of his speech, at which point he emphasized the woman’s wealth & character as described by her witnesses. Was it “probable or reasonable for her to steal this lace?”, was the question implied.

At the time there was no such illness as kleptomania. This is a modern concept: illnesses are in the eyes of beholders and tell as much about the society that perceives them as the symptoms.

It took the jury less than 15 minutes to come back with a verdict of not guilty.

One of the interesting aspects of the documents is that afterwards neither side openly talked about the disjunction between this crime and the punishment. It was insinuated she got off because of who she was. It may be that this idea of the disjunction of the crime and punishment was mentioned in the newspapers but I haven’t read them and the essays about the case don’t quote anyone in the period saying this. It was apparently not in the interest of Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s side to explicitly appeal to the jury’s sense that the punishment was too harsh for the crime.

It seems to be only today that people writing about the case emphasize that she got off whether she was guilty or not because the punishment was overdone and in such cases juries were loathe to convict. Borowitz and the couple of people who have read his essay suggest that if you look carefully you could say that though it’s probable the woman stole the lace, there is some doubt.

This is very different from the Austen family and Janeites who talk about the utter innocence of the woman and bad-mouth the man.

It’s interesting to note she had been to the shop the day before ‘cheapening the lace’, in other words giving these shopkeepers a hard time and it’s possible they had learnt to dislike her intensely — (she was, I think, one of the originals for Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs Norris). Since there is reasonable doubt, given the harsh punishment, and her status, the jury would not convict.

Afterwards in private letters (and I suppose to her friends), Mrs Leigh-Perrot complained bitterly about the judge’s behavior during the trial and about how no one attempted to arraign the man who had accused her of perjury. She keeps wishing on him bankruptcy, imprisonment, or death. There was no attempt during the trial to accuse this man of perjury. The accusation was that he had simply been negligent, made a mistake.

Mr Yates had staid to see the destruction of every theatrical preparation at Mansfield, the removal of everything appertaining to the play: he left the house in all the soberness of its general character; and Sir Thomas hoped, in seeing him out of it, to be rid of the worst object connected with the scheme, and the last that must be inevitably reminding him of its existence.

Mrs Norris contrived to remove one article from his sight that might have distressed him.

The curtain, over which she had presided with such talent and such success, went off with her to her cottage, where she happened to be particularly in want of green baize.
Mansfield Park

Those who have read the material about this woman know that a number of years later a similar incident happened: in some gardening shop, she is said to have tried to hide a plant and take it out of the shop; a young girl saw and stopped her on the spot; the shopkeeper got very angry, but the young girl’s father hauled the girl away because he didn’t want trouble. One of Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s lawyers later said the woman was known as a smoocher, someone who would and did steal small things. (Here’s that concept of spunging, so popular in Mansfield Park. Is it possible that Aunt Leigh-Perrot was a type for Aunt Norris?)

“What else have you been spunging?” said Maria, half-pleased that Sotherton should be so complimented.

“Spunging, my dear! It is nothing but four of those beautiful pheasants’ eggs, which Mrs Whitaker would quite force upon me: she would not take a denial.
Mansfield Park

As to the idea that she was so wealthy, she would not steal, this falls down on experience of other cases. Wealthy women do shoplift. The genteel shoplifter is still a problem. In New York City some years ago a woman who had been Miss America in 1946, Bess Myerson, and was very wealthy at the time, was caught shoplifting about $10 worth of goods; the case made headlines for something of the same reasons Mrs L-P’s case did — except Bess Myerson admitted to the theft. Of course she didn’t need to fear hanging or transportation. It is said Mr L-P made firm arrangements to go to Australia with his wife in case she was found guilty. He seriously believed she might have been found guilty and spent enormous amounts on her behalf. Another reason Mrs L-P was declared not guilty was the same operation of money we see in courts today when the wealthy are arrested and get good lawyers who can take the time and spend the money to get evidence on their client’s behalf.

I tell this story because one, it is usually not told fairly, and two, it’s interesting. Many of the details are known, the documents are available. One can make a full drawing of what happened; the characters of those involved are known. The man and milliner were living together — which didn’t help them in court, though the man spoke frankly and without shame about this. I have probably not told the story clearly enough here but anyone who is interested in the behavior of juries when someone commits a theft of a small item with severe legel punishment, ought to look into this one.

The documents are in a Grand Larceny being the Trial of Jane Leigh Perrot, Aunt of Jane Austen reprinted in Jane Austen Family History 4 vols (Routledge, Thoemmes Press, 1995). Albert Borowitz’s fine essay has been reprinted a couple of times, but is easiest to find in A Gallery of Sinister Perspectives (Kent State University Press, 1982).

After the trial, the Leigh-Perrots continued to reside in Bath and were delighted when the Austen’s joined them in 1801. They remained in touch and reappear on the scene during the disposal of the Stoneleigh Abbey estate. More on this and further information about the Leigh-Perrots can be found in The People in Jane Austen’s life: The Leigh-Perrots. Upon the death of Mrs. Leigh-Perrot in 1836, Scarlets and the majority of her fortune was left to Jane Austen’s own nephew, who then took on the name of his Aunt and Uncle becoming James Edward Austen Leigh. JEAL, as he is often called, was the first to write a biography of his famous Aunt, Jane Austen.

 

Ellen Moody, a Lecturer in English at George Mason University, has compiled the most accurate calendars for Jane Austen’s work, to date. She has created timelines for each of the six novels and the three unfinished novel fragments. She is currently working on a book, The Austen Movies. Visit her website for further Austen related articles.

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