Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record

Chapter IX

The Leigh Perrots and Bath

1799-1800

Mrs. Austen's brother, James Leigh Perrot, and his wife had for many years led a prosperous and uneventful life at Scarlets, enjoying the respect and friendship of a large circle of acquaintances. Scarlets was a small property on the Bath road, about thirty miles from London, adjoining the hamlet of Hare Hatch, where (as was often the case on a great highroad) a number of gentlemen's places of moderate size were congregated within easy reach of each other. Among those who sooner or later were neighbours of the Leigh Perrots were Maria Edgeworth's father Richard Lovell Edgeworth (who speaks of the help he received from Mr. Perrot in his experiments of telegraphing from Hare Hatch to Nettlebed by means of windmills), and Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton. The house at Scarlets in its then existing shape was the work of Mr. Leigh Perrot, and was of a suitable size for a childless couple in easy circumstances. Its owner had abilities which might have stood him in good stead in any profession, had he adopted one; and he was of a kind and affectionate disposition, combining an easy temper with ready wit, and much resolution of character. His wife was hardly formed for popularity, but she was highly respected. She was not exactly open-handed, but she had a great idea of the claims of family ties, and a keen sense of justice as between herself and others. The couple were unusually devoted to each other. The only crook in their lot appeared to be the constant gout attacks from which the husband suffered, and the necessity for frequent visits to Bath: visits, by the way, which had helped to give to their niece, Jane Austen, such good opportunities for studying the Bath varieties of human nature.

The journey, however, of the Austens to Bath in the spring of 1799 (described in our next letters) was independent of the Leigh Perrots. Edward Austen had been suffering, like his uncle, from gout, and determined to try the waters of Bath; his mother and Jane accompanying his family party thither. But the Perrots were already settled in Paragon Buildings[99] when the Austens arrived, and the two families would be constantly meeting.

The Austens took up their quarters in Queen Square, which Jane seems to have liked much better than she made her Miss Musgroves like it when she wrote Persuasion, sixteen years later.

13 Queen Square: Friday [May 17, 1799].

MY DEAREST CASSANDRA,--Our journey yesterday went off exceedingly well; nothing occurred to alarm or delay us. We found the roads in excellent order, had very good horses all the way, and reached Devizes with ease by four o'clock. I suppose John has told you in what manner we were divided when we left Andover, and no alteration was afterwards made. At Devizes we had comfortable rooms and a good dinner, to which we sat down about five; amongst other things we had asparagus and a lobster, which made me wish for you, and some cheesecakes, on which the children[100] made so delightful a supper as to endear the town of Devizes to them for a long time.

Well, here we are at Bath; we got here about one o'clock, and have been arrived just long enough to go over the house, fix on our rooms, and be very well pleased with the whole of it. Poor Elizabeth has had a dismal ride of it from Devizes, for it has rained almost all the way, and our first view of Bath has been just as gloomy as it was last November twelvemonth.

I have got so many things to say, so many things equally important, that I know not on which to decide at present, and shall therefore go and eat with the children.

We stopped in Paragon as we came along, but as it was too wet and dirty for us to get out, we could only see Frank, who told us that his master was very indifferent, but had had a better night last night than usual.

* * * * *

We are exceedingly pleased with the house; the rooms are quite as large as we expected. Mrs. Bromley is a fat woman in mourning, and a little black kitten runs about the staircase. Elizabeth has the apartment within the drawing-room; she wanted my mother to have it, but as there was no bed in the inner one, and the stairs are so much easier of ascent, or my mother so much stronger than in Paragon as not to regard the double flight, it is settled for us to be above, where we have two very nice-sized rooms, with dirty quilts and everything comfortable. I have the outward and larger apartment, as I ought to have; which is quite as large as our bed-room at home, and my mother's is not materially less. The beds are both as large as any at Steventon, and I have a very nice chest of drawers and a closet full of shelves--so full indeed that there is nothing else in it, and it should therefore be called a cupboard rather than a closet, I suppose.

* * * * *

There was a very long list of arrivals here in the newspaper yesterday, so that we need not immediately dread absolute solitude; and there is a public breakfast in Sydney Gardens every morning, so that we shall not be wholly starved.

Yours very affectionately,
JANE.

13 Queen Square: Sunday [June 2, 1799].

Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. Elizabeth has a bunch of strawberries, and I have seen grapes, cherries, plums, and apricots. There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers', but I have never seen any of them in hats. A plum or greengage would cost three shillings; cherries and grapes about five, I believe, but this is at some of the dearest shops. My aunt has told me of a very cheap one, near Walcot Church, to which I shall go in quest of something for you. I have never seen an old woman at the pump-room.

* * * * *

I spent Friday evening with the Mapletons, and was obliged to submit to being pleased in spite of my inclination. We took a very charming walk from six to eight up Beacon Hill, and across some fields, to the village of Charlecombe, which is sweetly situated in a little green valley, as a village with such a name ought to be. Marianne is sensible and intelligent, and even Jane, considering how fair she is, is not unpleasant. We had a Miss North and a Mr. Gould of our party; the latter walked home with me after tea. He is a very young man, just entered Oxford, wears spectacles, and has heard that Evelina was written by Dr. Johnson.

* * * * *

There is to be a grand gala on Tuesday evening[101] in Sydney Gardens, a concert, with illuminations and fireworks. To the latter Elizabeth and I look forward with pleasure, and even the concert will have more than its usual charm for me, as the gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound. In the morning Lady Willoughby is to present the colours to some corps, or Yeomanry, or other, in the Crescent.

13 Queen Square: Tuesday [June 11, 1799].

I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it. As for Fitz-Albini, when I get home she shall have it, as soon as ever she will own that Mr. Elliott is handsomer than Mr. Lance, that fair men are preferable to black; for I mean to take every opportunity of rooting out her prejudices.

I am very glad you liked my lace, and so are you, and so is Martha, and we are all glad together. I have got your cloak home, which is quite delightful--as delightful at least as half the circumstances which are called so.

I do not know what is the matter with me to-day, but I cannot write quietly; I am always wandering away into some exclamation or other. Fortunately I have nothing very particular to say.

* * * * *

Fanny desires her love to you, her love to grandpapa, her love to Anna, and her love to Hannah; the latter is particularly to be remembered. Edward desires his love to you, to grandpapa, to Anna, to little Edward, to Aunt James and Uncle James, and he hopes all your turkeys and ducks, and chicken and guinea fowls are very well; and he wishes you very much to send him a printed letter, and so does Fanny--and they both rather think they shall answer it.

13 Queen Square: Wednesday [June 19, 1799].

Last Sunday we all drank tea in Paragon; my uncle is still in his flannels, but is getting better again.

* * * * *

Last night we were in Sydney Gardens again, as there was a repetition of the gala which went off so ill on the 4th. We did not go till nine, and then were in very good time for the fireworks, which were really beautiful, and surpassing my expectation; the illuminations too were very pretty. The weather was as favourable as it was otherwise a fortnight ago. The play on Saturday is, I hope, to conclude our gaieties here, for nothing but a lengthened stay will make it otherwise. We go with Mrs. Fellowes.

The Austens quitted Bath on Wednesday, June 26, reaching Steventon on the following day, and leaving the Leigh Perrots to an unexpected fate--which they had done nothing whatever to deserve.[102]

On Thursday, August 8, Mrs. Leigh Perrot went into a milliner's shop at the corner of Bath and Stall Streets, kept by a certain Mrs. Gregory (but known as Smith's), and bought a piece of black lace. She paid for it, and took it away wrapped up in a piece of paper. After leaving the shop, Mrs. Perrot met her husband and strolled about with him. As they re-passed the same shop a quarter of an hour later, Mrs. Gregory rushed out and accused Mrs. Perrot of having in her possession a piece of white lace. Mrs. Perrot replied that if so it must have been put up in her parcel by mistake. She then handed her parcel to Mrs. Gregory to examine, when a piece of white lace was found therein as well as a piece of black. Mrs. Gregory at once accused Mrs. Perrot of having stolen it, and, refusing to listen to any protest, made off with the incriminating piece of lace. A little later, as the Perrots were turning the corner of the Abbey Churchyard, Charles Filby, the shop assistant who had actually sold the black lace, came up and asked Mr. Perrot his name. Mr. Perrot replied that he lived at No. 1 Paragon Buildings, and that his name was on the door.

On the same day, Mrs. Gregory and Filby went to the town hall to lay information before the magistrates; but found them so busily engaged in dealing with the excesses of the soldiers who were at that time passing through Bath, that the information could not be taken before August 14. Meanwhile, the piece of white lace was lodged--at any rate, for the night of August 8--at the house of a certain printer named Gye.

The result of the magistrates' inquiry may be discovered in The Times of August 20, where we read:--

The Lady of a Gentleman of Bath, possessed of a good fortune, and respected by a numerous circle of acquaintance, was committed on Thursday by G. Chapman, Esq., the Mayor, to the County Gaol at Ilchester, on a charge of privately stealing a card of lace from a haberdasher's shop.

As Mrs. Perrot did not come up for trial until the end of the following March, she had to undergo a long and trying confinement. It appears that she was not lodged actually in the gaol, but in some neighbouring house, kept by a man of the name of Scadding.

The charge was a monstrous one; the accused had ample means to indulge every wish, and nothing short of lunacy (of which she never showed the slightest sign) could have induced her to commit so petty a theft. Her high character and the absence of motive combined to render it incredible, and, had she been capable of such a deed, she would not have courted detection by walking quietly past the shop, a quarter of an hour later, with the parcel in her hand. There were also strong reasons for thinking that the accusation was the result of a deep-laid plot. Gye, the printer, who lived in the market-place, was believed to be the chief instigator. His character was indifferent, and he had money invested in Gregory's shop; and the business was in so bad a way that there was a temptation to seek for some large haul by way of blackmail. Mrs. Leigh Perrot was selected as the victim, people thought, because her husband was so extremely devoted to her that he would be sure to do anything to save her from the least vexation. If so, the conspirators were mistaken in their man. Mr. Perrot resolved to see the matter through, and, taking no notice of the many suggestions as to hush-money that were apparently circulated, engaged the best counsel possible, secured his most influential acquaintance as witnesses to his wife's character, and spent the terrible intervening period in confinement with her at Ilchester. He was well aware that the criminal law of England, as it then existed, made the lot of untried prisoners as hard, and the difficulty of proving their innocence as great, as possible; he knew also that in the seething disquiet of men's minds, brought about by the French Revolution, it was quite possible they might encounter a jury anxious to cast discredit on the well-to-do classes. He was therefore prepared for a failure of justice; and, we are told, had arranged that in case of an adverse verdict, followed by transportation, he would sell his property and accompany his wife across the seas.

Among the warmest supporters of the Leigh Perrots was Mr. Morris--a lawyer of eminence, well used to dealing with evidence, but now living as an invalid at Bath. He was a total stranger to the accused, but maintained most energetically that, apart from her well-known character, the nature of the evidence adduced against her would have been sufficient to prove her innocence.

The amazement and indignation of the Steventon party may be imagined. They were too sensible to believe that so mean and objectless a crime should really have been committed by a respectable woman--a near relation of their own, whom they knew intimately; but it was not easy to determine how to show their sympathy. Mr. and Mrs. Austen seem at last to have come (no doubt with their daughters' good-will) to the momentous decision mentioned in the following letter, which was addressed to Mrs. Leigh Perrot on January 11, 1800, by her cousin, Montague Cholmeley.[103]

You tell me that your good sister Austen 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 those elegant young women be your inmates in a prison, nor be subjected to the inconveniences which you are obliged to put up with.

So Cassandra and Jane just escaped a residence in gaol and contact with criminals.

Another letter written about this time must have given much pleasure to the Leigh Perrots:--

White Hart, Bath. [No date.]

HONORED SIR,--You may have forgot your old postillon Ben Dunford but I shall never forget yours and my mistresses great goodness to me when I was taken with the small pox in your sarvice. You sent me very careful to mothers, and paid a nurse and my doctor, and my board for a long time as I was bad, and when I was too bad with biles all over my head so as I could not go to sarvice for a many weeks you maintained me. the famaly as I lives with be a going thro' Bath into Devonshire and we stops two days at the Inn and there I heard of the bad trick as those bad shopkeepers has sarved my mistress and I took the libarty of going to your house to enquire how you both do and the housekeeper said she sent a pasel to you every week and if I had anything to say she could send a letter. I hope Honored Sir you will forgive my taking such a libarty to write but I wish anybody could tell me how to do you and mistress any good. I would travel night and day to serve you both. I be at all times with my humble duty to mistress and you Honored Sir your dutifull sarvant

BEN DUNFORD.

James Leigh Perrot Esq.

The trial took place at Taunton on Saturday, March 29. The old Castle Hall--where Judge Jeffreys once sat on his 'Bloody Assizes'--said to be capable of containing 2000 persons, was filled at an early hour. So urgent was the curiosity, even of the Bar, that the 'Nisi Prius' Court, which stood at the opposite end of the hall, was not opened for business that morning--all the counsel on the circuit surrounding the table of the Crown Bar; while the rest of the hall was thronged with anxious spectators, many hundreds of whom could not possibly have heard a word that was said, and were almost crushed to death and suffocated with heat. Between seven and eight o'clock, Mrs. Leigh Perrot, who had been conveyed from Ilchester, appeared in the dock, attended by Mr. Leigh Perrot and three ladies, and the proceedings commenced.

After the evidence for the prosecution was closed, the prisoner was invited by the judge to make her defence.

She attempted to address the Court; but, after speaking a few sentences, became so much agitated that her voice failed her; whereupon Mr. Jekyll, one of her counsel, was requested to repeat to the Court what she wished to address to them. She then dictated as follows:--

MY LORD AND GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY,--

I am informed by my counsel, that they cannot be permitted to offer any observations to you on my case.[104] The circumstances of it do not render it necessary to detain you long. I shall therefore take this opportunity of troubling you with a few words.

Placed in a situation the most eligible that any woman could desire, with supplies so ample that I was left rich after every wish was gratified; blessed in the affections of the most generous man as a husband, what could induce me to commit such a crime? Depraved indeed must that mind be that under such circumstances could be so culpable.

You will hear from my noble and truly respectable friends what has been my conduct and character for a long series of years; you will hear what has been, and what is now, their opinion of me. Can you suppose that disposition so totally altered, as to lose all recollection of the situation I held in society--to hazard for this meanness my character and reputation, or to endanger the health and peace of mind of a husband whom I would die for?
Here her voice faltered; she seemed to be on the point of fainting, and Mr. Leigh Perrot, who had sustained all this trying scene with wonderful resolution, put his handkerchief to his face and wept in agony; many persons in Court, even amongst the counsel, participating in his emotion.

The prisoner continued:--

You have heard their evidence against me. I shall make no comment upon it--I shall leave that task where I am certain it will be executed with justice and mercy. I know my own oath in this case is inadmissible, but I call upon that God whom we all adore to attest that I am innocent of this charge, and may He reward or punish me as I speak true or false in denying it. I call that God to witness that I did not know that I had the lace in my possession, nor did I know it when Mrs. Gregory accosted me in the street. I have nothing more to add.
Then followed the evidence for the prisoner, which was chiefly evidence to character, and came from persons occupying prominent positions who knew her well, either at her Berkshire home or at Bath.

The judge's summing up occupied nearly an hour. In it he said that it was impossible that any person should have a higher character than the prisoner; but if the jury were satisfied with the evidence for the prosecution and believed it, that character ought not to avail her. If, however, upon taking all the circumstances of the case into consideration, the jury should see any reason to disbelieve the witnesses for the prosecution, or which led them to doubt of the prisoner's guilt, they should recollect the very excellent character which had been given her, and in that case it ought to bear great weight with them towards an acquittal. He also alluded to the conduct of the accused after leaving the shop as not being that of a guilty person, and commented on the ease with which she could have secreted the parcel before it was discovered.

The jury evidently saw great reason to disbelieve the witnesses for the prosecution, and, after only fifteen[105] minutes, returned a verdict of 'Not Guilty.'

The Star tells us that 'the trial lasted seven hours, and the scene of the acquittal was extremely affecting; the agitation and embraces of Mr. and Mrs. Perrot may be more easily conceived than described. The Court was crowded with elegantly dressed women.'

Throughout the long months over which the affair extended, the Leigh Perrots had acted as persons convinced of the baselessness of the charge, and determined to confront the accusers, and, as far as the existing state of the law allowed, to establish the innocence of the accused.

Among the quantity of congratulatory letters received by Mr. Leigh Perrot, we must content ourselves with quoting the following from Mr. R. L. Edgeworth:--

Edgeworthstown, Ireland: [April 7, 1800.]

MY DEAR SIR,--I do not think that I ever felt so much astonishment or indignation as at the abominable transaction which was related in the Star of March 31st.

Among my numerous friends and acquaintance, if there was a couple whom I could have selected as the farthest removed from being the objects of such a villainous attack it would have been yourselves! But I too well know, that neither perfect innocence nor consummate prudence are sufficient shields against conspiracy and folly, and that bankrupt fortune and bankrupt character prepare men for the most desperate attempts.

I trouble you, my Dear Sir, with a few lines to express the deep sense that I have of regard and esteem for you and the amiable partner of your happiness; for so many as thirty-four years we have been acquainted, and during that time I do not think that I have met any man of such singularly nice feelings of honour and justice.

I am sensible that there is some impropriety in this address--but you must excuse it as I snatched this piece of paper the moment I had read the paragraph I allude to--and with tears of indignation in my eyes--aye Sir!--with actual, not sentimental, tears in my eyes I sat down to write to you.

Perhaps, after all, you are not the objects of this transaction!

Even if that should be the fact you will pardon me for renewing my claim to your remembrance and for assuring you that you possess my esteem and affection.

Yours sincerely,
RICHD LOVELL EDGEWORTH.

James Leigh Perrot, Esq., Bath, England.

This strange and painful episode in the life of the family was thus brought to a satisfactory ending. An accusation of petty and purposeless theft had been made against a woman whose uprightness was known to all those around her; a wife who enjoyed (then and always) the absolute confidence of an upright husband. It had been found baseless by a jury after only a few minutes' deliberation; and the Leigh Perrots had the pleasure of seeing the high estimation in which they were held by their neighbours exhibited in a strong light. This estimation was to be theirs for the remainder of their lives, extending in his case over seventeen, and in hers over thirty-five years.[106] For our particular purpose the story seems worth narrating, because it shows that the peaceful and well-ordered progress of Jane Austen's life was not beyond the reach of tragic possibilities. Indeed, at or near this time there were three particular occurrences which, when taken together, might well disturb the serenity and cheerfulness of her mind, and indispose her for writing--especially writing of a humorous character. One of these events, which has already been recorded, was her love story in the West; another was Mrs. Leigh Perrot's trouble; and the third--the loss of her old home--will form part of the subject of the next two chapters.

Notes

[99] Paragon Buildings are well placed in a convenient part of Bath, between York House Hotel and Walcot Church. From the back of the houses there is a fine view to the south.

[100] Fanny (Lady Knatchbull) and Edward (Knight).

[101] I.e. on the King's Birthday (June 4).

[102] Mr. Leigh Perrot was at this time sixty-three and his wife fifty-four years old.

[103] Created a baronet in 1806.

[104] Before the passing of the Prisoners' Counsel Act of 1836, counsel were not allowed to address the Court on behalf of prisoners tried for felony.

[105] Seven minutes, according to another account.

[106] If this story were not specially well authenticated, it would be incredible; but we must remember that this all happened before the reforms of Sir Samuel Romilly, when the law was in a chaotic state, and when offences against property were very severely dealt with. Any larceny above the value of a 1s. was a felony, punishable--nominally by death, and actually by seven years' transportation; though the transportation may frequently have been commuted to a sentence of imprisonment. Magistrates had no power of bailing a person committed for a felony, if the stolen article were found in his possession.