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Jane Austen and Cambridge

symbolic silhouette of Cambridge skyline


On 16 December 2006 the Cambridge Group of the Jane Austen Society celebrated the 226th anniversary of the birth of Miss Austen with a dinner in the Munro Room at Queens' College, Cambridge. We were at the time unaware of the connection between a former Fellow of Queens' and Jane Austen. However, a few days later, Dr Holmes, Dean of Chapel at Queens', happened to mention that John Rawstorn Papillon, Fellow 1788-91, was mentioned in Jane Austen's letters. This required some research.

On Friday 9 December 1808 Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra about their move from Southampton to Chawton in Hampshire to a house on the estate of her, wealthy brother Edward, who had been adopted by rich, childless relatives, the Knights. Mrs. Knight had suggested that the local rector, John Papillon, would be a good catch for Jane as a husband. Jane wrote, 'I am very much obliged to Mrs. Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me, and she may depend upon it that I will marry Mr. Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own. I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.'

The Papillons were Huguenots. Thomas Papillon was Captain of the Guard to Henri IV of France but sent his family to England in 1588 to avoid persecution as Protestants. His son David became an expert on fortification and built Papillon Hall in Lubenham (Leicestershire), an unusual octagonal house constructed according to his own theories. He married as his second wife Anne Marie Calandrini, whose family had fled Italy as Protestants. Thomas, the eldest son of this marriage purchased Acrise Park in Kent. John Rawstorn Papillon, a great-great grandson of Thomas Papillon, was born in 1763 at Acrise, one of ten children. He was admitted to Queens' in December 1781 when Robert Plumptre was President. The President's great nephew, John Pemberton Plumptre, later proposed to Jane Austen's niece, Fanny Knight but she rejected him after consulting Aunt Jane. John Papillon achieved a BA (Senior Optime - second class) degree in Mathematics in 1786. He took his MA in 1789 and was a Fellow of Queens' from 1788 to 1791. His ordination took place on 13 May 1788 and he became the Vicar of Tonbridge on 5 March 1791. In 1794, the Revd John Rawstorn Papillon was given first refusal of the Rectory of Chawton, Hampshire, at the next vacancy i.e. at the death of the then incumbent, the Revd John Hinton. However, if he did not wish to accept the living, it was stated that it should be offered to Henry Austen, Jane's brother. Although Henry was with his regiment in East Anglia, he quite liked his original idea of ordination and asked his brother Edward Knight to buy Mr Papillon's refusal in advance of the vacancy occurring. Edward offered up to 1,200 (a tidy sum in 1794) but he was refused.

The Revd John Hinton died in 1802 and John Papillon and his sister, Elizabeth, took up residence at the rectory at Chawton, which still exists opposite the entrance to the drive to Chawton Great House, owned by Edward Knight. Six years later Jane Austen with her mother and sister moved into Chawton Cottage. Following Mrs. Knight's proposal that Jane marry Mr Papillon it became the family joke that the marriage would take place one day. Both John Papillon and his sister Elizabeth appear frequently in the surviving letters of Jane Austen. Elizabeth called often on the Austens and the two families dined together on a regular basis. Some references do seem to show that she did not always think highly of them. In a letter to her sister Cassandra written on Sunday 24 January 1813, she wrote, '...I have walked once to Alton, & yesterday Miss Papillon & I walked together to call on the Garnets. She invited herself very pleasantly to be my companion, when I went to propose to the indulgence of accommodating us about the Letters from the Mountains. I had a very agreeable walk; if she had not, more shame for her, for I was quite as entertaining as she was...'

John Papillon was obviously considered a good catch even if Jane Austen had no interest in becoming Mrs Papillon. Two spinsters, Miss Patience Terry and Miss Mary Benn were after him. Miss Benn was desperate, being the unmarried sister of the rector of a neighbouring village who had 13 children. She lived on the charity of others, with invitations to dinner most evenings. The Papillons were generous towards her, having her for dinner on a very regular basis. The efforts of the two women did not go unnoticed by Jane Austen. In the same letter she noted, '...I could see nothing very promising between Mr. P. & Miss P.T. She placed herself on one side of him at first, but Miss Benn obliged her to move up higher; - & she had an empty plate, & even asked him to give her some Mutton without being attended to for some time. - There might be some design in this, to be sure, on his side; - he might think an empty Stomach the most favourable for Love...'

In September 1816 Jane wrote, 'We shall have the Gt. House quite at our command; it is to be cleared of the Papillons' servants in a day or two. They themselves have been hurried off into Essex to take possession - not of a large estate left them by an uncle - but to scrape together all they can, I suppose, of the effects of a Mrs. Rawstorn, a rich old friend and cousin, suddenly deceased, to whom they are joint executors. So there is a happy end of the Kentish Papillons coming here.'

In fact the Rector did inherit a sizeable property at Lexden in Essex. In the early 17th century Sir Thomas Lucas acquired the tenter house in Lexden Street, which was in ruins in 1561. He apparently built a new house on that site and gardens were laid out around and across the road, opposite the house, where Lexden springs were landscaped to give a prospect of ornamental water with plantations. In 1701 the manor was sold to Samuel Rawstorn of London. Thomas Rawstorn, son and heir of Samuel, devised the manor to his widow Sophia, with remainder to his daughter Ann. She then devised Lexden to the Revd. John Rawstorn Papillon. Lexden Heath, comprising 290 acres, was enclosed by Act of Parliament in 1821. Under the award John Papillon acquired 151 acres by allotment and bought common rights on 18 acres. By 1838 the Papillon family owned 1,216 acres out of 2,312 acres in the parish.

The family joke was still continuing in December 1816 when Jane wrote to her nephew, 'I am happy to tell you that Mr Papillon will soon make his offer, probably next Monday, as he returns on Saturday. - His intentions can be no longer doubtful in the smallest degree, as he has secured the refusal of the House which Mrs Baverstock at present occupies in Chawton & is to vacate soon, which is of course intended for Mrs Elizth Papillon.' The joke never became a reality. Jane Austen's untimely death at the age of 41 in 1817 meant that John Papillon would outlive her by another twenty years. He died in 1837 at the age of 74 and is interred in the Rawstorn family grave in the churchyard in Lexden. However the story does end with an Austen marrying a Papillon. Jane's brother, Henry, did eventually get ordained in 1816 and was installed as curate at Chawton, assisting the Revd Mr Papillon. In 1820 Henry Austen married Eleanor Jackson, daughter of the Revd John Papillon's sister Sarah.

From two letters which have survived, it is apparent that Jane Austen had another personal connection with a Cambridge don - the Reverend Samuel Blackall. He was an hereditary Emmanuel man who became a Fellow of the College in 1794. In a letter to Mrs Lefroy (1798), he expressed the pleasure it would give him to have an opportunity of improving his acquaintance with the Austen family - 'with the hope of creating to myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge my expectation of it', the reason being that as a Fellow he was bound to celibacy. Later, when she heard of his marriage to a Miss Lewis (1813) after he had obtained a desired living in North Cadbury, Jane Austen recalled him as, 'a peice of Perfection, noisy Perfection himself, which I always recollect with regard' and acknowledged that 'I should very much like to know what sort of woman she (his wife) is.'

Jane Austen's great-nephew, Augustus Austen-Leigh, was Senior Tutor, Vice-Provost and finally Provost of King's College over the late nineteenth century and just into the twentieth. He presided over the conversion of King's from a small gathering of old Etonians into one of the most forward looking academic communities in Cambridge. He was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University in 1893-4. To this day there is the 'Augustus Austen-Leigh Studentship' at King's, a scholarship for Ph.D. students.

Augustus' brother William, also a Fellow of King's, wrote The Life and Letters of Jane Austen (1913) with his nephew R.A.Austen-Leigh (King's 1891). There are also archive records of Edward Compton Austen-Leigh, rowing for King's from 1858 to 1860.

The long association of the Austen family with King's influenced Mary Isobella Lefroy to give the manuscript of Sanditon to the College in 1930.

The University of Cambridge Library and the library at King's are the repositories for very important collections of Jane Austen manuscripts and first editions. Dorothy Warren and David Gilson, the Jane Austen bibliographer, have made splendid donations of Austen manuscripts and books to King's.

In the novels, Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey bears the same name as a contemporary of Samuel Blackall's at Cambridge - Tilney, who was at Caius. East Anglian names are unusual in the novels. Unlike the charming but worthless George Wickham of Pride and Prejudice and Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park, who were both Cambridge men, Henry Tilney of Caius was attractive, lively and talkative, like his namesake in the novel.