In 1799, Jane Leigh-Perrot went on trial for theft, a serious crime that could result in death. Stealing lace, believe it or not, was a capital crime that at worst-ended in hanging, and at best sent to Australia.
She managed to escape this fate, but really laid the defense on thick. Was she always innocent and won justice? Or a guilty woman using wealth as her golden ticket to freedom?
Why do we care about this woman?
She is Jane Austen’s aunt.
Yes, so I’ve been reading the book Just Jane by Nancy Moser, and when it got to this part I was blown away and had to do more research.
So Jane’s first visit to Bath, an experience she later used in Northanger Abbey, was all because of her aunt of uncle. Like the characters in her novels, Jane had a wealthy family member that brought her along on a trip.
Jane visited in 1797 and while it was a fruitful trip, for us readers, she wasn’t too into it. Two years later the Austens received the news that the very aunt who took Jane on the trip, Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot, was arrested, living in jail, and on trial for thievery.
So what caused a wealthy woman to ever be in a situation like this?
Well, she had stopped at a shop to pick up a length of black lace. When she was leaving, she was asked by the shopkeeper to see her bag and inside was the black lace and a seam of white lace worth 20 shillings (£1)
Jane Leigh-Perrot said it was a mistake by the shopkeeper, while the shopkeeper said it was shoplifting. Jane Leigh-Perrot was arrested the next day and had to be in jail for 8 months!
Wait a sec, let’s be real. Jane Leigh-Perrot was a wealthy woman, because of her husband and family influence she didn’t have to stay in the jail but stayed with the jailer’s family.
While that was better than the jail, it still wasn’t the standards she was used to. Not only did Jane Leigh-Perrot stay, but her husband stayed with her.
“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.”
When Mrs. Austen found out about her sister-in-law she wanted to send both her girls to comfort her.
Luckily, Mrs. Austen’s brother declined the offer and Jane didn’t have to spends months in “jail”. We might have had a much different novel if she did.
The trial came and went, justice was served swiftly and Jane Leigh-Perrot was declared “not guilty” and the whole thing hushed up.
So did she do it?
Well let’s take a look. What goes against her ever being a thief? What is for the idea of her being a thief?
AGAINST: She’s a wealthy woman? Why would she bother stealing when she could afford as much ribbon as she wanted.
FOR: Being wealthy is no excuse. How many times have we read stories about wealthy people and stars doing things like this. Sometimes their ego gets in the way of their good choices.
AGAINST: Mr. Filby, the man who accused Jane Leigh-Perrot, later tried to blackmail the Leigh-Perrots. What honest man would resort to blackmail?
FOR: Mr. Filby and Miss Gregory (the shop owner) went several days in a row to the magistrates to try and have them arrest Jane Leigh-Perrot, with what seemed like no avail. Could it be they were tired of never getting justice and went after their own kind of justice?
AGAINST:The detail drawing of the shop that was used in the trial show that the places the lace was hanging there was no way the clerk could ever have “mistakenly” grabbed the wrong color. Did he purposely put it in?
FOR: The detail drawing of the shop that was used in the trial show that the places the lace was hanging there was no way the clerk could ever have “mistakenly” grabbed the wrong color. It was purposely taken. By Jane Leigh-Perrot?
AGAINST: The Leigh-Perrots were respectable citizens with philanthropic tendencies, while Mr. Filby and Miss Gregory were having an extra-marital affair.
FOR: The Leigh-Perrots hired four lawyers to defend them and paid £2000 for character witnesses. Why would they spend so much?
AGAINST; Others came forward and said that the same clerk, Mr. Filby, put things in their bags.
FOR: Another shopclerk said he saw Jane Leigh-Perrot take the lace.
So did she or didn’t she? We may never know.
To read more, click here.
For more on Jane Austen, go to Jane Austen Eyes
For more Jane Austen on trial, go to Brought Shame and Scandal to Pemberley: Death Comes to Pemberley, Episode Two (2013)
For more posts, go to No One Would Have Ever Guessed