Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jane Austen's Dark Joke

Jane Austen wrote about sewing in her letters but she didn't seem to care much for plain sewing, the everyday chore of women in her time. She and her family played what they called charades, word games in which they had to guess a compound word. Here is one that her niece Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh attributed to Aunt Jane.

When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
And my second confines her to finish the piece,
How hard is her fate! but how great is her merit
If by taking my whole she effect her release!

This charade in the appendix to Austen-Leigh's 1920 book Personal Aspects of Jane Austen was illustrated with the drawing of the seamstress eyeing a bottle of poison on the mantle. The answer to the charade is HEMLOCK, a poison. The task to "a young girl of spirit" would be a HEM. The second part of the word, which "confines her to finish the piece," is a LOCK. This dark joke is an indication of how little Jane looked forward to her plain sewing chores.


  1. Some of us love to sew. I'm sorry that Jane didn't enjoy it. It is to our great advantage that she did find something useful to do with her hands (and her brain). I am rereading Austen this year and I am so enjoying your collection and looking forward to Netherfield!


  2. Even though she didn't seem to like it, she did a lot of it---and made a quilt.

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