Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Anne Sharp - Jane Austen's Friend; and Who Was Madame Bigeon?

In April 1817, when she possibly guessed she was dying, Jane Austen wrote her will, leaving virtually everything to her sister Cassandra. She bequeathed £50 to her ruined brother Henry and £50 to a Madame Bigeon who had suffered in the collapse of Henry's bank.

Who was Madame Bigeon? I am indebted to post-graduate research student Simon Kirkpatrick for the following information (sent to me in April 2013): Madame de Bigeon was, apparently, first and foremost a nurse. Madame de Bigeon and her daughter had nursed Hastings Austen prior to his death in 1801. Madame de Bigeon nursed Eliza Austen (Henry Austen's wife) up to her death in 1813 and following that acted as housekeeper to Henry. When Henry's bank collapsed it was reported that some Austen servants had lost money. Simon states that, 'Whilst accepting that Madame de Bigeon and her daughter, Madame Perigord, were long-standing servants of Henry Austen and his deceased wife Eliza (Henry's first cousin), I have not yet seen any specific reference to the fact that Madame de Bigeon was a registered account holder at Henry's bank.'

By 22 May, Jane Austen wrote to her old friend Anne Sharp, 'I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me – the most severe I ever had – & coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low'. In the letter, Jane praises her family for their loving attention. She says she is being taken on May 24 to Winchester for further treatment, for she is 'really a very genteel, portable sort of Invalid' (Letter 159). 

Anne Sharp had been the governess at Godmersham from 1804 until 1806. In 1811, she was governess to the four daughters of the Dowager Lady Pilkington at Chevet Hall, near Wakefield (it was demolished in 1949). Possibly Jane had Chevet in mind as a model for Enscombe in Emma.

Governesses were often considered only as superior servants and Jane's warm regard and friendship for Anne shows a lack of snobbery. Jane had taken part in improvised plays with her and others in 1805. Anne remained in touch with Cassandra well after Jane's death.