I have created this blog to share new research and supplemental information related to my book, Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton: Commerce & Community, published by Woodpigeon Publishing. All text is © Linda Slothouber, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Linda Slothouber and chawtoncommerceandcommunity@blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Please feel free to contact me at lindaslothouber@gmail.com.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Austen, Austin, and Creative Spelling

A new road sign pointing to “Jane Austin’s House” went up outside Chawton recently, and, after a flurry of indignant comments, was quickly corrected.  There’s really no excuse for such an error these days, but Jane Austen and her family must have been quite accustomed to seeing their name misspelled.  A famous example:  the London publisher John Murray sent a check made out to “Miss Jane Austin” to the author in 1816.

Nor did people closer to home do any better.  One example is a notice published in the Hampshire Chronicle on 6 March 1815, listing the contributors to a charitable collection to benefit the widow and children of the late curate of Overton, Hampshire.  “Rev. J. Austen” and “Mrs. J. Austen” (Jane's brother James and his wife) gave £5 each, and “Miss C. Austen” (their daughter Caroline) donated 10 shillings and sixpence – so far so good, but the spelling went downhill when it came to “Mrs. Austin and family” (Cassandra Leigh Austen and her daughters Cassandra and Jane), who also gave £5.  They no doubt forwarded their donation through their banker – listed in the notice as “Messrs. Austin & Co., Alton.” 

It gets worse (or better, if like me you find these things fascinating).  In looking through hundreds of handwritten documents of the time contained in the Knight Archive, I saw several other interesting variations of the name:  Ausdin, Aston, Ausdon.   These variations were all written by Hampshire tradesmen on their invoices, and I can imagine thatchers and blacksmiths saying the name out loud to themselves and then putting it to paper phonetically.      
The names of villagers were equally malleable.  I studied the record-book of the Overseers of the Poor to track the fortunes of Thomas Windibank, who seems to have relied on parish aid more than just about anyone else (other than the non-working elderly) in Chawton in the early years of the 19th century.  His surname was most often spelled Windibank, but the various overseers also recorded it as Windibanks, Windebank, Windybank, Willybank, and Willebank.  James Mersh was also Mearsh and Marsh.  With some exceptions, the overseers who made these entries used fairly standard spelling elsewhere, so poor education is not the reason for the inconsistency.  The names must simply have sounded differently to different ears, and were set down accordingly.  Clearly, in such a small place, everyone could figure out who was being written about, however it was spelled.

Having gone through my whole life hearing “How do you spell that?” and taking a deep breath before reciting all ten letters (usually more than once), I think it would be rather refreshing to say, “Oh, just spell it however you like.”   

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