Last November, a Victorian photo album for sale on eBay caught the eye of Karen Ievers. She made a $1,000 bid on it, thinking that the seller, who was asking for considerably more, would reject it. But the seller decided to accept Ievers’s offer, and within minutes she had paid for it online and arranged to have it shipped.
“I’ve bought old books and albums before, but never for that much. It was an impulse buy, and I was afraid I was going to regret spending so much,” Ievers told The Times of Israel.
Very soon, however, Ievers’s worry turned to joy. Instead of making a regrettable purchase, she had actually uncovered an amazing historical find. Upon examining the images and researching the names and places noted next to them, Ievers realized that she now owned photos of family members of the much loved, world famous author Jane Austen.
The popular novelist’s writings, full of keen observation and social criticism, still capture readers today and are the basis of dozens of films and television series. Austen lived from 1775-1817, during which time she wrote six major works prior to her death from illness at 41.
Upon identifying the Austen family album Ievers, 51, was thrilled — as were untold numbers of Austen fans who read recent international news reports about the discovery. What the articles didn’t mention, however, is that Ievers is Israeli, and that the historical album is in Jerusalem.
Ievers invited The Times of Israel to her home in the capital’s Ir Ganim neighborhood to get a first-hand look at the album. Ievers’s husband Norman, 45, was also on hand to listen in and occasionally share his comments on the album’s contents.
It is unlikely that the album would have initially caught Ievers’s eye had she not met her husband and married him in 2011. Norman is Irish, and his family owns a stately Georgian country house called Mount Ievers Court in Sixmilebridge, County Clare, Ireland. The couple and their five-year-old boy and girl twins spend holidays and summer vacations there. During the school year, they live in Jerusalem with the American-born Ievers’s teenage daughter, one of three children from her previous marriage.
Ievers became enamored with Mount Ievers Court and its history, and took on the project of trying to organize and research the many archival documents discovered in the residence (she’s been posting images and information about them on a dedicated Instagram account). When she exhausted most of that work, she started broadening her field of interest to other topics related to Irish history.
“I just typed into Google ‘Victorian album Irish,’ and it brought me to the album on eBay. The seller didn’t list it as related to the Austen family,” Ievers said.
What she discovered through her research was that the fading black leather-bound album was likely compiled by the person whose name appears on the inside of the album’s front cover: Lord George Augusta Hill, an Anglo-Irish gentleman who married two of Jane Austen’s nieces, Cassandra and Louisa — daughters of Austen’s older brother Edward Austen Knight. Cassandra died in Ireland shortly after giving birth to her fourth child. Her sister Louisa (who was Jane Austen’s godchild and remembered in her will) came over from England to help with the children and ended up marrying her brother-in-law and having a son (George Wandsbeck Hill) with him.
The album includes photos of Lord George Hill, Louisa, her brother Rev. Charles Knight, her brother Edward Knight II — but not of Cassandra, who presumably died before the photos were taken. Pictured also are Marianne Knight, who also lived in Ireland but did not marry, and Fanny Knight, Austen’s “favorite” niece, who later became Lady Knatchbull. In addition, the album features a number of Austen’s great-nieces and nephews and their children.
Unfortunately, there are no photos of Jane Austen herself, as she died at age 41 in 1817, two decades before photography came into use. There are only sketches of her, as well as an oil painting of her as a teenager, whose authenticity is disputed.
The proverbial bells went off when Ievers glimpsed a place name associated with the famous author. She saw that some of the photos, including a couple of large and striking ones of an 1865 wedding, were labeled as has having been taken at Chawton. That is the location in Hampshire, England, where Austen lived the last eight years of her life.
“I saw ‘Chawton House’ and I started screaming for joy! I knew that that was where Austen lived and where she wrote some of her novels,” Ievers said.
Austen published four novels — “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Emma” — while living in a cottage in Chawton village given to her, her mother, and her sister Cassandra as a residence after her father’s death. Austen’s last two novels, “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” were published posthumously in 1817.
With that major lead kicking things off, Ievers started intensively researching online and in books for any information she could find on other clues in the album.
As Ievers carefully turned each page so as to not cause any additional cracking to the album’s spine, she explained to this reporter a bit about the people in each photo. Based on the names written beneath the photos and historical indications from the subjects’ fashion and dress, she has been able to determine more about these people’s lives and and the approximate years the pictures were taken.
The research process has required her to follow extensive, convoluted family trees, and has put her in touch with Austen scholars, scholars of Irish history, as well as Austen descendants — many of whom have been excited to see images of their ancestors. In addition, Ievers went to visit some of the sites from the album on her most recent visit to Ireland. Active on social media, she has also crowdsourced some information by sharing the album’s photos in her posts.
“I want to share these photos with the world. The response has been amazing, and I am learning something new every day,” Ievers said.
As Ievers dug into the material, she was amazed to learn that many of the pictured Austen descendants ended up leading lives uncannily similar to those of her novels’ characters.
“There is the romance between the young gentlewoman without means and the well-born but impecunious young suitor, the intervention and banning of the marriage by an influential, wealthy older female relative, the parting for eight years and the joyous reunion when hope seems lost, the loss of a home by the decision of a brother,” noted literary scholar Dr. Sophia Hillan, former associate director of Queens University’s Institute of Irish Studies in an email interview with The Times of Israel.
“These demonstrate in the story of their lives the universal truths identified and explored in exquisite prose by their extraordinarily gifted aunt,” said Hillan.
Hillan, author of “May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland,” the first and to date only scholarly work on the subject, is one of the experts to whom Ievers has (digitally) shown the album. According to Hillan, it is rare to come upon such a unique treasure on the open market.
The scholar’s own work is backed up by Iever’s album and research findings.
“[The album’s contents] serve to support and enhance my work in finding and making known the fact of the extraordinary circumstances in which three of Jane Austen’s nieces most unexpectedly came not only to live through turbulent times in 19th-century Ireland — famine, land wars and the struggle for home rule — but also to die and be buried here. For those scholars and readers who associate Jane Austen only with England, it adds another dimension,” Hillan said.
Hillan enjoyed seeing the faces of people she had only known through their letters and diaries, notably George Wandsbeck Hill, the only son of Lord George Hill and his second wife Louisa.
“Because his parents’ marriage had been called into question, because it had contravened Lord Lyndhurst’s act of 1835, forbidding the marriage of a man to his deceased wife’s sister, George’s own legitimacy was called into question, and his parents’ qualification to be received in society was discussed in Parliament, which was a great and troubling embarrassment to the family,” Hillan said.
Although Norman Ievers isn’t as much into the time-consuming, painstaking research that his amateur historian wife is so passionate about, he is interested in the questions that arise from the larger context of the album’s contents.
“These people were aristocrats. The social position that they occupied is important to look at. They had a lot of property and business, and therefore what they did affected hundreds of lives,” he said.
“I was pleased to discover that Lord George was involved in the local community and tried to improve living conditions in Donegal, where he lived,” his wife said.
The album contains other photos, mainly of Hill’s non-Austen relatives, friends and business associates.
There are photos of famous individuals related to science, politics, the arts, and famine relief. These include Sir William O’Shaughnessy Brooke (né William Sands — a physician who pioneered medical cannabis and intravenous fluid treatments), Owen Connellan (an Irish scholar who translated the “Annals of the Four Masters,” chronicles of medieval Irish history, to English), and William Wilde (father of the famous poet and playwright Oscar Wilde).
“We can’t know for sure if some of these people were actually photographed in the Gweedor Hotel in Donegal which Lord Hill owned. However, I have been able to match up some of the names attached to the photos with names in the hotel guest book, which I found online,” Ievers said.
Most of the photos of the family members are printed on paper, but there are other photos in the album that are printed on card stock in the carte-de-visite (CdV) style. One CdV bears the imprint of (Cornelius) Jabez Hughes, a famous early portrait photographer.
The album also contains some illustrated newspaper clippings glued in scrapbook-style. One from 1866 is about British troops leaving to fight in the Crimean War. Another is from The Irish Times in 1900, with the headline: “The Last Parliament of the Century.”
Hillan agreed that the album’s contents serve as a window into issues larger than the lives of the individuals depicted.
A riddle pasted in toward the end of the album is a possible clue that the album was passed down between generations. The riddle is written on stationery belonging to Hill’s daughter Norah, Jane Austen’s great-niece.
“It’s known that the Austens liked to write and share riddles, especially around holiday times,” Ievers said.
Perhaps the most intriguing and hardest-to-crack part of the album is a manuscript at the very back (or the beginning, if you flip the album over). It is written in two hands, and seems to be a copying of texts in French and English.
Ievers determined that the English text is a poem by the 18th-century English writer George Keate. Ievers has no idea to whom either of handwritings belong. She has shown them to experts, who have told her that neither match Jane Austen’s.
Ievers assumed that the writing was done after Lord Hill had affixed his photos and other keepsakes into the album. However, a discovery made as Ievers showed the album to this reporter, casts possible doubt on that theory. As Ievers flipped one of the pages, the sunlight streaming through her apartment window illuminated a watermark: “G Jones 1810.”
This would mean that the album was manufactured decades before the photographs were taken and Hill could have placed them on the pages. It is therefore possible that the manuscript was made during Austen’s lifetime — and if not by her, then perhaps by one of her nieces.
“Wow! we never saw that before,” Ievers said of the watermark. “Now we have to trace ‘G Jones’ and also research the handwriting some more.”
It’s clear that the album has not yet revealed all its secrets, and that Ievers has much more detective work ahead of her.
It’s too soon for her to decide what she wants to ultimately do with the album, but there is one thing for certain.