Early 19th century ivory box containing ivory alphabet letters
Museum Number: CHWJA:JAH50
Marketing and Communications Assistant, Jane Austen's House Museum
Dainty and delicate, the jumble of ivory characters contained in this veneered box are alphabet letters from the early 19th century. Letters like these were used in playing a variety of word games. Some were educational, intended to aid children in learning to read and write, and some were played purely for pleasure.
In Jane Austen’s novel Emma, the flirtatious Frank Churchill uses a simple game of anagrams as a tool to mount a devilish trick on Jane Fairfax, using a set of alphabet letters to spell out ‘Dixon’; this being a reference to Mr Dixon, a man that Frank has Emma believe Jane to be in love with. “She was evidently displeased; looked up, and seeing herself watched, blushed more deeply than he had ever perceived her, and saying only, ‘I did not know that proper names were allowed,’…”
In 1808, shortly before moving here to Chawton, Jane Austen was living at Castle Square in Southampton with her brother Francis and his wife Mary. In October of that year, Elizabeth, the wife of Jane’s brother Edward, died shortly after the birth of their eleventh child. In the aftermath, Edward and George, Elizabeth and Edward’s eldest sons, came to stay at Castle Square with their uncle and aunts. Jane entertained and played with the two boys, distracting them from their unhappy situation. In a letter to her sister Cassandra on 25 October, Jane explained that she was keeping the boys in good spirits, writing “We do not want amusement; bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable, spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums and cards…keep us well employed”. For Jane then, parlour games could be used to comfort in times of trouble when, as Claire Tomalin writes, she “felt instinctively how much better it was to cheer [the boys] up with excursions and games than to insist on mourning.”