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Mrs. Musgrave of Newton Priors? Jane Austen and Sir Isaac Newton’s Library

A number of letters that Jane Austen sent in 1814 to her niece Anna Lefroy, herself an aspiring novelist, have considerable interest because of the published author’s advice on writing fiction.  Most of Austen’s comments are astute and to the point.  But in her letter of September 9–18 she makes an incomprehensible meal of one of Anna’s place-name choices. 

The scene with Mrs Mellish, I should condemn; it is prosy & nothing to the purpose—& indeed, the more you can find in your heart to curtail between Dawlish & Newton Priors, the better I think it will be.—One does not care for girls till they are grown up.—Your Aunt C. quite enters into the exquisiteness of that name.  Newton Priors is really a Nonpareil.—Milton wd have given his eyes to have thought of it.  (9–18 September 1814) 

"Newton Priors"?  It doesn’t seem so very remarkable.  And why should her sister, Cassandra ("Your Aunt C."), with no pretensions to novel writing, "quite enter into the exquisiteness of that name"?  It is evidently a family in-joke, and a good one, because this wasn’t the end of it: 

My dear Anna 

I have been very far from finding your Book an Evil I assure you; I read it immediately—& with great pleasure. . . . The name of Newton-Priors is really invaluable!—I never met with anything superior to it.—It is delightful.—One could live upon the name of Newton-Priors for a twelvemonth.  Indeed, I do think you get on very fast.  (30 November 1814) 

In uncovering unexplored material relating to Jane Austen’s early life, I propose an explanation for this levity and at the same time suggest possible sources for some of the characters in the novels.

The godmother

One of Jane Austen’s godmothers when she was christened in the spring of 1776 was the wife of Dr. James Musgrave, Rector of Chinnor, in Oxfordshire, who was a wealthy Perrot relation of her mother’s.  Nothing has until now been found to say about Jane Musgrave:  as Claire Tomalin had concluded in a note at the end of the first chapter of her biography of Austen, “Mrs. Musgrave was never heard of again” (296). 

Historians of science, however, have known since the 1920s that Dr. James Musgrave was for many years the owner of the working library of Sir Isaac Newton.  The connection between the Musgrave who owned Newton’s library and Jane Austen’s godmother has for some reason never been made.  Dr. Musgrave’s contribution to Newton scholarship was an invaluable one:  during his long period of ownership he had drawn up a detailed catalogue of the library, a handsome volume now preserved in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton’s old college. 

In investigating the history of the Musgrave family, I discovered that the standard work on Newton’s library, John Harrison’s The Library of Isaac Newton, published by Cambridge University Press in 1978, is wrong about what happened to the collection when Dr. Musgrave died in 1778.  Jane Austen’s godmother, as it turns out, played a crucial part in its history.

Newton’s library

Newton had died intestate in 1727, and his library was bought from his executors later that year by a man called John Huggins.  Huggins had three sons, one of whom, William Huggins, was Jane Musgrave’s father.1  John Huggins sent Newton’s books to be cared for by his youngest son, Charles, at Chinnor Rectory, eighteen miles outside Oxford; and when Charles died in 1750, his successor as rector, Dr. James Musgrave, Doctor of Laws from St. John’s College, Oxford,2 moved into the rectory, married Charles Huggins’s niece Jane, and bought Newton’s library from the Huggins family (Harrison 28–36). 

Newton’s books remained in Dr. Musgrave’s ownership until his death in 1778, at which point Harrison assumed that they passed to his eldest son, another James (39, 41).  It’s an understandable assumption:  in the same year the son James Musgrave inherited an estate in Gloucestershire, Barnsley Park, from a Perrot relation,3 and it was at Barnsley, over a century later, that a sizable remainder of Newton’s library was finally discovered, “stuck away in cupboards and corners where their owner did not even know of their existence” (Stokeley 397).  Harrison was mistaken.  Dr. Musgrave left the library not to his son but to his wife, who survived him by ten years, dying when Jane Austen, her goddaughter, was twelve.  The books had after all come to him through his connection with her family, so this was not inappropriate. 

But Dr. Musgrave didn’t leave his wife Isaac Newton’s library because he thought she was the best person to preserve it.  He left it to her so that she could sell it.  Harrison had evidently not seen his will, which explains the circumstances in detail.  Dr. Musgrave settled an estate in Durham on her, but it came with an encumbrance, a hefty charge of £500—around £75,000 today—which he had insufficient cash to clear himself.  The sale of Newton’s library, for which he had paid £400 twenty-eight years earlier, should have been sufficient to rid her of this charge. 

I give my said Wife All my Household Goods and ffurniture in the Parsonage House of Chinnor and the Library of Books standing in the said Parsonage House together with all my Plate thereout to raise by Sale so much Money as shall be sufficient to clear the said Debt. 

Jane Austen’s godmother was clearly a woman of independent spirit.  She did not sell “the Library of books.”  Her own will, written at Chinnor, makes this clear:  the first item listed, her primary concern, is “all the Library of Books that are in the Catalogue.”  She remained at Chinnor, with Newton’s library intact, until she moved to London in 1787, the year before her death.4  Chinnor rectory was amply and comfortably furnished, and it was not until just before she left that she finally organized the sale of the “Household Goods and ffurniture” that her husband had anticipated.  An advertisement appeared on the front page of Jackson’s Oxford Journal for Saturday, January 6, 1787: 

To be SOLD by AUCTION, By W. FOLKER, On Wednesday the 10th of January, 1787, and the following Days, A large Quantity of exceeding good and useful HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, the Property of Mrs. Musgrave, at the Parsonage-House at Chinnor. 

Fourposters and feather beds, paintings and prints, pots, pans, and pewter, even the cucumber frames and garden rollers went under the hammer of the Oxford auctioneer.  But there is no mention of books. 

Between the summer of 1778, when Jane Austen was two years old, and the beginning of 1787 nine years later, her godmother Mrs. Musgrave lived on at Chinnor Rectory with Isaac Newton’s books in pride of place in the library.  Whether Jane Austen visited her godmother at Chinnor as a child thus becomes a question of some interest.

The role of godparents in the Austen family 

The expectation of spending time with a godparent is clearly reflected in Northanger Abbey, in the context of John Thorpe’s repugnant insinuation, “‘Old Allen is as rich as a Jew—is not he?’” 

“He is your godfather, is not he?” 

“My godfather!—no.” 

“But you are always very much with them.” 

“Yes, very much.” 

“Aye, that is what I meant.”  (63) 

The correspondence between Jane and her sister is, not surprisingly, silent on Mrs. Musgrave, who had died a decade earlier.  But there is evidence in the letters of the role godparents played as Jane still had one surviving, her godfather, the Reverend Samuel Cooke of Bookham.  Visits to Bookham are frequently mentioned—they were regular, expected, and usually dreaded:  “I assure You that I dread the idea of going to Bookham as much as you can do; but I am not without some hopes that something may happen to prevent it” (8–9 January 1799); “I wonder what we shall do with all our intended visits this summer?—I should like to make a compromise with Adlestrop, Harden & Bookham that Martha’s spending the summer at Steventon should be considered as our respective visits to them all” (11 June 1799); “I shall be nearer to Bookham than I cd wish, in going from Dorking to Guilford—but till I have a travelling purse of my own, I must submit to such things” (26 June 1808).  There is only one occasion when Jane is keen to go, and for good reason: 

They do not leave home till July & want me to come to them according to my promise.—. . . In addition to their standing claims on me, they admire Mansfield Park exceedingly.  Mr Cooke says “it is the most sensible Novel he ever read”—and the manner in which I treat the Clergy, delights them very much.—Altogether I must go—& I want you to join me there when your visit in Henrietta St is over.  (14 June 1814, my emphasis) 

The letters give no information about the relationship Jane may have had with Mrs. Musgrave.  In the same way they tell us nothing about Cassandra’s relationship with her godmother, Mrs. Jane Cooper, who died when she was a child.  But in this case we fortunately have another source. 

Kathryn Sutherland, in her 2002 edition of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen, reprinted invaluable original material, including a letter first published by Deirdre Le Faye in 1988.  It was sent by Anna Lefroy in old age to Austen’s biographer-nephew, in response to his request for information about his aunt.  Anna describes the profound affection of the two sisters for each other.  She then adds, “They must however have been separated some times as Cassandra in her childhood was a good deal with Dr. & Mrs. Cooper at Bath” (Memoir 160).  Cassandra herself, who survived her younger sister by twenty-eight years, was the source of this information.  The circumstantial evidence of one visit as remembered by Anna is indisputable. 

She once described to me her return to Steventon one fine summer evening.  The Coopers had sent or conveyed her a good part of the journey . . . & almost home they were when they met Jane & Charles, the two little ones of the family, who had got as far as New down to meet the chaise, & have the pleasure of riding home in it.  (160) 

Without Anna’s letter we would have no idea of the close relationship Cassandra had in her childhood with her godmother.5  Mrs. Cooper died in 1783, when Cassandra was ten. Mrs. Musgrave left Chinnor in 1787, when Jane was eleven. 

Visits to Chinnor, if they did take place, would have been memorable.  The house was much larger and more splendid than the homely rectory in Steventon, where Jane and Cassandra grew up.  Built in the first half of the seventeenth century, there were twenty-two “apartments,” the finest of them being the Great Hall and the Library.  The grounds included a walled garden, kitchen garden, orchard, and two stables (Oxford Archdeanery 181).  Robert Plot specifically mentioned it in 1677 in his Natural History of Oxfordshire as being hardly inferior to the houses of some of the nobility in its “greatness, commodiousness, or elegancy of Building” (266).  It seems to have become less commodious over time:  in 1725 Thomas Hearne tells us that the rector of nearby Waterstock, Charles Hinde, thought it “(notwithstanding its strange largeness) the most ill contriv’d Parsonage House in England” (400).  Mr. Knightley’s house at Donwell, with its apple trees and strawberry beds, springs irresistibly to mind:  “The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable and one or two handsome rooms” (Emma 358). 

But can we be justified in imagining Jane Austen as a child standing in the grand library at Chinnor, admiring its fine contents, its bookcases, and perhaps even the books they contained?  Dr. Musgrave’s will suggests that we can.  The Library, like the Great Hall, was an imposing room, not only lined with books but also hung with family portraits.  Dr. Musgrave’s bequest to his wife tells us about what was on the walls as he also left her some of the portraits: “and seven Capital Pictures of her own ffamily which now hang in the great Hall at the Parsonage House at Chinnor aforesaid and the pictures of Mr and Mrs Knightley which hang in my Library at Chinnor.” 

Scholarly attention to possible sources for the names Jane Austen uses in her novels culminated in two recent publications, Janine Barchas’s Matters of Fact in Jane Austen (2012) and Margaret Anne Doody’s Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (2015).  But there is no mention of the Knightleys in either work.

Mrs. Knightley

Mrs. Knightley was Dr. Musgrave’s sister, who had married John Knightley of Berkswell in 1744.  On visits to Chinnor as a child, Jane would probably have known the original Mrs. John Knightley, who was Mrs. Musgrave’s closest companion after her husband’s death.6  A large volume of correspondence, preserved in the Gloucestershire Archives, between the Musgraves and their distinguished relative Sir William Musgrave chronicles the relationship.  A letter from Mrs. Musgrave’s son James, written at Chinnor shortly after his father’s death in 1778, concludes in the elaborate style characteristic of the time:  “My Mother & Sisters would be particular in their Acknowledgements to you for your kind Remembrance of them were they with me but they are gone with Mrs Knightley to Berkswell.”  The following April Mrs. Knightley is with them as he writes, and she accompanied Jane Musgrave on her visit to stay with her son at Barnsley Park in the summer of 1782.  She remained a constant friend to the end, following Mrs. Musgrave to London in the last year of her life.  Mrs. Knightley survived her sister-in-law by many years, dying in 1813 at the age of 94.

The altered will 

What happened to Newton’s library after the death of Mrs. Musgrave in 1788 is not known.  The first sentence of her will, drawn up in 1784, is clear:  “I give to my Eldest Son James Musgrave all the Library of Books that are in the Catalogue, and also all the pictures in the Library and pictures in the Great Hall.”  But this whole sentence is then crossed out.  When the will was read, her son was summoned to testify that he “being at the House of the said deceased on or about the twenty seventh Day of June last past in Searching for the Papers belonging to the said deceased found in a drawer in the Bureau in a Room of the deceased’s House the said paper Writing hereunto annexed,” and “made Oath that he doth verily and in his Conscience believe the said paper Writing is now in every respect in the same plight and Condition as when found by him as aforesaid.”  Perhaps by 1788 Jane Austen’s godmother was becoming concerned that her eldest son, by then splendidly settled at Barnsley Park, was more interested in his livery than his library.  And there was also the very real possibility that he would inherit the Musgrave baronetcy.

The Musgraves, the baronet, and Persuasion

In the final chapter of Matters of Fact, “Persuasion’s Battle of the Books,” Barchas compares “the Baronetage” and the “navy-list” as possible sources for names occurring in Persuasion.  When it comes to the surname “Musgrove,” she briefly mentions the Musgrave family.  “While the Baronetage does not include an English family by the name of Musgrove, it does list the ancient family of Musgrave that ‘came into England with the Conqueror’ and to which the Austens could, again, claim distant connections.”  She quotes from Park Honan’s 1987 biography:  “One of Jane Austen’s godmothers was named Musgrave, Mrs. Jane Musgrave, ‘wife of James Musgrave, a Vicar of Chinnor in Oxfordshire, whose mother was Mrs. Austen’s great-aunt and a rich Perrot’” (232).  Misled perhaps by Dr. Musgrave’s humble profession, Barchas concludes that “the Austen connection to the Musgraves listed in the Baronetage is therefore slight and distant” and delves no further. 

But the connection between Jane Austen and the Musgrave baronetage was not in the slightest bit distant.  The younger James Musgrave, her godmother’s eldest son, was to become the 8th Baronet in 1812, three years before the novelist began work on Persuasion.  It seems remarkable that this has gone unnoticed—not least since Barnsley Park, which was his seat for most of Jane Austen’s life (he died in 1814), was used as Kellynch Hall in the 1995 film of Persuasion.  The opening credits are running as Mrs. Clay and then Lady Russell draw up, in trap and carriage respectively, at its grand, pedimented entrance.  Barnsley Park had been built for Henry Perrot, the brother of Jane Austen’s great-grandmother, although the connection with the Austen family seems not to have formed any part of the film’s promotional material. 

There are tantalizing connections between the Musgrave family and Persuasion.  Shortly after he inherited Barnsley Park, Mrs. Musgrave’s son James wrote a letter to Sir William Musgrave, then the 6th Baronet, in which the following sentence appears: 

At first glance it strikes me as adviseable for us to live at Bath; & to pay a Visit to Barnsley in the Summer, without the appearance of keeping up the Place which would be very expensive, & the more so to a Person who has no ready money; & then I should be near to ride over occasionally to see how matters go on; & my Sisters would have the advantage of Company at an easy Rate— 

Is this striking parallel with Sir Walter Elliot’s predicament in the novel simply coincidence?  There’s another, which is even harder to set aside.  James inherited the baronetcy towards the end of his life, on the death of the 7th Baronet, the eminent soldier Sir Thomas Musgrave.  With the baronetcy came a share, but a share only, in Sir Thomas’s considerable wealth.  The other part went to a cousin, whose name was Mrs. Clay.7

Mrs. Clay’s brother’s army career was materially aided by the patronage of Colonel Musgrave, and for many years she had been diligent in the expression of her gratitude.  Her insinuating style, as evidenced by two letters to Sir William Musgrave, will strike a resounding chord with Austen readers. 

Saturday 27 October 17878

Dear Sir, 

I last night received the honor of your letter, which be assured, I take as a particular mark of your regard, the attention you have most kindly shewn towards me on many occasions (as well as the present) is a proof of your friendship, which is ever held by me in the highest estimation! 

The Col’s unbounded generosity in promoting my Brother to the rank of Captain, is a favour never to have been expected, as he never would have had the power to have purchas’d, which makes the Obligation to Colonel Musgrave still greater, every part of his Family are thankful and indebted to his Patron and can never sufficiently express their Gratitude which they must ever feel in the extreem! 

And, four years later: 

17 June 1791. 

Every mark of attention from Sir William Musgrave is most flattering as no one is more sensible of it that I am & I feel gratitude in the extreem by His obligeing letter received last night which afforded me the greatest satisfaction to hear of the welfare and promotion of my Brother which has been beyond the expectation of His friends, that General Musgrave may live to return to His native Country and receive the thanks of His friends in person for the many favors conferr’d, is my most ardent wish, His kindness to my family has been great indeed (through your condescending recommendation) we was the only branch of the Musgrave family that wanted assistance and protection [my emphasis], we have found great and generous Benefactors! 

Mrs. Clay, like her namesake in the novel, had evidently made an “unprosperous marriage” (Persuasion 15), and the careful attention she paid to her Musgrave relations of rank and influence proved highly successful.  Can this echo also be just coincidence?


I suggest that Jane Austen was familiar with this family and did indeed spend time with her godmother at Chinnor Rectory—perhaps, after the death of Mrs. Cooper in 1783, accompanied by Cassandra—when Sir Isaac Newton’s books were in the library.  Her “Newton Priors” drollery may be an arcane allusion to the rectory, or, by 1814, to Barnsley Park.  But why the secrecy? 

Mystery has always surrounded Newton’s library.  Why, for example, is there no indication, in Dr. Musgrave’s carefully drawn up catalogue, proudly labelled on the cover “Catalogue of the Library of Dr. James Musgrave Rector of Chinnor, Oxon,” that most of the books in it had originally been Newton’s?  His will, similarly, in leaving this precious charge to his wife, simply refers to “the Library of Books standing in the said Parsonage House.”  Mrs. Musgrave, in her turn, describes the library ten years later as “all the Library of Books that are in the Catalogue.”  There’s no mention of Sir Isaac Newton anywhere.  But there can be no question that the Musgraves knew that the books were Newton’s.9  It is hardly surprising, given this silence, that the books, when finally unearthed at Barnsley Park, were, as Stokeley reported, “stuck away in cupboards and corners where their owner did not even know of their existence.”

Mrs. Musgrave 

Mrs. Musgrave appears to have been the only member of the Musgrave family to have realized the importance of preserving Newton’s working library intact.  Many years later the bookseller Heinrich Zeitlinger wrote, on the occasion of the surviving volumes finally finding a permanent home in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge:  “It would be difficult to figure any possession more precious than the very books which once belonged to the world’s greatest scientist” (Pilgrim Trust 8).  We still don’t know how they found their way to Barnsley Park.  But if it had not been for Jane Austen’s godmother, this irreplaceable treasure would not have survived. 

There’s a note, pleasingly arch in tone, from Mrs. Musgrave to Sir William in the Gloucestershire Archives, which suggests someone who, unlike Mrs. Clay, had no interest in toadying to baronets.  The emphasis on this occasion is hers: 

Mrs & Miss Musgraves & Mr Willm Musgrave present their Respectfull Compliments to Sr William Musgrave & return him many thanks for the Honor he did them in calling on them when they really ware Unfortunately from home. 

Mrs. Musgrave had a satirist’s eye for social nonsense.  This was a godparent, unlike the Rev. Samuel Cooke of Bookham, whom the young Jane Austen would have enjoyed visiting. 


The significance of these dates I leave others to decide.  Mrs. Knightley died in 1813, and Austen began writing Emma at the beginning of 1814.  James Musgrave, the 8th Baronet, died in the spring of 1814, and the “Newton Priors” letters were sent in the autumn of that year.  Jane Austen began work on Persuasion in the following summer.10



1William Huggins was the author of a translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, friend of Smollett, and himself a book collector.  His wife, Mrs. Musgrave’s mother, was Anne Tilson, a cousin of the John Tilson whose children are frequently mentioned in Jane Austen’s letters.

 2His great-grandfather James Perrot had married a descendant of the founder of St. John’s, and, like Jane’s brothers James and Henry, he probably attended St. John’s on a Founder’s Kin scholarship.  The Musgraves’ sons were also at St. John’s, and the younger of the two, William, was a college fellow during the period when Austen’s brothers were there.

3He inherited Barnsley Park from his unmarried aunt Cassandra Perrot.  There’s a glancing reference to this disposition at the beginning of chapter 4 of Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, “The last of this [Perrot] family died about 1778, and their property was divided between Leighs and Musgraves, the larger portion going to the latter” (58).

4She inherited the living of Chinnor on her husband’s death by the will of her father.

5Like Dr. and Mrs. Cooper, the Musgraves were both Austen godparents:  Dr. Musgrave had been made godfather to Jane’s brother George in 1766.

6Her own husband, also known as John Knightley Wightwick, had died many years before, in 1760.

7“In 1800 [Thomas Musgrave] inherited a baronetcy from his brother, and on 29 April 1802 he became a full general.  He died, unmarried, at his London home, 21 Bolton Street, Piccadilly, on 31 December 1812. . . . His cousins Mrs. Jane Clay and James Musgrave (who inherited the baronetcy) were the main beneficiaries of his will, by which he left an estate liable for duty valued at £45,000” (Massie).

8“On 12 October 1787 Musgrave was named colonel of the new 76th (Hindoostan) regiment.  Raised for service in India, the regiment drew many of its recruits from the Musgrave family estates” (Massie).

9In the summer of 1775 the Musgraves entertained Jacob Jonas Björnståhl, a Swedish scholar, who had come specifically from Oxford to see Newton’s books (see Harrison 37–38).

10I am grateful to the Wykeham-Musgrave family and to Gloucestershire Archives for permission to quote from and reproduce letters from the correspondence of Sir William Musgrave, the 6th Baronet.

Works Cited
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