Unbeknownst to her, Miss Mary Benn has achieved reflected literary fame as the first person outside the Austen family to listen to an author’s reading of Pride and Prejudice. She was the younger, unmarried sister of the Revd John Benn, rector of Farringdon, a Hampshire village about a mile south of Chawton, where Jane Austen came to live in 1809, with her mother, her sister Cassandra, and their friend Martha Lloyd. Born in 1770, Miss Benn was five years older than Jane. Her brother’s many children must have made it difficult for him to assist her financially, and she seems to have passed her days in genteel poverty and obscurity, little suspecting that she would one day become the object of almost universal envy. I have been putting together the scraps of information Jane Austen’s letters give us about her – little fragments of an ordinary life touched by the glory of a momentous event whose significance eluded the participants.
Wednesday 29 May 1811
Some of the flower seeds are coming up very well, but your mignonette makes a wretched appearance. Miss Benn has been equally unlucky as to hers. She has seed from four different people, and none of it comes up … Miss Benn has been returned to her Cottage since the beginning of last week, & has now just got another girl; – she comes from Alton. – For many days Miss B. had nobody with her but her neice Elizth – who was delighted to be her visitor & her maid. They both dined here on Saturday while Anna was at Faringdon; & last night, an accidental meeting & a sudden impulse produced Miss Benn and Maria Middleton at our Tea Table.
In times of cheap labour, her inability to keep more than one servant was a sign of straitened circumstances. The chance encounter and ensuing invitation reminds me of those in Emma, chapter 41.
Thursday 6 June 1811
We hear from Miss Benn, who was on the Common with the Prowtings, that she [Anna Austen, Jane’s niece] was very much admired by the gentlemen in general … Maria Middleton and Miss Benn dine here to-morrow.
Miss Benn had attended the King’s Birthday celebrations held on Selborne Common, invited by the Prowtings, a Chawton family that had been rising in local importance for several generations. William Prowting and his wife had two sons and three daughters, one of whom, Catherine-Anne, was unmarried. On 31 May Jane Austen had written:
From Monday to Wednesday Anna is to be engaged at Faringdon [where her friend Harriet Benn, Mary’s niece, lived] in order that she may come in for the Gaieties of Tuesday (ye 4th), on Selbourne Common, where there are to be Volunteers & Felicities of all kinds.
Perhaps Mary Benn enjoyed imparting a little piece of ‘harmless gossip’ she imagined must be welcome.
Sunday 29 – Monday 30 November 1812
We have been quite alone, except Miss Benn, since 12 o’clock on wednesday …If Mrs Barker has any farther curiosity about the Miss Webbs let her know that we are going to invite them for Tuesday evening – also Capt. & Mrs Clement & Miss Benn, & that Mrs Digweed is already secured … You have sometimes expressed a wish of making Miss Benn some present;– Cassandra & I think that something of the Shawl kind to wear over her Shoulders within doors in very cold weather might be useful, but it must not be very handsome or she would not use it. Her long Fur tippet is almost worn out.
The missive is addressed to Martha Lloyd, who must have thought of helping their impoverished friend. Austen is being ironic.
Sunday 24 January 1813
We have had no letter since you went away, & no visitor, except Miss Benn who dined with us on friday … Our party on Wednesday was not unagreeable … We were Eleven altogether, as you will find on computation, adding Miss Benn & two strange Gentlemen …When my parcel is finished I shall walk with it to Alton. I beleive Miss Benn will go with me. She spent yesterday evening with us. As I know Mary is interested in her not being neglected by her neighbours, pray tell her that Miss B dined last Wednesday at Mr Papillon’s – on Thursday with Capt & Mrs Clement – friday here – Saturday with Mrs Digweed – & Sunday with the Papillons again. – I had fancied that Martha wd be at Barton from last Saturday, but am best pleased to be mistaken. I hope she is now quite well. – Tell her that I hunt away the rogues every night from under her bed; they feel the difference of her being gone. – Miss Benn wore her new shawl last night, sat in it the whole evening, & seemed to enjoy it very much.
The shawl must have been Martha’s gift. The letter is directed to Cassandra at Steventon, so Mary would be James Austen’s wife and Martha Lloyd’s sister. Miss Benn appears to have been ‘very much to the taste of every body, though single and though poor.’
Friday 29 January 1813
Miss Benn dined with us on the very day of the Books coming, & in the evening we set fairly at it & read half the 1st vol. to her—prefacing that having intelligence from Henry that such a work wd soon appear we had desired him to send it whenever it came out—& I beleive it passed with her unsuspected.—She was amused, poor soul! that she could not help you know, with two such people to lead the way; but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth … I am sorry to say that I could not eat a Mincepie at Mr Papillon’s … There were no stewed pears, but Miss Benn had some almonds & raisins. – By the bye, she desired to be kindly remembered to you when I wrote last, & I forgot it …Since I wrote this Letter we have been visited by Mrs Digweed, her Sister & Miss Benn.
The books are, of course, the three volumes of Pride and Prejudice, which had just been published and advertised in the Morning Chronicle. The two people mentioned here are Jane Austen and her mother. Their guest was not told about the work’s authorship.
Thursday 4 February 1813
Our 2d evening’s reading to Miss Benn had not pleased me so well, but I beleive something must be attributed to my Mother’s too rapid way of getting on – & tho’ she perfectly understands the characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought. – Upon the whole, however, I am quite vain enough and well-satisfied enough … you must be prepared for the Neighbourhood being perhaps already informed of there being such a Work in the World, & in the Chawton World! … It was spoken of here one morning when Mrs D. called with Miss Benn.
Tuesday 9 February 1813
Miss Benn dined here on friday, I have not seen her since; – there is still work for one evening more.
It would appear they have not finished the novel yet.
Tuesday 16 February 1813
Old Philmore is got pretty well, well enough to warn Miss Benn out of her House. His son is to come into it. – Poor Creature! – You may imagine how full of cares she must be, & how anxious all Chawton will feel to get her decently settled somewhere. – She will have 3 months before her – & if anything else can be met with, she will be glad enough to be driven from her present wretched abode; – it has been terrible for her during the late storms of wind & rain.
Old Philmore was a Chawton villager – Miss Benn had been renting a labourer’s cottage.
Monday 24 May 1813
I hope Miss Benn is got quite well again & will have a comfortable Dinner with you today.
Jane was writing from London. Cassandra was at home.
Monday 11 – Tuesday 12 October 1813
I am thoroughly rejoiced that Miss Benn has placed herself in Lodgings – tho’ I hope they may not be long necessary.
Thursday 14 – Friday 15 October 1813
Have you done anything about our Present to Miss Benn? – I suppose she must have a bed at my Mothers whenever she dines there. – How will they manage as to inviting her when you are gone? – & if they invite how they will contrive to entertain her?
From this excerpt we may surmise Mary Benn was not currently living in Chawton.
Tuesday 14 June 1814
Miss Benn continues the same.
Thursday 23 June 1814
Miss Benn has drunk tea with the Prowtings, & I beleive comes to us in the eveng. She has still a swelling about the fore-finger, & a little discharge, & does not seem to be on the point of a perfect cure; but her Spirits are good – & she will be most happy I beleive to accept any invitation.
Friday 24 November 1815
Remember me most kindly to everybody, & Miss Benn besides.
Jane Austen was again in London.
Early in 1816, after Mary Benn’s death, Catherine-Anne Prowting received a copy of Emma, together with this moving letter:
Had our poor friend lived these volumes would have been at her service, & as I know you were in the habit of reading together & have had the gratification of hearing that the Works of the same hand had given you pleasure, I shall make no other apology for offering you the perusal of them, only begging that, if not immediately disposed for such light reading, you would keep them as long as you like, as they are not wanted at home.
The authorship secret must have been out by then, otherwise Austen would not have spoken of her gratification. Miss Benn had been buried in Chawton in January of that year, which would indicate she had been living there or nearby when she passed away.
On the whole, we get the impression of a sociable middle-class middle-aged spinster in rather shabby dress, who saved money by dining at her neighbours’. Her friends, in turn, seemed anxious to feed, clothe, entertain, and accommodate her. Delightful vignettes of village life, with ordinary women growing mignonette and sharing books, and an old maid dreaming of Pemberley in a draughty cottage…
Emma text quoted from http://www.mollands.net
Jones, Hazel. 2009. Jane Austen and Marriage. London: Continuum.
Le Faye, Deirdre. 2013. A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. 2011. Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.