James Stanier Clarke: Librarian to the Prince of Wales

"I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of... But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man's conversation must be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or must occasionally be abundant in allusions and quotations which a woman who, like me, knows only her mother tongue, and has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and ill-informed female who ever dared to be an authoress." Jane Austen to J. S. Clarke December 11th 1815

Little is known of James Stanier Clarke, chaplain and librarian to the Prince of Wales. If it were not for his connection with Jane Austen, his name might be almost entirely lost to history. Thought to have been born around 1765, he was, early on, a naval chaplain and curate in a country parish where, according to his own letters, he had cause to bury his own mother, a shock he claims never to have recovered from. Unlike his employer, Clarke appears to have been unmarried, ”fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature – no man’s enemy but his own…” As Naval Chaplain aboard the H.M.S. Jupiter, Clarke accompanied Princess Caroline of Brunswick from Europe to England to be married to her cousin, the Prince of Wales and future King George IV. Thus began his association with the Royal family.

In 1799, shortly after his appointment as Royal Chaplain, Clarke, along with John MacArthur (secretary to Admiral Lord Hood, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet 1793-1795) founded The Naval Chronicle. It had been less than a year since Nelson’s defeat of the French Fleet at the Battle of the Nile and with the fate of England still in the hands of the Navy, public interest was at a high. Both Clarke and MacArthur were well situated to cultivate contacts both social and naval. The magazine, which featured up to date information about the navy and articles on maritime history was a success. Their publisher, Bunney and Gold, specialized in nautical books and charts and began what would become a monthly publication for the next twenty years.

Along with his duties as Librarian and Chaplain, James found time to write. In 1803, he published The Progress of Maritime Discovery, followed in 1809 by The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, KB, which he coauthored with John MacArthur. Later, in 1816, he edited The Life of James II. According to experts, the original of this work was compiled after James' death by one or more of his secretaries based upon James' own memoirs. It is most reliable for the years before 1660 and for the years 1678 to 1685. In 1815, Jane Austen was staying with her brother Henry Austen in London, caring for the publication details of her fourth book, Emma. At one point during her visit, Henry Austen became gravely ill. He was treated by a society doctor who also waited on the Royal Family. At some point, the doctor discovered that the sister waiting on his patient was none other than the anonymous author of one of the Prince’s favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice. After carrying the news to the Royal Family at Carlton House, Jane received the now famous invitation from the Prince’s secretary to tour the house and libraries. Assured by Clarke that she would receive every possible attention, Jane visited Carlton House on November 13, 1815.

No known record of this visit has survived, but the tour was the start of a correspondence between Clarke and Austen. An acknowledged friendship existed between the two though Clarke seemed to have labored under a few misimpressions of the author such as [She] Knows only her mother tongue (Austen was fluent in French) and [she] Has read very little. For her part, ‘Jane found Mr Clarke not only a very courteous gentleman but also a very warm admirer of her talents.’* How welcome that warm admiration may have proved is debatable. Jane was known to be a supporter of the Prince’s estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, declaring in 1813, “I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a woman & because I hate her husband.” When her November visit was followed by a suggestion that she dedicate her upcoming work to the Prince, she was no doubt dismayed. Such a mark of royal favor was not to be dismissed, but the honor of dedicating her “darling child” to such a man must have seemed almost insulting.

The ensuing correspondence displays Austen’s desire to clarify the requirements of this favor. Clarke lost no time in not only offering his assurances of the Prince’s honor in having the work dedicated to him, but also in proffering his own, numerous suggestions for her work. To an author who strove to maintain her privacy, such intrusions into her work must have been frustrating. Still, Austen bore it with typical good humor, retreating into her former style of self deprecating parody, both in her replies to his suggestions and when incorporating these suggestions into her humorous Plan of a Novel. Austen’s difficulty with the dedication and the details of arranging a specially bound edition of the Novel to be presented to His Highness brought her in ever increasing contact with her publisher, John Murray, who gave her ample advice, lent her several books and contributed greatly to her “Convenience and Amusement.”

James Stanier Clarke’s last letter from Jane Austen is dated 1816. He died in 1834. Such might be the only known details of his life, if it weren’t for rare book lover Richard Wheeler. In 1955 he found a slim volume in an antique store. Stamped on the spine were the words “Sacred To Friendship” and the initials J.S.C. Upon opening the cover, Wheeler found over one hundred verses, drawings, watercolors and autographs from such noted celebrities as William Cowper, novelists Charlotte Smith and Anna Seward and painter George Romney. While many of the drawings are copies of famous works of art there were, among them, watercolors of two unnamed women. Wheeler enlisted the Tate Gallery for help in identifying the two women.

The first was easily recognizable as Princess Caroline of Brunswick. As Clarke was a known intimate of the family, it is not surprising that this portrait should survive among his work. What it does prove is that he was a master miniaturist, creating images that are clear representations, over one hundred years after being painted. The second portrait is what may be the most exciting discovery of the book. Wheeler is now convinced that the image, portraying a woman in white muslin and dated 1815 is unquestionably Jane Austen. The portrait is not verified by the National Portrait Gallery, which claims ownership of the only authenticated likeness of Jane Austen, painted by her sister Cassandra. Still, many find Cassandra’s portrait to be unsatisfying. Wheeler has had his picture studied by physiognomists, who identify the sitter in Cassandra’s sketch as the same person appearing in Clarke's watercolour.

He has also scoured Jane Austen’s letters seeking to verify the clothing worn in the portrait. Visible beneath the subjects shawl is a longsleeved white gown with black trim. On March 9, 1814, Jane Austen wrote from London to Cassandra: "I wear my gauze gown today, long sleeves & all … & [have] plaited black satin ribbon around the top.” Certainly the gown is dressy, but wouldn’t someone honored with a private tour of the Prince’s residence wear her very finest gown? Is it possible that we do indeed have a record of Jane Austen’s Carlton House visit? We may never know, but the clues are tantalizing. 

*James Edward Austen Leigh, Austen’s original biographer


Laura Boyle maintains an avid interest in the Regency. Visit her website, Austentation: Regency Accessories, for custom made Regency Hats, Bonnets and Accessories.


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