My latest novel, Jane Austen Lives Again is inspired partly by the idea of Jane as a character in her own right, drawn from what we know about her personality from her letters and novels. For a novelist there is plenty of scope when imagining Jane’s life because although much has been written and documented about her, there is a lot we don’t know. Unfortunately, her sister Cassandra chose to destroy much of the correspondence and, quite possibly, her diaries as well. I wanted to explore what might happen if I put ‘Jane’ in another time frame completely and chose 1925, though the novel is peppered with flashbacks and reminiscences of her time in the past. One of these flashbacks comes when Jane has a day off from her job as governess to five girls at Manberley Castle, and she recalls the Christmas when her brothers were vying for their cousin Eliza’s attention.
Eliza de Feuillide (1761-1813) was a fascinating personality in Jane Austen’s life. Eliza’s mother was Jane’s aunt, her father’s sister, Philadelphia Hancock. Philadelphia was shipped off (most likely by her uncle Francis Austen) at the age of 15 to India in order to find a husband. She met and married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a surgeon, twenty years her senior and remained childless for the first six years of their marriage. In Calcutta they befriended Warren Hastings who later became the Governor General of India. When their daughter Eliza was born, Hastings became her godfather and took his role so seriously that there was a certain amount of gossip spread about that he was in fact her real father. Whatever the truth of the matter, he was clearly very fond of her as he set up a trust fund for Eliza of £10,000. After Mr Hancock died, Philadelphia took her daughter to France and it was here that Eliza married her first husband, Captain Jean-Francois Capot de Feuillide, a self-styled count who had little fortune but had been given the grant of an area of marshland near Nerac. It was decided that her first child should be born in England, though in fact Hastings, as the child was named, was born prematurely at Calais.
|Eliza de Feuillide|
Eliza’s letters are full of descriptions of society gatherings in France and London, and in the late 1780s her cousin Philadelphia Walter wrote of their experiences together in Tunbridge Wells; shopping for bonnets, attending balls, horse races and the theatre. Whilst in Tunbridge Wells they saw the plays Which is the Man? and BonTon which, by the Christmas of 1787, Eliza had decided would be the very entertainments to show off her dramatic talents, enabling her to simultaneously flirt with both of the Austen brothers, James and Henry.
Eliza was excited about performing in a make-shift theatre (her uncle’s tithe barn) with her cousins, and though I would like to think the Austen brothers behaved impeccably, I am sure they were both captivated by the sophisticated and flirtatious Comtesse who exercised every opportunity to steal their hearts. When Jane Austen later wrote Mansfield Park, I wonder if some of the inspiration for the play scenes came from similar ones she must have witnessed.
By the late 1790’s Eliza had become a widow after her husband was guillotined in France, and when James himself became a widower, he most likely pursued Eliza along with Henry. Initially, she resisted them both, vowing she would not give up ‘dear Liberty, and yet dearer flirtation’ for any of her beaux. However, Henry won her heart at last, and they were married on 31st December 1797. George Austen sent them £40 towards the wedding celebrations with Henry’s regiment. Eliza was thirty-six, and Henry ten years her junior.
In my new novel, Jane Austen Lives Again, I was inspired to write a flashback scene where Jane remembers the Christmas when her brothers vied for Eliza’s attention - here’s the excerpt - I hope you enjoy it! Jane has a day off from her post as governess and goes down to the beach to write.
Jane smiled to remember the time when Henry and James had both fallen head over heels in love with their cousin Eliza, and how they’d almost come to blows one Christmas. Henry had persuaded their father to have the barn fitted up as a theatre. Lengths of green baize were ordered for curtains and scenery was painted on old sheets stretched over batons and fixed into place by Frank who was the carpenter of the family. Cassy had drawn the designs and the chief of the painting, and Jane had helped to fill in the carefully drawn trees, hills and flowers, feeling very proud of her efforts. The makeshift stage was fashioned from hay bales disguised with wooden planks, and when the candle footlights were lit, the brass reflectors had glowed just like those in a real theatre.
There’d been much discussion and argument about which play would be most suitable. Jane closed her eyes and pictured them all in her head. Eliza was such a strong image for one so small and delicate, but with a personality that filled the barn.
‘For my part, we cannot do better than perform Which is the Man? or Bon Ton,’ said Eliza, who was a great theatregoer. ‘I saw both performed in Tunbridge Wells in September and I know you would love them.’
‘But will there be parts enough for everyone? James asked, ever practical. ‘Though, I should be disinclined to act myself. I am a man of the cloth, after all.’
James, recently ordained, was laughed at for becoming overly serious.
‘But, Jemmy, you must act!’ Eliza could be very forthright when she wished to be. ‘A talent like yours cannot be hidden because you are now ordained. Come, say it is not so.’
James blushed to the roots of his powdered hair. ‘Put like that, I can hardly object, though I feel uneasy. I will have quite enough to do in directing the players. And what of the theme of the play? It must be suitable for our neighbours or mother will have a fit.’
‘The theme of both plays is wonderfully droll,’ said Eliza, casting her eyes round at her rapt audience. ‘They are both comedies, about conflict in love, between the laissez-faire attitude of the darling French against the rather more cautious and sober one of her English cousins.’
There’d been a general murmur of approval and before anyone could object, Eliza went on. ‘Good! It is settled … how I shall love playing Lady Bell Bloomer in Which is the Man? Every role is so amusing, but do not worry, we shall find a dashing part for you, dear Jemmy, … and Henry, the part of Beauchamp was simply written for you. He is a soldier and I am sure you would dazzle us all in scarlet.’
In the end the play chosen was The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret, though Eliza pulled a face at first, until she learned that her part was that of Violante, an independent woman of great spirit, and then she was happy. Set in Lisbon, The Wonder was about two lively and vivacious young women plotting to get their own way and the men they desire, against the wishes of their fathers.
‘Cassy, would you be comfortable playing the part of Isabella?’ Jemmy asked.
Eliza squeezed Cassy’s hand when she nodded her assent. ‘We will set the stage on fire, my dear cousin. Now, little Jane must also have a part. Which is it to be?’
Jane remembered playing the part of a maid, glad that with little to say she knew the fun would be in watching everyone else.
‘I think Felix is best suited to my character,’ Jemmy offered, which would mean he’d play Eliza’s love interest. Henry was not at all happy about that.
‘But, if you are also to direct us, should you not consider a smaller role for yourself?’ said Henry. ‘I am just as happy to play Felix.’
Eliza was ten years older than Henry, but the chemistry between them was plain for all to see. They shared a book as they read the play, their fingers so close they were almost touching.
‘You’re not old enough to play Felix,’ Jemmy answered, unable to keep the frustration from his voice, ‘the part requires a certain sophistication.’
‘But, I am far too young to play the part of either the father or Captain Britton.’
‘Perhaps Madame should choose for herself,’ said cousin Egerton, who’d come to join the troupe, intent on making mischief and being thoroughly outrageous. ‘Whom would you rather have make love to you, Eliza?’
Cassy nudged Jane under the table when they heard that – it was all they could do not to laugh.
Eliza laughed it off prettily, flicking out her fan to examine the landscape painted on its silk for a moment, before flicking it shut again. Looking up she wore her most bewitching expression. ‘Gentlemen, I blush at your remarks. I will put it to the public vote for I will be happy with any Don Felix that is chosen for me.’
‘Why not toss for it?’ Egerton produced a penny from his pocket. ‘Heads for Jemmy as the elder, and tails for Henry.’
Tossing the coin into the air, they watched it spin, Jane crossing her fingers hoping Henry would have his heart’s desire.
‘Well, Madame, which is the man?’ Egerton laughed at his own joke, the coin trapped between his hands.
Eliza looked as if she really would not mind the outcome. Her attitude was girlish, as she waited, her eyes sparkling in the candlelight, soft curls falling upon her powdered skin.
‘Tails it is!’ Egerton called, revealing the penny underneath. Jemmy’s face fell, whilst Henry and Eliza tried their hardest not to appear too pleased with themselves.
When Jane Austen’s doctor discovers the secret to immortal life in 1817, she thinks her wishes have come true. But when she wakes up from the dead, a penniless Miss Austen finds herself in 1925, having to become a governess to five girls of an eccentric and bohemian family at the crumbling Manberley Castle by the sea. Jane soon finds she’s caught up in the dramas of every family member, but she loves nothing more than a challenge, and resolves on putting them in order. If only she can stop herself from falling in love, she can change the lives of them all!
Inspired by Jane Austen’s wonderful novels and written in the tradition of classic books like Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Jane Austen Lives Again is an amusing fairy story for grown-ups.
Written content of this post copyright © Jane Odiwe, 2015.