Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, Eliza de Feuillide
Calcutta, 22nd December 1761 - London, 25th April 1813
1813 was Jane Austen’s year of wonders. Pride and Prejudice was published, Mansfield Park finished, and she began work on the novel that would become Emma. But 1813 was also the year Eliza de Feuillide, the inspiration behind these novels, died after a painful, lingering illness, casting a sad shadow over an otherwise joyous chapter in the writer’s existence. Despite her influence on Jane, Eliza lives on in the memoirs of the Austen-Leigh family as ‘French,’ ‘outlandish,’ and ‘pleasure-loving’ – no compliments, as readers of Austen can testify. While recent accounts have been more flattering, they, too, have omitted looking beyond the seductive façade the ‘Countess de Feuillide’ herself constructed in order to hide her suffering. When Eliza lay dying, Henry asked Jane to hurry to his wife’s bedside, and the two women spent three days in each other’s company. Mixing a little fiction into the facts, I speculate what Jane and Eliza talked about, and the possible truth of Eliza’s life.*
London, 25th to 26th April 1813
After closing Eliza’s eyes, Jane pulled the curtains. She took her Indian shawl from her shoulders and hung it over the mirror. As she lit the candles around the deathbed, their reflected sheen, muted by the exotic cloth, threw a rosy light on her cousin’s still graceful face. Settling back into her chair, Jane decided she would stay the night. Afraid of illness and death, her brother Henry would not intrude upon his wife’s privacy until the morning. Jane sighed, but her heart went out to him. A sickroom was no place for a man, even if he had once loved Eliza passionately.
As for Eliza, she seemed not to miss Henry in the final moments of her life. Three days earlier, she had kissed him as he brought her Jane; then, she had sent him away. Turning her face towards Jane as if she were the sun, she announced that she wanted her cousin to hear her dying confession. At first, Jane refused; however, Eliza wished not to confide in strangers, and so, in the end, she agreed to her request. Listening to her revelations, Jane grew sad, cured forever of the illusion that Eliza’s life had been a perpetual round of excitements and adventures. Jane had long envied her fragrant childhood in Calcutta, the elegant Paris balls, and her marriage to a handsome French nobleman. But now that she heard for the first time about the savagery and cynicism Eliza had experienced, Jane realized there was a night-side to her existence. Her connection with Warren Hastings was the only thing at which to marvel; and that tie had proved fateful, rather than fortuitous.
The way her cousin told the story, it had begun innocuously. Her parents, Philadelphia and Tysoe Hancock, formed a friendship with Warren Hastings, a trader and clerk in the East India Company, when they became neighbors in Calcutta in 1759. A widower who had lost his daughter, they asked him to be godfather to their child, Elizabeth, when she was born in 1761. Who was to know that fourteen years later, he would settle £10,000 on her? His generosity complicated an already fraught situation, given that Lord Clive, the hero of Plassey, spread the rumor in England that Philadelphia had ‘abandoned herself to Mr Hastings’; Betsy, as she was then called, the evident consequence. Such gossip was libelous and proved damaging, since Philadelphia had in 1765 brought Eliza to London to finish her education. As a result, doors that should have been open to them, remained closed, and Philadelphia decided to take her daughter to the Continent, where her fortune might more readily conquer any doubts a gentleman might harbor regarding her reputation.
|Warren Hastings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1766-68|
Jane was just about to interrupt the flow of Eliza’s narrative, when her cousin answered her unspoken question; no, she was not the natural daughter of Warren Hastings. Rather, as soon as Philadelphia heard that he had been made Governor General of Bengal, she was ready to back their bags and go back to Calcutta in the hope that Eliza would become the second Mrs. Hastings. Her plan was that they should marry as soon as her daughter was old enough to be his wife; after all, India was full of child-brides, such as the enchanting Catherine Grand. But Dr. Hancock, mumbling darkly about the deleterious effects of the Bengali climate on the tempers of young ladies and Mr. Hastings’ a new favorite, Baroness von Imhoff, ordered his spouse to remain in the Occident.
While Eliza described how Philadelphia and Eliza took themselves to Paris and secured an invitation to Versailles by bandying about the name of the Governor General, Jane’s imagination supplied the details. She saw Eliza being presented at court as an heiress to a legendary Indian fortune, courted, and carried off to a remote estate by a fortune-hunting Count, who was first disappointed, then enraged when he discovered the relative modesty of his wife’s funds. Deeply in love with her charming, attractive husband, the Countess tried to appease his wrath by tempting him with the prospect of a settlement her godparent might make on his goddaughter’s progeny. She failed to anticipate that her promise would subject her to several miscarriages, as well as her husband’s scorn, in the effort of producing the offspring on whom Warren Hastings would bequeath a sizable amount of his riches.
In this way, five years passed, until finally, in late spring 1786, Eliza realized she had been pregnant for eight months. As soon as she told the Count, he put his wife, along with her mother, in a carriage bound for Calais, ordering her to give birth in England, and to entrust the child’s wellbeing to the care of the Governor General. However, this plan went wrong from the start. The impossibly named Hastings-Francois-Louis-Henri-Eugene was born in Calais, and when Eliza and Philadelphia hastened to show him off to Mr. Hastings at Beaumont Lodge in August, they realized they faced a formidable rival in the former Baroness von Imhoff, who had since turned Mrs. Hastings. Whenever they tried to steer the conversation towards a possible settlement for Master Hastings, she would sigh and talk about her own extravagant sons, whom Mr. Hastings had adopted; the annuities he paid to various relations; the gifts of money he had made to a rabble of godchildren (she looked pointedly at Eliza as she said this); and the excessive cost of living in London; obviously, no more funds could be spared. After three weeks of this routine, Eliza and Philadelphia felt they had stayed as long as was polite and left. Over the next several years, they embarked on a peregrine existence, which took them from the houses of family and friends to temporary accommodations, and back again.
Then, in June 1791, Philadelphia was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that took her life eight months later and brought her son-in-law briefly to England to condole with his wife. At the reading of his mother-in-law’s will, it turned out that he had borrowed the entirety of her fortune – £6,500 – a sum he was unlikely to repay, and Eliza decided that he should, at least, never have her money. As it happened, her mother and she had by now been in England for five years, barring the nine months they spent in Paris beginning in autumn 1788. Ostensibly, Philadelphia and Eliza had returned to London on 7th July 1789 to escape the mounting political tension in France, but in reality they had come to seek assurance from their lawyer that under the special conditions of the settlement made by Warren Hastings, Count de Feuillide was not entitled to seize her property.
|Mr and Mrs Hastings, by Johann Zoffany, Memorial Hall, Calcutta, 1783-1787|
For that is what her husband had attempted, and it put an end to any illusion his wife might have harbored that he had still loved her profoundly. Even so, Eliza worked hard to keep up appearances; she corresponded regularly with the Count and welcomed him when he visited her in London, as evidenced by the ‘accident’ or miscarriage she endured two months later. Although Eliza was ashamed to admit it, she searched for him among the refugees arriving from France, until she heard in 1794 that he had been guillotined, alongside the Marquise in whose house he had hid for the past two years. When she received word of his murder, Eliza started to collect admirers, but in December 1797, agreed to marry her cousin Henry Austen, who had pursued her since 1795. She explained the reasons for her acceptance in a letter to her godfather:
… I have consented to a union with my cousin Capt. Austen who has the honor of being known to you. He has for some time been in possession of a comfortable income, and the excellence of his heart, temper, and understanding, together with his steady attachment to me, his affection for my little boy, and disinterested concurrence in the disposal of my property, in favor of this latter, have at length induced me to an acquiescence which I have withheld for more than two years…Your much obliged and affectionate god-daughter, Eliza de Feuillide.
Was it a love match? Jane knew that in the beginning, there had been great passion on Henry’s part, while Eliza’s note made it obvious that she had been motivated by more practical considerations. In the event, their marriage was harmonious despite the difference in their ages, that is, until Eliza succumbed to a mysterious aliment, probably cancer, in the eighteen months before her death. Sadly, since 1812, Henry’s time had been taken up entirely by his new bank, and he was not able to give Eliza his full attention, delegating the work of looking after her to professionals. As his sister was well aware, his instinct was in favor of self-preservation, and he was resolved not to hitch his still richly loaded wagon to Eliza’s expiring star.
Jane sighed, as she thought back to Christmas 1786 and ’87, when Eliza had first visited Steventon, illuminating the Austen’s somber holidays so brightly, their afterglow lasted for years. ‘The Countess de Feuillide’ brought gifts from Paris, the idea of Christmas theatricals, which made their way into Mansfield Park, and she turned the heads of Henry and his brothers. Most importantly, she made a present to Jane of her marvelous stories, from the palaces of Bengal, the court at Versailles, and her adventures as a young girl aboard an East Indiaman vessel. How sad it was that her light was extinguished, just as Jane’s came into the ascendency. As the first rays of dawn pierced the curtains, the author rose and went to fetch her brother; it was time Eliza’s husband tended to his wife. Nursing was woman’s work, but the pomp of funerals was man’s business. There was so much to do.
*This essay is indebted to Deirdre le Faye, Jane Austen’s Outlandish Cousin: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide, 2002.
Elisabeth Lenckos is the co-editor of Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety, and Harmony. She is writing a historical novel about an adventuress in Jane Austen’s time.
Written content of this post copyright © Elisabeth Lenckos, 2015.