Nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins: Colonel Brandon and Warren Hastings

Colonel Brandon is hardly the kind of man a teenager would fall for. He’s ‘on the wrong side of five and thirty’ and talks of flannel waistcoats, which ‘is invariably connected with aches, cramps, rheumatisms, and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble.’ His gravity and reserve, the result of ‘some oppression of spirits,’ wouldn’t help. On the other hand, ‘he has seen a great deal of the world; has been abroad, has read, and has a thinking mind,’ being capable of providing ‘much information on various subjects.’ Still, ‘prejudiced against him for being neither lively nor young,’ Marianne Dashwood and Mr Willoughby are ‘resolved to undervalue his merits.’

While Elinor commends the readiness with which he always answers her enquiries, her sister finds him unbearably dull:

‘That is to say,’ cried Marianne contemptuously, ‘he has told you, that in the East Indies the climate is hot, and the mosquitoes are troublesome’ …

‘Perhaps,’ said Willoughby, ‘his observations may have extended to the existence of nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins.’

As Lady Susan puts it, ‘where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting.’ Willoughby may simply mean that Brandon is a boring old man who has nothing original or interesting to communicate. But he might also be hinting that the colonel’s past behaviour may have left something to be desired. People tended to be suspicious of Indian wealth, and Willoughby might have heard rumours. Elinor believes malicious gossip should be nipped in the bud:

‘I may venture to say that his observations have stretched much further than your candour. But why should you dislike him?’

‘I do not dislike him. I consider him, on the contrary, as a very respectable man, who has every body’s good word, and nobody’s notice; who, has more money than he can spend, more time than he knows how to employ, and two new coats every year.’

A mohr was a gold coin worth fifteen rupees, and the term nabob was applied either to governors in the Mogul Empire or to Englishmen who returned from India with a fortune. Among the latter was Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal and godfather to Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza Hancock. In 1786 he was impeached by the House of Commons on charges ranging from mismanagement and poor military judgement to corruption, extortion, and judicial murder. They were partly based on the allegations of Sir Philip Francis, a member of the Supreme Council of Bengal, with whom he had fought a duel. The process had been introduced by Edmund Burke, who then acted as parliamentary prosecutor, along with Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, all of them Whigs. The trial in the House of Lords drew large audiences, lasting from 1788 to 1795, the year in which Jane Austen wrote Elinor and Marianne, an early version of Sense and Sensibility. He was eventually cleared but the expenses of his defence left him significantly worse off. Eliza herself went to Westminster Hall to witness the proceedings, sitting there from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. Lord Macaulay describes the excitement aroused by Burke’s opening speech:

The ladies in the galleries, unaccustomed to such displays of eloquence, excited by the solemnity of the occasion, and perhaps not unwilling to display their taste and sensibility, were in a state of uncontrollable emotion. Handkerchiefs were pulled out; smelling bottles were handed round; hysterical sobs and screams were heard: and Mrs Sheridan was carried out in a fit.

The Trial of Warren Hastings

In a previous post I’ve argued that Willoughby’s sympathies may have lain with the Whigs. Marianne, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to govern her feelings, and in Vol. II, chapter 6, has to be revived with lavender water and hartshorn. Perhaps the author thought they were just the kind of  people who would  mistrust a sensible man like Col. Brandon.

The Austens supported Hastings throughout his ordeal, and in 1794 Jane’s father wrote to him, thinking he might still have enough influence to advance Frank’s naval career. Henry, who was planning to marry his goddaughter, congratulated him on his acquittal, mentioning ‘many instances’ of  his kindness to him. The letter is revoltingly sycophantic.

His younger sister seems to have genuinely admired him:

And Mr Hastings – I am quite delighted with what such a Man writes about it. – Henry sent him the Books after his return from Daylesford … I long to have you hear Mr H’s opinion of P&P. His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me.

Col. Brandon’s ‘fortune’ is ‘about two thousand a year,’ i.e. twice the amount Elinor considers necessary for comfort and happiness, but half Mr Bingley’s income and one-fifth of Mr Darcy’s. Mrs Jennings wonders what might have prompted his sudden departure for London on the very day of the Whitwell excursion:

The estate at Delaford was never reckoned more than two thousand a year, and his brother left everything sadly involved. I do think he must have been sent for about money matters, for what else can it be? I wonder whether it is so. I would give anything to know the truth of it. Perhaps it is about Miss Williams and, by the bye, I dare say it is, because he looked so conscious when I mentioned her.

His Indian wealth is never assessed – no one is interested in pursuing the subject. For all we know, it might have been used to pay off estate debts, just as Hastings’s was partly spent on lawyers’ fees. On the other hand, judging by the length of his tour of duty, it might not have been very large. While his financial situation is barely touched on, the second possibility seems more promising:

‘What! do not you know who Miss Williams is? I am sure you must have heard of her before. She is a relation of the Colonel’s, my dear; a very near relation. We will not say how near, for fear of shocking the young ladies.’ Then, lowering her voice a little, she said to Elinor, ‘She is his natural daughter.’

The colonel later explains that she had been entrusted to him by her dying mother, who was also his cousin and former sister-in-law:

She left to my care her only child, a little girl, the offspring of her first guilty connection, who was then about three years old. She loved the child, and had always kept it with her ….after the death of my brother …  she visited me at Delaford. I called her a distant relation; but I am well aware that I have in general been suspected of a much nearer connection with her.

Col. Brandon and his cousin had been sweethearts, but his father, who was also her guardian, wished, ‘against her inclination,’  to marry her to his elder son, so that her money could be used to save the family estate. As the lovers’ plans to elope to Gretna Green were discovered, the younger brother was banished from home, and she was grounded till she submitted to her uncle’s will. ‘I meant,’ the colonel continues, ‘to promote the happiness of both by removing from her for years, and for that purpose had procured my exchange.’ He sailed off to the East, but the union proved extremely unhappy:

My brother did not deserve her; he did not even love her … she experienced great unkindness … My brother had no regard for her; his pleasures were not what they ought to have been, and from the first he treated her unkindly. The consequence of this, upon a mind so young, so lively, so inexperienced as Mrs Brandon’s, was but too natural. She resigned herself at first to all the misery of her situation … But can we wonder that, with such a husband to provoke inconstancy, and without a friend to advise or restrain her (for my father lived only a few months after their marriage, and I was with my regiment in the East Indies) she should fall?

Edmund Burke, by Joshua Reynolds

Similarly, Austen blames the Prince of Wales for his wife’s indiscretions: ‘I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first.’

The colonel goes on: ‘The shock which her marriage had given me … was nothing to what I felt when I heard, about two years afterwards, of her divorce.’ Being still in England at the time, he must have learned about the wedding soon after it took place. The divorce would have been granted at least six months before the information reached him in India – news, good or bad, didn’t travel fast in those days. The husband would have had to sue his wife’s lover for criminal conversation and then obtain a legal separation from an ecclesiastical court. A Private Act of Parliament would have been required for him to be allowed to remarry. He must have found out about the adultery pretty early on, or else the procedure couldn’t have been completed so quickly. Could she have been pregnant with his younger brother’s child? Was he her ‘first guilty connection’?

‘It was nearly three years after this unhappy period before I returned to England … after I had been six months in England, I did find her,’ says the colonel. He came back almost five years after the wedding, then, and six months later he was introduced to little Eliza, who was about three – or so her mother must have declared. We must take Col. Brandon’s word for it, since there are no other witnesses. But for all we know, he might be lying to spare Elinor’s blushes, or trying to conceal an unsavoury past. On the other hand, how could he be sure his cousin was telling the truth? The girl may have looked smaller than her real age, and her development may have been delayed, especially as the mother didn’t have the means to support her. Could she have been conceived before he left for India? If they were intimate at the time, the thought must have crossed his mind – but how could he be certain? We must bear in mind that it was baptisms, not births, that were recorded in parish registers.

The parentage of another Eliza, Jane Austen’s cousin and sister-in-law, had been the object of speculation in India. After eight years of marriage, the childless Hancocks had moved to Bengal, where they became close friends with Warren Hastings, then a widower, who had been appointed the company’s representative at the court of the Nawab. Philadelphia got pregnant, and a daughter was born in 1761, to whom Hastings stood godfather. Though Lord Clive forbade his wife to keep company with the mother, alleging an extramarital affair with Hastings, Tysoe Hancock behaved like an affectionate father. Did he trust his wife? Was he in denial? Was he too proud to acknowledge the facts? Did he cover up for his business partner and patron?

Later on Hastings became involved with another married lady, Mrs Imhoff, whom he wedded after her divorce, having apparently paid the husband off. So perhaps he wasn’t that into Mrs Hancock after all, or didn’t want to hurt his friend’s feelings. Maybe he had his own doubts, or knew the child couldn’t be his. By 1775 he had settled ten thousand pounds on Eliza, but then again she was his goddaughter and he was a rich man. The evidence is inconclusive.

Illustration from

Whether or not Eliza Williams was Col. Brandon’s daughter, he felt he must confront her seducer:

‘Have you,’ she continued, after a short silence, ‘ever seen Mr Willoughby since you left him at Barton?’

‘Yes,’ he replied gravely, ‘once I have. One meeting was unavoidable.’

Elinor, startled by his manner, looked at him anxiously, saying,

‘What? have you met him to–’

‘I could meet him no other way. Eliza had confessed to me, though most reluctantly, the name of her lover; and when he returned to town, which was within a fortnight after myself, we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad.’

Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier she presumed not to censure.

Of all the foolish, reckless things men used to do this is perhaps the most difficult to explain. Jane Austen must have heard about the 1780 duel between Sir Philip Francis and Warren Hastings. Alleging the former had gone back on his promise not to oppose certain measures, the latter wrote: ‘I judge of his public conduct by my experience of his private, which I have found to be void of truth and honour.’ Sir Philip felt compelled to challenge him, was wounded, and returned to England. He flatly denied having reached a political agreement with Hastings, though things might not have been so clear-cut. Was the provocation a desperate but deliberate attempt to get him out of the way? The governor-general certainly benefited from the outcome. He sounds regretful though, yet unwilling to take responsibility: ‘I hope Mr Francis does not think of assuming any merit from this silly affair. I have been ashamed that I have been made an actor in it.’

Warren Hastings was not the first man to engage in a duel, or to be suspected of having fathered offspring out of wedlock, or accused of corruption. I’m therefore far from suggesting that Jane Austen based a fictional character on him. But the tales we are told have a way of weaving themselves into the fabric of our own narrative, and the stories we read sometimes resonate with the echo of other voices …


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Gleig, G.R. (1841). Memoirs of the Life of the Right Hon. Warren Hastings, First Governor-General of Bengal, vol. II. London: Richard Bentley.

Dodwell, H.H. ed. (1929). The Cambridge History of the British Empire. Vol. IV: British India 1497-1858. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Koster, Kristen. (2011). A Primer on Regency Divorce and Annulments. Retrieved from

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. (1841). Warren Hastings, an essay. Retrieved from

Marshall, P.J. Warren Hastings. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Roy, Anindyo. (2005). Civility and Empire. Literature and culture in British India 1822-1922. Abingdon: Routledge.

Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.


A woman of brilliant and cultivated mind: did Eliza Hancock inspire Lady Susan?

‘Silly woman to expect constancy from so charming a man!’ exclaims Mrs Johnson, Lady Susan’s friend and confidante. She’s referring to Mrs Mainwaring and her husband, the protagonist’s lover. Thinking along the same lines, Eliza Hancock remarks: ‘He is young & reckoned handsome, in the Military & a Frenchman besides – how many reasons to doubt his constancy.’ She’s talking about her first spouse, Jean Francois Capot de Feuillide. Though the letter was addressed to Philadelphia Walter, she may have repeated the joke in front of others. Was Lady Susan modelled on Jane Austen’s beautiful, lively, bright, worldly, and flirtatious cousin, as has been suggested?

Lady Susan was written between 1793 and 1795. A fair copy was made on paper with an 1805 watermark. Love and Freindship, composed in 1790, had been dedicated to Eliza, and in Catharine, or the Bower, we find, mutatis mutandis, her mother’s story:

The eldest daughter had been obliged to accept the offer of one of her cousins to equip her for the East Indies, and … had been necessitated to embrace the only possibility that was offered to her, of a maintenance … Her personal attractions had gained her a husband as soon as she had arrived at Bengal, and she had now been married nearly a twelve month. Splendidly, yet unhappily married. United to a man of double her own age, whose disposition was not amiable, and whose manners were unpleasing, though his character was respectable.

In fact it seems Tysoe Hancock was only seven years Philadelphia Austen’s senior, and the marriage might have been prearranged by her uncle, Frank Austen, who also happened to be his lawyer in England. Betsy was born in 1761, and rumour had it she was not Tysoe’s child but her godfather Warren Hasting’s. All four of them came back to England in 1765, the men returning to the East in 1768. Soon after her father’s death, Betsy announced that, from then on, she would be Eliza ‘for,’ as we read in Northanger Abbey, ‘what young lady of common gentility will reach the age of sixteen without altering her name as far as she can?’

In 1781 Eliza married Capot de Feuillide in Paris. In 1786 she crossed the Channel with her mother, giving birth to her son Hastings, and spending Christmas at the Steventon Rectory. ‘Madame is grown quite lively,’ wrote Mrs Austen, ‘when a child we used to think her too grave.’ James, her eldest son, was on his Grand Tour at the time, but Henry was home, and Eliza danced and flirted with him, though he was ten years her junior. James was back in 1787, and the next Christmas entertainment was more elaborate. Plays were put on at the barn, and there was plenty of backstage drama as well, as the brothers vied for her attention.

She may have engaged ‘at the same time, and in the same house, the affections of two men,’ but they were both perfectly free. It was she that was married. Did she neglect her husband, as Sir Reginald says Lady Susan did? Not really – it was rather the other way round. It would seem his main goal in life was to drain his marshes in the Marais area  to turn them into farming land. He needed capital and was advised to marry Eliza, on whom Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal, had settled ten thousand pounds. A few months later he went south to oversee the works, leaving his bride in Paris, while getting hold of her income and borrowing money from Philadelphia. Mother and daughter later joined him there, but the couple ended up leading separate lives. Indian wealth was helping fund the agricultural development of his estates and that was almost all that mattered.

Fort St George, in Madras (Chennai). Engraving by Jan Van Ryne, 1754

Sir Reginald would have frowned on Eliza’s ‘encouragement of other men,’ but she was definitely not ‘poor’. On the other hand, while Lady Susan was a peer’s daughter, Jane Austen’s cousin was not actually the countess she claimed to be. When they were introduced, her husband was just an officer in one of Marie Antoinette’s regiments. He later went on half pay, devoting all his energy to his pet undertaking. Perhaps he thought her fortune might help him obtain a title, but she must have realised he was not a nobleman. Did she indulge in delusions of grandeur or wishful thinking – or did she just lie to impress family and friends? Might be fun too, passing yourself off as foreign aristocracy and chuckling up your sleeve at human credulity … Maybe the Austens knew and played along. It’s tempting to read Jane’s dedication of Love and Freindship as a private, even shared joke:

 To Madame la Comtesse De Feuillide

This Novel is inscribed

by Her obliged Humble Servant

The Author

As we know, Lady Susan lies all the time – be it about her reasons for opposing the Vernons’ union or for leaving Langford, about Frederica’s behaviour or her plans for her, or about her relationship with Mr Mainwaring or Reginald De Courcy. Her sister-in-law calls her ‘mistress of deceit,’ and the author does not trust her: ‘Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second choice, I do not see how it can ever be ascertained; for who would take her assurance on either side of the question?’

About the time Jane Austen wrote the novella or a little later but before she copied it out, Eliza, a widow since her husband’s execution in 1794, received two proposals. In 1796, James, now a widower with a daughter, failed to persuade her to ‘give up dear Liberty & yet dearer flirtation.’ However, by the end of the following year she wedded Henry, having been ‘induced’, as she explained three days before the event, ‘to an acquiescence’ that she had ‘withheld for more than two years.’ His engagement to Mary Pearson had been broken off in the summer of 1796, so there might have been some overlapping here. In June 1799, Jane told Cassandra:

The Post has been more friendly to me, it has brought me a letter from Miss Pearson. You may remember that I wrote to her above two months ago about the parcel under my care, & as I had heard nothing from her since, I thought myself obliged to write again two or three days ago, for after all that had passed I was determined that the Correspondence should never cease thro’ my means -.

All this would suggest that, though Henry was apparently jilted by his fiancée, she wouldn’t have had much choice, as it would seem he had been courting his cousin for some time. He was a free man when Eliza accepted him – or so she says. But did she receive his attentions while he was not ‘at liberty to bestow them’? In November 1796 she reported: ‘I hear his late intended is a most intolerable Flirt, and reckoned to give herself great Airs.’ Had Henry been complaining, like Mr Mainwaring – or merely trying to arouse her jealousy? ‘She is a pretty wicked looking Girl with bright Black Eyes which pierce thro’ & thro’,’ she added. ‘No wonder the poor young Man’s heart could not withstand them.’

Eliza Hancock

According to Mrs Vernon, Lady Susan ‘is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language.’ This description would have fitted Eliza to a tee. She had even been at the French court, which Lady Susan would have killed for.

Eliza was fond of music, dancing, social gatherings, and the theatre – she just loved London. However, she also enjoyed visiting the Steventon Rectory, and in 1799, while Henry was in Ireland with his regiment, she lived near Dorking in virtual seclusion. To Lady Susan a country village is ‘an insupportable spot’ – whatever her plans,‘London will be always the fairest field of action.’ When Mr Johnson threatens to settle in the country if his wife doesn’t stop corresponding with her friend, she understands her decision : ‘I yield to the necessity which parts us. Under such circumstances you could not act otherwise.’

But, in my view, the main difference would be that while Jane Austen’s cousin was a devoted, nurturing mother, daughter, and friend, her fictional character is ruled by her selfish ‘desire of dominion’. Hastings was severely disabled: he had failed to develop properly and would go into convulsive fits. Yet she never gave up on him, or thought of sending him away to be looked after by others, but patiently encouraged him to make progress, as she informs her cousin Philadelphia Walter:

Have I told you that I have begun teaching him to write and that he regularly comes to school to me every day, for that & French & English reading, you would laugh to see how grave we both are on these occasions.

Eliza nursed her mother through her last illness, trying every possible cure and every available method to soothe her pain. She was also attached to the Austens, especially to Jane’s father.  ‘I always tenderly loved my uncle,’ she states, ‘but I think he is now dearer to me than ever, as being the nearest and most beloved relative of the never to be sufficiently regretted parent I have lost.’

We don’t know what Lady Susan was like as a daughter, but by the heartless way in which she treats Frederica we can see that, as parents, she and Eliza are poles apart. Yet there would appear to be a hint of disapproval in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir:

She was a clever woman, and highly accomplished, after the French rather than the English mode; and in those days, when intercourse with the Continent was long interrupted by war, such an element in the society of a country parsonage must have been a rare acquisition … She also took the principal parts in the private theatricals in which the family several times indulged … Jane was only twelve years old at the time of the earliest of these representations, and not more than fifteen when the last took place. She was, however, an early observer, and it may be reasonably supposed that some of the incidents and feelings which are so vividly painted in the Mansfield Park theatricals are due to her recollections of these entertainments.

Warren Hastings with his Wife Marian in their Garden at Alipore. Oil on canvass by Johan Zoffany, 1784.

An exotic outsider whose moral standards did not match those of late 18th century rural England, Eliza was bound to be judged. Furthermore, the author’s mother, James Austen’s second wife, forbade her husband to invite her, no doubt jealous of his attraction to her. Nor was she welcome at Godmersham, where Henry used to go on his own –  it seems Elizabeth, her sister-in-law, didn’t like her either. Maybe she was too fascinating to be trusted around men.

‘There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one’s superiority,’ Lady Susan declares. Perhaps Eliza got a similar thrill out of overcoming her relatives’ misgivings, though she wouldn’t have put it quite that way. At any rate, her uncle was so pleased with her marriage to his son that he sent them forty pounds as a gift, and Jane was with her during her final hours.

‘A woman of brilliant generous and cultivated mind just disinterested and charitable,’ as her epitaph reads, she might have inspired Lady Susan, but was a much more complex creature.  She may have looked frivolous and shallow on the surface, but was deep down an affectionate, caring, and  courageous woman that faced life with a wicked sense of humour.


Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen quoted from

Lady Susan manuscript retrieved from

Caplan, Clive. (1996).Jane Austen’s Soldier Brother: The Military Career of Captain Henry Thomas Austen,” Persuasions, 18.

Le Faye, Deirdre. (2004). Jane Austen: A Family Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Moody, Ellen. (2011). Eliza (née Hancock, then de Feuillide) Austen: kindly, strong, deep feeling and thoughtful (1). Retrieved from

Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.