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 www.mollands.net

Lady Susan manuscript retrieved from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/lady_susan/Front_(left)_board.html

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 https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/eliza-hancock-de-feuillide-austen-and-henry-austen/

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

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