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.

The influence of strength over weakness: will Lady Susan ever meet her match?

Lady Susan is a heartless, domineering, revengeful, scheming little bitch. The stupidity of her victims doesn’t make me hate her any less. For all her coolness and sophistication, I find her almost as loathsome as John Thorpe. And yet I know she’s sometimes considered as a strong female character whose triumphs over silly men we are allowed to celebrate ‘against our conscience.’ Personally, I fail to see how a woman who rejoices in the misery of others of her gender might advance their cause. And there is nothing remarkable about queening it over a bunch of nincompoops.

The daughter of a peer whose name or wealth no one ever mentions, she marries at a young age, her ‘extravagance and dissipation’ forcing her husband to sell his family’s castle. ‘In narrow circumstances’ after his death, she lives on the charity of her brother-in-law, occasionally sponging on other friends. Sir Reginald De Courcy believes that, being poor, she ‘may naturally seek an alliance which must be advantageous to herself.’ In fact, though she tells Mrs Johnson she’s ‘not at present in want of money,’ she plans to stiff her daughter’s school mistress out of her tuition fees:

The price is immense, and much beyond what I can ever attempt to pay …I am excessively provoked, however, at the parade of propriety which prevented Miss Summers from keeping the girl; and it seems so extraordinary a piece of nicety, considering my daughter’s family connections, that I can only suppose the lady to be governed by the fear of never getting her money.

There you go! Here’s a sensible woman who’s clearly not impressed. She knows what ‘the best families’ can be like. At some point Lady Susan herself acknowledges she ‘cannot just now afford to go to town.’

Fortunately Mr Vernon ‘rolls in money,’ does ‘not know what to do with it,’ and is a generous man. Hence her ‘increasing friendship for’ his family.

Disposed, … as he always is to think the best of everyone, her display of grief, and professions of regret, and general resolutions of prudence, were sufficient to soften his heart and make him really confide in her sincerity.

Not quite what you would expect of a banker – perhaps he’s just a partner, not directly involved in the business. His wife thinks he

was a great deal too kind to her when he was in Staffordshire; her behaviour to him, independent of her general character, has been so inexcusably artful and ungenerous … that no one less amiable and mild than himself could have overlooked it all.

Lady Susan finally decides to avail herself of his invitation to spend a few weeks at Churchill. She’s just been thrown out of Langford, accused of ‘engaging at the same time, and in the same house, the affections of two men, who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them–and all this without the charm of youth!’

Leonora Galigai

Quite a feat, were it not for the fact that one is a half-wit and the other no better than a self-deluded cuckold. The latter was once a penniless fortune-hunter who persuaded a wealthy heiress to marry him against her guardian’s advice. Not only does the ungrateful scoundrel openly carry on with another woman under her very nose, but he also puts up with his lover’s stealing his sister’s fiancé, whom she says she’s wooing on her daughter’s behalf. Unable to bear separation from his new lady friend, he forgets what is due to her, ‘and the opinion of the world,’ and suggests lodging incognito near the Vernons’. As she forbids it, he visits Mrs Johnson and pathetically complains about his wife’s jealousy – just what a wimp would do. Anxious in turn about Lady Susan’s relationship with Reginald De Courcy, he is ‘tolerably appeased’ when she explains that their ‘acquaintance is no ‘more than the commonest flirtation.’

What does Lady Susan see in him? He is handsome, ‘polished’, ‘insinuating,’ and has ‘the power of saying those delightful things which put one in good humour with oneself and all the world.’ And, crucially, he thinks she can do no wrong. It’s tempting to draw a parallel with Emma, who ‘never could … expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as’ in Mr Woodhouse’s. Does Lady Susan have daddy issues? Do strong women need to have weak men around?

In any case, there’s no shortage of them in this world. Take Sir James Martin, for instance. He’s young, good-looking, gentlemanly, and wealthy. He’s also an ass. Having invited himself to Churchill, he talked too much, repeating himself over and over, and ‘mixing more frequent laughter with his discourse than the subject required.’ Lady Susan had previously written:

I have more than once repented that I did not marry him myself; and were he but one degree less contemptibly weak I certainly should: but I must own myself rather romantic in that respect, and that riches only will not satisfy me.

Yet she thinks he’s good enough for Frederica. You know what they say about fools and their money: she must be planning to spend his by manipulating her daughter. At the very least she’d be able to freeload on them.

Reginald De Courcy, on the other hand, is not just the handsome heir apparent to his father’s estate: he’s both clever and sensible, and has ‘a proud spirit … resulting from … superior integrity.’ Still, he’s young, warm, and impulsive, and his infatuation clouds his judgement. First he trusts Mr Smith’s account of Lady Susan’s misbehaviour at Langford, but he’s curious and confident he’ll be able to detect her tricks. Though he demands full explanations, he ends up believing everything she says. His heart ‘seems always debating on the reasonableness of its emotions,’ but he lets himself get carried away by his feelings. Daring to question her parenting methods, he is easily convinced that her intentions have always been the best and that he’s been wrong to interfere. He must have asked for forgiveness, thus reinforcing her domination: ‘A very few words from me,’ she writes, ‘softened [him] at once into the utmost submission, and rendered [him] more tractable, more attached, more devoted than ever.’ So much so that they become engaged. As he comes to town to be with her, he meets Mr Johnson and his ward, and accepts Mrs Mainwaring’s version of events without seeking confirmation from a different source.

‘The spell is removed. I see you as you are,’ he says. ‘The charm is broken. My eyes are opened,’ Edmund Bertram exclaims in a somewhat similar situation. The incantation seems to have been no more than ‘the influence of Strength over Weakness,’ to which Jane Austen refers in a letter to her friend Anne Sharp. ‘Galigai de Concini for ever & ever,’ she adds. Leonora Galigai was a favourite of the French Queen Marie de Medicis, Louis XIII’s mother. Accused of having bewitched her royal friend, she replied: ‘My spell was the power of a strong mind over a weak one.’ In this case, it doesn’t look as if preying on the naive, the mentally slow or the young and inexperienced required any extraordinary abilities. As Reginald himself puts it, ‘My understanding is at length restored, and teaches me no less to abhor the artifices which had subdued me than to despise myself for the weakness on which their strength was founded.’

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Lady Susan is beautiful, graceful, intelligent, and agreeable. ‘Her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild.’ She ‘talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used … to make black appear white.’ She trusts this will enable her to tell her own story, forgetting that, as Mrs Vernon points out,

when a person is always to deceive, it is impossible to be consistent … Lady Susan finds it necessary that Frederica should be to blame, and probably has sometimes judged it expedient to excuse her of ill-nature and sometimes to lament her want of sense. Reginald is only repeating after her ladyship.

Oh dear! To think he could have saved himself so much trouble if only he had used his brains or exercised his memory …

Mrs Vernon is on to her sister-in-law. Yet she feels she has to make an effort to remember, or else she too might succumb to her charm:

Her address to me was so gentle, frank, and even affectionate, that, if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend … Unfortunately, one knows her too well …

She has already almost persuaded me of her being warmly attached to her daughter, though I have been so long convinced to the contrary. She speaks of her with so much tenderness and anxiety, lamenting so bitterly the neglect of her education, which she represents however as wholly unavoidable, that I am forced to recollect how many successive springs her ladyship spent in town, while her daughter was left in Staffordshire to the care of servants, or a governess very little better, to prevent my believing what she says.

Frederica knows this too. Her mother’s attempts to impose her will on her amount to coercion, no matter how she spins it:

Some mothers would have insisted on their daughter’s accepting so good an offer on the first overture; but I could not reconcile it to myself to force Frederica into a marriage from which her heart revolted, and instead of adopting so harsh a measure merely propose to make it her own choice, by rendering her thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him.

Her tactics don’t work, and eventually she writes to her, stating her intentions plainly, which prompts Frederica’s escape. This is Lady Susan at her worst. An informed adult might avoid being taken in by a run-of-the-mill manipulator, but what could a child do in those days when confronted with the full weight of parental authority? It might well be argued that this is no more than what other parents did at the time – still, Mrs Vernon tells her niece: ‘She has no right to make you unhappy.’ Could she ever have had what she thought was Frederica’s best interest at heart? Not really, or else she wouldn’t have tried to nip Reginald’s attraction to her in the bud:

I have for some time been more particularly resolved on the match from seeing the rapid increase of her affection for Reginald, and from not feeling secure that a knowledge of such affection might not in the end awaken a return. Contemptible as a regard founded only on compassion must make them both in my eyes, I felt by no means assured that such might not be the consequence. It is true that Reginald had not in any degree grown cool towards me; but yet he has lately mentioned Frederica spontaneously and unnecessarily, and once said something in praise of her person.

One of the reasons why this collection of letters does not become a fully fledged novel is that the protagonist never meets her match. Yet Frederica’s resistance is almost heroic, considering the odds. She even scores a few points by forcing her mother to dismiss her suitor, a partial defeat Lady Susan deems ‘a humiliation’. By the end, it is expected that Reginald should be ‘talked, flattered, and finessed into an affection for her’ – not a very convincing conclusion, but again she wins. By her mother’s own sarcastic admission, there’s still hope:

Such was the first distinguished exploit of Miss Frederica Vernon; and, if we consider that it was achieved at the tender age of sixteen, we shall have room for the most flattering prognostics of her future renown.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

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

Lady Susan read-along retrieved from http://austenauthors.net/writers-block/lady-susan/

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

Chesterfield Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of. Letters Written by Lord Chesterfield’s to his Son. Selected by Charles Sayle. London and Newcastle-on-Tyne: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/letterswrittenby00chesuoft/letterswrittenby00chesuoft_djvu.txt

Christensen, Thomas. (2012). 1616: The World in Motion. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

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

Voltaire  (1761). The Works of M. De Voltaire. Translated from the French, with Notes Historical and Critical by T. Smollet, T. Francklin, et al. Vol. 5. London: Newbery, Baldwin, Johnston, Crowder, Davies, Coote, Kearsley, and Collins.