George Justice, Editor

A Racketing Life

Jane Austen’s “Outlandish Cousin”: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide

By Deirdre Le Faye.
The British Library, 2002. 192 pages.
10 B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $35.00.

Reviewed by Marsha Huff.

Jane Austen’s “Outlandish Cousin” represents that rare event: the publication of a cache of primary material previously available only in fragments, in this case the correspondence of Eliza de Feuillide. Deirdre Le Faye says of Eliza’s letters that they “in effect constitute her autobiography.” Allowing Eliza to tell much of her own story, Le Faye sets the letters in an entertaining narrative, filling in gaps and identifying people and events without burying the text in footnotes.

Eliza was born in 1761 in India, where her mother, Philadelphia Austen, had gone without a dowry to find a husband and had married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a physician with the East India Company. The future Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, was the Hancocks’ close friend and Eliza’s godfather. It is common to read in biographies of Jane Austen that Hastings probably was or may have been Eliza’s real father. Le Faye traces the source of this conjecture to a single letter, embodying gossip spread by a woman who clearly harbored ill will toward the Hancocks. In opposition to such slim evidence, Le Faye cites the correspondence, diaries, and financial records of both men, all of which lead a level head to conclude that Hancock was indeed the father.

Eliza was educated as a lady, learning to ride, dance, speak French, and play the harp. Her pretty face appears on the book’s dust jacket in the miniature she sent to her uncle, George Austen (Jane’s father), set in a pendant that Joan Austen-Leigh sometimes wore. After Hancock’s death Philadelphia and Eliza, unable to afford a fashionable life in England, moved to France, where they quickly rose in Parisian society.

The vivid details in Eliza’s correspondence call to mind R. W. Chapman’s assessment of Austen’s letters: “Even if Jane Austen had no other claim to be remembered, her letters would be memorable. Read with attention, they yield a picture of the life of the upper middle class at that time which is surely without a rival.” A similar case can be made for Eliza’s letters and their depiction of her milieu.

From France Eliza sends descriptions of a royal ball celebrating the birth of Louis XVI’s first son, a balloon ascent in Paris, and fashions of the day in powder, hair, and gowns. Back in England, she writes about her appearance in the royal drawing room and amusements at Tunbridge Wells, as well as a harrowing experience with leeches used in medical treatment. In both Paris and London Eliza led a “racketing life,” long on social engagements and short on reflection. Le Faye’s title, “outlandish cousin,” is Eliza’s self-description, and such she must have seemed to her cousin Phylly Walter, to whom most of the letters were written.

As in an epistolary novel, where character is developed through letters, this epistolary biography reveals Eliza’s nature: she was confident, somewhat vain, devoted to her mother and, perhaps above all, optimistic. She suffered disappointments that would have prostrated a Samuel Richardson heroine. On the advice of her mother and friends, she married a man she did not love, became a widow when he was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, and forfeited both her husband’s property and the capital her mother had loaned him. Her only child was mentally impaired and died young. She saw her beloved mother succumb in agony to breast cancer, her own fate at the age of 51. Yet, in spite of these tragedies, Eliza’s correspondence displays a naturally optimistic outlook and enjoyment of life.

Humor and irony mark the letters. Eliza writes to Phylly about an outing in the park “where the Princess of Wales & myself took an Airing—We were however so unsociable as to go in different Carriages.” Commenting on a woman who lived with her wealthy brother, she says, “She must find herself extremely comfortable, at least I know I should greatly enjoy a good house, and a nice carriage that cost me neither trouble nor money.”

While Le Faye relies on fact rather than conjecture and does not dwell on Eliza’s relationship with Jane Austen, the letters inevitably bring to mind one of Austen’s most complex characters, Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park (published a year after Eliza’s death). Not only did Eliza play the harp and enthusiastically act in amateur theatricals in France and at Steventon, she preferred London to the country and made no secret of wishing to catch a wealthy second husband. She declined to marry a clergyman —James Austen— and chose instead a man of the world —Henry Austen, then an officer in the militia. Her comment about James’s second wife, Mary Lloyd, could have been spoken by Miss Crawford: “I do not hear that Mrs. James Austen is breeding, but I conclude it is so, for a Parson cannot fail of having a numerous Progeny.”

Le Faye, whose many scholarly works include the latest edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, is a meticulous editor and elegant writer. Her early interest in Austen sprang from archeological research in a Hampstead cemetery, where she discovered the grave of Philadelphia Hancock, Eliza, and her son. This book adds a panel to Le Faye’s textured portrait of Austen’s world and completes a circle that began for her almost 30 years ago.

Marsha Huff is Co-coordinator of the 2005 AGM, whose theme is “Jane Austen’s Letters in Fact and Fiction.” She sits on the JASNA Board of Directors and serves as Regional Coordinator for Wisconsin.

JASNA News v.19, no. 2, Summer 2003, p. 16

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