Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record

Chapter III

Warren Hastings and the Hancocks


The title of this chapter may seem at first sight to remove it far from the life of Jane Austen; but Mrs. Hancock (who had been Philadelphia Austen) was her aunt, and Eliza Hancock not only a cousin but also a close friend; and both were always welcome visitors at Steventon. The varying fortunes of these ladies would therefore be an object of constant thought and discussion at the Rectory, and Jane had an early opportunity of becoming interested in the affairs both of India and of France.

How the acquaintance of the family with Warren Hastings began, we cannot exactly say; but it certainly lasted long, and resulted on their side in an admiration for his genius and his kindness, and a readiness to defend him when he was attacked.

In one of Jane's early unpublished sketches occurs the following passage:--

The eldest daughter had been obliged to accept the offer of one of her cousins to equip her for the East Indies, and tho' infinitely against her inclinations, had been necessitated to embrace the only possibility that was offered to her of a maintenance; yet it was one so opposite to all her ideas of propriety, so contrary to her wishes, so repugnant to her feelings, that she would almost have preferred servitude to it, had choice been allowed her. Her personal attractions had gained her a husband as soon as she had arrived at Bengal, and she had now been married nearly a twelvemonth--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.
When Jane wrote this she may have been thinking of her father's sister, Philadelphia, whose fate is described not very incorrectly, though with a certain amount of exaggeration, in this passage. That Philadelphia Austen went to seek her fortune in India is certain, and that she did so reluctantly is extremely likely. She had at an early age been left an orphan without means or prospects, and the friends who brought her up may have settled the matter for her. Who those friends were, we do not know; but from the intimate terms on which she continued through life--not only with her brother, George Austen, but also, in a less degree, with her half-brother, William Walter--it is probable that she had spent much of her youth with her mother's family.

Her brother George, however, as a young man, was poor, and had no home to offer her; but the banishment which threatened entirely to separate the brother and sister proved in the end to have a contrary effect. Philadelphia did in time come back to England, as a wife and as the mother of one daughter, and her husband's subsequent return to India caused her to depend much for companionship upon her English relations. At Steventon little Betsy would find playfellows, somewhat younger than herself, in the elder Austen children, while her mother was discussing the last news from India with the heads of the family.

Our first definite information about Philadelphia is, that in November 1751 she petitioned the Court of East India Directors for leave to go to friends at Fort St. David by the Bombay Castle; but who these friends were, or what induced her to take so adventurous a journey in search of them, we cannot say. Her sureties were also sureties for a certain Mary Elliott, so they may have been friends intending to travel together. But, according to Sydney Grier's conjecture, Mary Elliott did not, after all, sail in the Bombay Castle, but remained behind to marry a certain Captain Buchanan, sailing with him to India the following year. Captain Buchanan lost his life in the Black Hole, and his widow (whether she was Mary Elliott or not) married Warren Hastings. By her second husband she had two children, a son, George, born about 1758, and a daughter born about 1759 who lived only three weeks. The short history of the boy we have already told. Mrs. Hastings died on July 11, 1759, at Cossinbazar.[25]

Philadelphia reached Madras on August 4, 1752. It is probable that in those days no girl was long in India without receiving offers of marriage. In fact, Dr. Hancock writing twenty years later, to deprecate his daughter's coming out to India, says to Philadelphia 'You know very well that no girl, tho' but fourteen years old, can arrive in India without attracting the notice of every coxcomb in the place; you yourself know how impossible it is for a young girl to avoid being attached to a young handsome man whose address is agreeable to her.' If there was any handsome young man in Philadelphia's case, it was probably not Mr. Hancock, who must have been forty or more when he married her at Cuddalore on February 22, 1753. The name of Tysoe Saul Hancock appears in the list of European inhabitants at Fort St. David for 1753, as surgeon, at £36 per annum; and at Fort St. David he and Philadelphia remained for three years after their marriage. Where the Hancocks were during the troublous times which began in 1757 is not known; but by the beginning of 1762 they were certainly in Calcutta, for their daughter Elizabeth--better known as Betsy--was born there in December 1761. Warren Hastings, at this time resident at Murshidabad, was godfather to Elizabeth, who received the name he had intended to give to his own infant daughter. The origin of the close intimacy that existed between the Hancocks and Warren Hastings is uncertain; but if Mary Elliott really became the wife of the latter, the friendship of the two women may perhaps explain the great obligation under which Hastings describes himself as being to Philadelphia.

The news of the death of his little son was the first thing Hastings heard on landing in England in 1765, and we are told it left a shadow on his face for years. He seems always to have been especially fond of children, and his intimate friends knew they could give no greater pleasure than by informing him of the welfare of his favourites, or by sending messages to them. Thus Marriott, writing to Hastings from India on August 15, 1765, sends his kisses and salaam to 'little ("great" I believe I should say) Betsy Hancock,' and a 'good hearty shake by the hand to George; I suppose if I were to go to kiss him he would give me a box on the ears.--Write me particularly how these little ones go.'

It seems likely that the Hancocks sailed with Warren Hastings for England in the Medway in 1764-5; but, whenever they went, we learn from Hancock's letters that the journey home cost them the large sum of £1500. He (Hancock) no doubt thought that he had amassed a sufficient fortune--perhaps from trading, or from private practice, for it can hardly have been from his official income--in India to enable him to end his days comfortably at home. But either his Indian investments turned out badly, or he discovered that living in good style in England cost much more than he had anticipated; and after three years he found himself under the disagreeable necessity of a second residence in Bengal, in order to secure a fresh provision for his wife and daughter. So low, indeed, were his finances at the time, that he was forced to borrow money from Hastings to pay for his passage out. He reached Calcutta in 1769, but did not prosper on this second visit. His health was bad, his trading ventures turned out amiss, and there were perpetual difficulties about remitting money home to Philadelphia. Hastings evidently foresaw how matters would end, and with his wonted generosity gave a sum amounting at first to £5000, and increased later to £10,000, in trust for Hancock and his wife during their lives, and, on the death of the survivor, to Betsy.

Mr. Hancock himself died in November 1775, 'universally beloved and deeply regretted' (in the words of a young man whom he had befriended), 'the patron of the widow and the fatherless.'[26] He seems indeed to have been a man of affectionate and anxious disposition, strongly attached to his wife and daughter; but the last part of his life was passed away from them amid difficulties and disappointments, and his spirits were hardly high enough to enable him to bear up against unequal fortune. He alludes in his letters, with expressions of regard, to his brother-in-law, George Austen; but characteristically deplores his growing family, thinking that he will not be able to put them out in the world--a difficulty which did not eventually prove to be insuperable.

When the news of his death reached England--which would be in about six months' time--George Austen and his wife were, fortunately, present to comfort Philadelphia under the sad tidings. She and Betsy had now been living in England for ten years, and had seen, no doubt, much of the Steventon Austens. Warren Hastings's loyal attachment to the widow and daughter of his friend remained unchanged, and they lived on terms of intimacy with his brother-in-law Woodman and his family. As long as Hancock lived he wrote constantly to wife and child, and gave advice--occasionally, perhaps, of a rather embarrassing kind--about the education of the latter. He discouraged, however, an idea of his wife's that she should bring Betsy out to India at the age of twelve. At last Mrs. Hancock, who, though a really good woman, was over-indulgent to her daughter, was able to fulfil the chief desire of her own heart, and to take her abroad to finish her studies, and later to seek an entry into the great world in Paris. Her husband's affairs had been left in much confusion, but Hastings's generous gift of £10,000 put them above want.

Betsy, or rather 'Eliza' ('for what young woman of common gentility,' as we read in Northanger Abbey, 'will reach the age of sixteen without altering her name as far as she can?'), was just grown up when this great move was made. In years to come, her connexion with her Steventon cousins was destined to be a close one; at the present time she was a very pretty, lively girl, fond of amusements, and perhaps estimating her own importance a little too highly. But she had been carefully educated, and was capable of disinterested attachments. She seems to have had a special love for her uncle, George Austen, and one of her earliest letters from Paris, written May 16, 1780, announces that she is sending to him her picture in miniature, adding 'It is reckoned like what I am at present. The dress is quite the present fashion of what I usually wear.' This miniature is still in existence, and represents a charming, fresh young girl, in a low white dress edged with light blue ribbon, the hair turned up and powdered, with a ribbon of the same colour passed through it. Our knowledge of her character at this time is principally derived from a series of letters written by her to her cousin, Phila Walter--letters singularly frank and gossipy, and of especial interest to us from the sidelights they throw on the family circle at Steventon. There are also interesting letters from Phila to her own family.

Such a girl as Eliza was not likely to pass unnoticed in any society; and in August 1781 Mr. Woodman writes to tell Warren Hastings that she is on the point of marriage with a French officer, and that 'Mr. Austen is much concerned at the connexion, which he says is giving up all their friends, their country, and he fears their religion.'[27] The intended husband was Jean Capotte, Comte de Feuillide,[28] aged thirty, an officer in the Queen's Regiment of Dragoons, and owner of an estate called Le Marais, near Gaboret, in Guyenne. The marriage took place in the same year, and in the following March, Eliza, now Comtesse de Feuillide, writes Phila a long letter praising the Comte and his devotion to herself.

The man to whom I have given my hand is everyways amiable both in mind and person. It is too little to say he loves me, since he literally adores me; entirely devoted to me, and making my inclinations the guide of all his actions, the whole study of his life seems to be to contribute to the happiness of mine. My situation is everyways agreeable, certain of never being separated from my dear Mama, whose presence enhances every other blessing I enjoy, equally sure of my husband's affection, mistress of an easy fortune with the prospect of a very ample one, add to these the advantages of rank and title, and a numerous and brilliant acquaintance amongst whom I can flatter myself I have some sincere friends, and you will unite with me in saying I have reason to be thankful to Providence for the lot fallen to my share; the only thing which can make me uneasy is the distance I am from my relations and country, but this is what I trust I shall not always have to complain of, as the Comte has the greatest desire to see England, and even to make it his residence a part of the year. We shall certainly make you a visit as soon as possible after the peace takes place.

In the same letter she mentions how gay the season has been, on account of the birth of the Dauphin, and of the fêtes which accompanied that event. Neither she nor her 'numerous and brilliant acquaintance' had any prevision of the terrible days that awaited all their order, nor any knowledge of the existence of the irresistible forces which were soon to overwhelm them, and to put a tragical end to every hope cherished by the bride, except that of rejoining her English friends. For the present, she led a life of pleasure and gaiety; but that it did not make her forgetful of Steventon is shown by another letter to Phila, dated May 7, 1784:--

I experienced much pleasure from the account you gave me of my Uncle Geo: Austen's family; each of my cousins seems to be everything their parents could wish them; such intelligence would have given me the completest satisfaction had it not been accompanied by the melancholy news of the death of the valuable Mrs. Cooper. I sincerely lament her loss and sympathize with the grief it must have occasioned. Both Mama and myself were very apprehensive of the influence of this event on my aunt's health, but fortunately the last accounts from Steventon assure us that the whole family continue well.

On January 19, 1786, she again writes on the subject of a visit to England, about which she hesitates, partly because of the state of her health, and partly because she was expecting a long visit from her cousin, James Austen (eldest son of George Austen)--a young man who, having completed his undergraduate residence at Oxford, was spending some months in France.

To England, however, she came, hoping to see much of the Austen family. 'I mean,' she writes, 'to spend a very few days in London, and, if my health allows me, immediately to pay a visit to Steventon, because my uncle informs us that Midsummer and Christmas are the only seasons when his mansion is sufficiently at liberty to admit of his receiving his friends.' The rectory was certainly too small a 'mansion' to contain the Comtesse and her mother, in addition to its own large family party and various pupils; so it is to be hoped that Eliza carried out her project in June, before she was otherwise engaged. She settled for a time in London, at 3 Orchard Street, and there it must be supposed her one child--a little boy--was born in the autumn, to be named Hastings after her own godfather. The Comte, who was himself detained by business in France, had, for some unexplained reason, desired that their child might be born in England. Whether she went again to Steventon at Christmas is uncertain, for her next letter is dated April 9, 1787. Eliza was then in town and expecting a visit from her cousin, Henry Austen--by this time a youth of sixteen about to go into residence at Oxford. She had been indulging in such gaieties as London had to offer her.

As to me, I have been for some time past the greatest rake imaginable, and really wonder how such a meagre creature as I am can support so much fatigue, of which the history of one day will give you some idea, for I only stood from two to four in the drawing-room and of course loaded with a great hoop of no inconsiderable weight, went to the Duchess of Cumberland's in the evening and from thence to Almack's, where I staid till five in the morning: all this I did not many days ago, and am yet alive to tell you of it. I believe tho', I should not be able to support London hours, and all the racketing of a London life for a year together. You are very good in your enquiries after my little boy who is in perfect health, but has got no teeth yet, which somewhat mortifies his two Mamas.

Eliza's domestic cares and her gaieties must still have left her some time to think with anxiety and apprehension of the impeachment of her godfather and benefactor, Hastings. We have a glimpse of this in a letter of Phila Walter, who was staying with her aunt and cousin in Orchard Street, in April 1788. They went to the trial one day 'and sat from ten till four, completely tired; but I had the satisfaction of hearing all the celebrated orators--Sheridan, Burke, and Fox. The first was so low we could not hear him, the second so hot and hasty we could not understand, the third was highly superior to either, as we could distinguish every word, but not to our satisfaction, as he is so much against Mr. Hastings whom we all wish so well.'

In August 1788, Eliza writes:--

What has contributed to hurry me and take up my time is my having been obliged to pay some visits out of town. We spent a little time at Beaumont Lodge,[29] and I am but just returned from an excursion into Berkshire, during which we made some little stay at Oxford. My cousin[30] met us there, and as well as his brother was so good as to take the trouble of shewing us the lions. We visited several of the Colleges, the Museum, etc., and were very elegantly entertained by our gallant relations at St. John's, where I was mightily taken with the garden and longed to be a Fellow that I might walk in it every day; besides I was delighted with the black gown and thought the square cap mighty becoming. I do not think you would know Henry with his hair powdered in a very tonish style, besides he is at present taller than his father.

You mention the troubles in France, but you will easily imagine from what I have said concerning my approaching journey, that things are in a quieter state than they were some months ago. Had they continued as they were it is most probable M. de F. would have been called out, and it would have been a very unpleasant kind of duty because he must have borne arms against his own countrymen.

We hear but little of Eliza during the next two or three years, which she seems to have spent partly in France, partly in England. She must have been much engrossed by the stirring events in Paris, the result of which was eventually to prove fatal to her husband.

In January 1791 she is at Margate for the benefit of her boy, and, though the place is very empty, occupies herself with reading, music, drawing, &c. She adds:--

M. de F. had given me hopes of his return to England this winter, but the turn which the affairs of France have taken will not allow him to quit the Continent at this juncture. I know not whether I have already mentioned it to you, but my spouse, who is a strong Aristocrate or Royalist in his heart, has joined this latter party who have taken refuge in Piedmont, and is now at Turin where the French Princes of the Blood are assembled and watching some favourable opportunity to reinstate themselves in the country they have quitted. I am no politician, but think they will not easily accomplish their purpose; time alone can decide this matter, and in the interim you will easily imagine I cannot be wholly unconcerned about events which must inevitably in some degree influence my future destiny.

Eliza had another terrible anxiety in June 1791, in the failure of her mother's health. In September she is hoping for a visit from her husband, when, if her mother's health allows, they will all go to Bath,--

a journey from which I promise myself much pleasure, as I have a notion it is a place quite after my own heart; however, the accomplishment of this plan is very uncertain, as from the present appearance of things, France will probably be engaged in a war which will not admit of an officer's (whose services will certainly be required) quitting his country at such a period. . . . My mother has this very morning received a letter from Steventon, where they all enjoy perfect health. The youngest boy, Charles, is gone to the Naval Academy at Portsmouth. As to the young ladies, I hear they are perfect Beauties, and of course gain hearts by dozens.

In November she says:--

Edward A. I believe will . . . in another month or two take unto himself a spouse. He shewed me the lady's picture, which is that of a very pretty woman; as to Cassandra, it is very probable, as you observe, that some son of Neptune may have obtained her approbation as she probably experienced much homage from these gallant gentlemen during her acquatic excursions. I hear her sister and herself are two of the prettiest girls in England.

Mrs. Hancock died in the winter of 1791-2, and our next letter from Eliza is not till June 7, 1792. In the interval she had been--together with M. de Feuillide, who had perhaps come over to attend the death-bed of Philadelphia--to Bath, from which place she had derived little amusement owing to the state of her spirits. Returning to London, M. de Feuillide had hoped to stay there some time;--

but he soon received accounts from France which informed him that, having already exceeded his leave of absence, if he still continued in England he would be considered as one of the Emigrants, and consequently his whole property forfeited to the nation. Such advices were not to be neglected, and M. de F. was obliged to depart for Paris, but not, however, without giving me hopes of his return in some months, that is to say, when the state of affairs would let him, for at present it is a very difficult business, for a military man especially, to obtain leave to absent himself.

On September 26 she writes:--

I can readily believe that the share of sensibility I know you to be possessed of would not suffer you to learn the tragical events of which France has of late been the theatre, without being much affected. My private letters confirm the intelligence afforded by the public prints, and assure me that nothing we there read is exaggerated. M. de F. is at present in Paris. He had determined on coming to England, but finds it impossible to get away.

The crisis of her husband's fate was not far distant. How the tragedy was led up to by the events of 1793, we do not know; but in February 1794 he was arrested on the charge of suborning witnesses in favour of the Marquise de Marboeuf. The Marquise had been accused of conspiring against the Republic in 1793;[31] one of the chief counts against her being that she had laid down certain arable land on her estate at Champs, near Meaux, in lucerne, sainfoin, and clover, with the object of producing a famine. The Marquise, by way of defence, printed a memorial of her case, stating, among other things, that she had not done what she was accused of doing, and further, that if she had, she had a perfect right to do what she liked with her own property. But it was evident that things were likely to go hard with the Marquise at her trial. The Comte de Feuillide then came upon the scene, and attempted to bribe Morel, one of the Secretaries of the Committee of Safety, to suppress incriminating documents, and even to bear witness in her favour. Morel drew the Count on, and then betrayed him. The Marquise, her agent and the Count were all condemned to death, and the Count suffered the penalty on February 22, 1794.[32]

We cannot tell where Eliza was through this trying time. The tradition in the family is that she escaped through dangers and difficulties to England and found a refuge at Steventon; but we have no positive information of her having returned to France at all. It is quite possible that she was at Steventon, and if so, the horror-struck party must have felt as though they were brought very near to the guillotine. It was an event to make a lasting impression on a quick-witted and emotional girl of eighteen, and Eliza remained so closely linked with the family that the tragedy probably haunted Jane's memory for a long time to come.


[25] The Letters of Warren Hastings to his Wife. Introduced and annotated by Sydney C. Grier, p. 456 et seq. For articles by the same author on the Hancock family, see 'A Friend of Warren Hastings' in Blackwood's Magazine, April 1904, and 'A God-daughter of Warren Hastings' in Temple Bar, May 1905.

[26] Genuine Memoirs of Asiaticus, by Philip Dormer Stanhope, London, 1784.

[27] This did not prove to be the case.

[28] This, and not 'de Feuillade,' is the correct spelling.

[29] Beaumont Lodge, Old Windsor, where Warren Hastings was then living.

[30] Henry Austen, and his elder brother, James.

[31] In the Memoir this action is by mistake attributed to the Count.

[32] National Archives, Paris (de Feuillide), W. 328, dossier 541, and T. 738; (Marboeuf), W. 320, dossier 481.