Like other Jane Austen enthusiasts, I've been fascinated by the contrast between Jane's life and that of her lively first cousin and sister-in-law Eliza de Feuillide. However, I've known little about Eliza other than that her mother Philadelphia adventurously sailed to India in the mid 18th century to snag a husband--whom she later abandoned to live the high life in England while her husband slaved to support her in India. That Eliza was probably the illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings. That Eliza married a French count for his money, and--after the count was guillotined during the Reign of Terror--married Jane's brother Henry Austen, who was 10 years younger than Eliza.
Jane Austen's Outlandish Cousin demonstrates that many of these "facts" are false or commonly misrepresented. Author Deirdre Le Faye shows that Philadelphia's marriage to Tysoe Hancock may well have been arranged by her uncle before she sailed. It was not uncommon for husbands and wives to be apart for long periods when the husband had to work abroad. Philadelphia lived in India with her husband for some years. The whole family returned to England when Tysoe Hancock believed he had accumulated enough money to retire. After several years, the Hancocks ran low on cash and Tysoe Hancock returned to India with the hope of earning enough to rejoin his wife soon. Once he realized this hope was unlikely to be fulfilled, Philadelphia offered to join him. He refused because he believed Eliza would get a much better education in England, and because his chronic ill-health led him to fear he would die before the end of their 6-month+ voyage, leaving them friendless in a country that was now strange to them. The slander regarding Warren Hastings was spread by one enemy of Philadelphia's, and Tysoe Hancock's letters indicate that he firmly regarded Eliza as his daughter and was very concerned that she have the best possible upbringing. Eliza's adult interaction with Hastings shows a distant, formal business relationship with him as a co-trustee of her capital and the former executor of her father's estate.
Unfortunately, aside from refuting gossip commonly spread by modern Austenites, Le Faye does not dig deep into Eliza de Feuillide's life. This book is merely an annotated edition of Eliza's surviving letters to her cousin Philadelphia Walter, plus extracts from some of her father's and from a handful of letters by other relations. Almost all the letters predate Eliza's second marriage. Most of them consist of about 50 percent apologies for not writing earlier and effusive professions of affection. Nor did I get as good a sense of Eliza's character as I wished. Her letters are elegantly phrased, stylish, even formal compositions sent at rather long intervals. Le Faye does not supplement them with much information about Eliza other than clarifying dates and names mentioned. Nor does she attempt much analysis of Eliza's character, life, or anything else.
My many remaining questions include: How was the Count not a count? Since he moved in French court circles, if his claim was completely invalid how did he get away with calling himself one? He was not wealthy, although he had the prospect of becoming so after receiving 5,000 acres of marshland from Louis XVI on condition that he drain it and convert it to agriculture. This was however a very expensive project. Le Faye says Philadelphia's will revealed she had given the Count all her capital, and the French Wikipedia says the Count used Eliza's dowry for the project, but nowhere does Le Faye mention the dowry. What was their marital relationship? Eliza's pointing out (early on) its prudential advantages smack of defense against accusations of an imprudent love match. Here again the French Wikipedia is helpful; the Count was regarded as "the handsomest man of his time." How much money did Eliza have to live on? The Count's property was confiscated by the French government when he was guillotined, and Henry Austen was unable to get any of it back. Eliza did have the $10,000 trust set up for her by Warren Hastings, and no one (including the Count, who tried) could touch the capital without the permission of her trustees. Some of Eliza's letters complain that she is short of cash; did she marry Henry Austen partly for prudential reasons? What disease did Eliza die of?
It's true that Eliza was not famous in her day. But she did know a great many people, some of them in French and English court circles, and she had a huge number of relations. Didn't the Count write any letters? Or any of Eliza's French in-laws? Or any of her aristocratic friends on either side of the Channel? Or her beaux? Or her cousins other than Philadelphia Walter? Are there any public or private records of Eliza's finances? Apparently Le Faye did not even look for any of this information.
And I have one original speculation regarding the $10,000 trust set up for Eliza as a "gift" from Warren Hastings, which might be clarified by examining financial records. I suspect it was merely a mechanism Tysoe Hancock set up to secure part of his estate from his creditors. Hancock was a chronically inept businessman, and judging from defensive remarks by Philadelphia Hancock, there seem to have been accusations of dishonesty. (Hancock had been managing thousands of pounds of capital for two widows, most of which they never got back from his estate, and one of them plagued Philadelphia about it.) Hancock died owing more money to his creditors than he had on hand. Presumably his wife and daughter inherited nothing, because the numerous creditors were never paid in full. It took years for Hancock's executor Warren Hastings to sort out all the creditors' claims and if there had been anything left, Philadelphia would probably not have received it till after all the creditors were dealt with. The $10,000 trust was set up soon before Hancock died, when he presumably knew he was both fatally ill and deeply in debt. It completely bypassed Hancock's will--his wife could use the income before the estate was settled. Furthermore, since the money (at least in theory) all came from Hastings, not Hancock, and since the terms of the trust made it legally impossible for any third party to get at the capital, the trust was fully insulated from Hancock's creditors. In other words, perhaps Hancock scraped up the $10,000 whose interest would enable his wife and daughter to get by after his death, and got Warren Hastings to agree to protect it and to control the estate's financial records. Just a thought.
In conclusion, Jane Austen's Outlandish Cousin is a welcome addition to the many Austen-related books, but it's a pity the author did not focus on writing a biography as opposed to annotating a small selection of letters.