Eliza, the British Empire, and the novels of Jane Austen


Eliza Hancock, Jane Austen’s cousin, was born in 1761 in Calcutta, India to British parents. Eliza’s mother, Jane Austen’s aunt, (intriguingly named Philadelphia Austen) had gone to India specifically to find a husband, and she did. Six months after arriving in India she married T.S. Hancock who was doing quite well as an employee of the EIC (The East Indies Company) a British trading firm chartered by the British Crown in 1600, to trade for spice, and anything else profitable in the “East Indies,’ which Britain defined as “everything between Suez and Japan.”

Over the years, the EIC became enormously profitable and enormously powerful. Through political influence in Britain, its charter had been expanded to include coining money, raising an army, acquiring a navy, and governing much of southern India. It had become a nation in all but name, with an army bigger and better-armed than the British Army itself.  “East Indiamen,” the armed trading ships of the East Indies Company, ruled the Indian Ocean. And the Governor-General of the EIC ruled much of India.

In Calcutta, after six years of marriage, the Hancocks remained childless, which was unusual in the days before birth control. The couple met Warren Hastings, a rising star of the EIC, whose wife and child had recently died. While T.S. Hancock was up-country on extended business trips, Warren Hastings and Philadelphia Hancock spent much time in each other’s company. So, to no one’s surprise, Philadelphia Hancock soon produced a daughter they named Eliza. It was an open secret that Warren Hastings, not T.S. Hancock, was her real father, but despite this infidelity, Hancock and Hastings remained business partners. Hastings would become the last Governor-General of the EIC.

When Eliza was three years old, in 1765, the Hancock family returned to London where at first they lived quite well on the fortune T.S. Hancock had amassed in India. But Philadelphia’s profligate ways, and the cost of a first class education for Eliza, soon depleted their fortune, and T.S. returned to Calcutta to make more money. He worked there for the rest of his life, and died in Calcutta in 1775—a victim of disease, overwork, and quite likely, depression due to his separation from his wife and daughter.

Philadelphia, ever practical, took his death in stride. To reduce costs, Philadelphia and fourteen-year-old Eliza moved to the Continent where living was cheaper, despite—or maybe because of—the political unrest in France associated with the rise of Napoleon.

Eliza became fluent in French. At eighteen she was pretty, educated, and flirtatious, so soon attracted the attention of a minor French aristocrat, the Comte de Feuillide, and married him. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Eliza and her mother quickly departed for England. Eliza’s husband, a royalist, delayed his departure and was captured and executed. Eliza, now a twenty-year-old widow in London, was beautiful, educated, comfortable in society—and was legally allowed to call her self “countess” based on her dead husband’s title. But she and her mother, like many English gentry, had no money, so Eliza’s mother wisely pared down their expenditures while Eliza started looking for a husband. As part of their cost reduction effort, Eliza began spending much of her time at her cousin, Jane Austen’s, home.

Jane and her sister, Cassandra enjoyed hearing Eliza tell stories of the follies and foibles of the gentry in London and Paris. Jane Austen’s brother Henry, now a clergyman, became enamored of the beautiful and sophisticated Eliza. Henry was educated and reasonably good looking, but more importantly, he had a guaranteed income from the Church of England, so when he proposed marriage to Eliza, she immediately accepted. They were married in December 1797.

By all accounts their life together was pleasant enough. Eliza accepted her somewhat reduced circumstances, and although Eliza and Henry kept a house in London, Eliza continued to spend much time with Jane and Cassandra. By 1803 Henry was taking an active part in trying to get his sister Jane’s books published. Eliza was supportive of this effort.

In 1810 Jane’s novel Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. Jane stayed in London with Eliza and Henry to correct proofs of Sense and Sensibility, revise what would become Pride and Prejudice, and began writing Mansfield Park.

But Eliza’s health was in decline, and in 1813, at age fifty-one, Eliza died of what is now thought to have been breast cancer.

Even though Eliza was gone, her stories had taken root in Jane’s imagination. Many scholars believe Eliza was the model for “Lady Susan” in Jane’s novella of the same name (not a very flattering portrayal), and for the character Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.

Could Eliza’s stories of the gentry in London and Paris have been the basis for other parts of Jane Austen’s novels? It can never be conclusively known. Was Henry’s strong advocacy for Jane Austen’s books after her death in 1817 partly an homage to his wife Eliza? We’ll never know that either. But I like to think that as Jane Austen sat writing some of the most revered novels in the English language, the memory of her vivacious cousin and friend, Eliza, would cross her mind from time to time and perhaps appear as a ghostly echo on the page.

By the time Jane Austen was writing her novels, the once powerful East Indies Company had also dwindled to a ghostly echo of it’s former self, and in 1871 its charter was not renewed for the simple reason that the British Crown had taken direct control of virtually all the functions of the EIC. But in its 271 years of existence, the EIC had made fortunes for many, had established British control of the Indian Ocean, had established the concept of a limited liability stock company (which is now the model for virtually all corporations) and had established British India—the crown jewel of the British Empire.

For good or bad, the East Indies Company was a central part of the formation of the British Empire. And perhaps, just perhaps, Eliza Hancock, was a part of the genesis of the novels of Jane Austen.

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