Eliza Hancock was Jane Austen’s cousin and future sister-in-law, and many speculate she was also the model for some of Austen’s most vivacious characters, including my perpetual favorite — Mary Crawford. If so, it seems to indicate that Austen both loved her cousin and was also jealous of the attention the sparkling Eliza could command from the Austen men.
Eliza was born in India on 22 December 1761, the daughter of Philadelphia Austen, Jane Austen’s paternal aunt, and Tysoe Saul Hancock. Her biological father may have actually been Warren Hastings, who would become the first Governor-General of Bengal. Hastings was Eliza’s godfather for certain, and as such he gifted her with an impressive dowry of 10,000 pounds. This rendered an annual income of about 600 pounds per annum, which would have made her solidly upper middle class in London but could make her rich if she lived in Paris. Thus, Eliza and her mother moved to France in 1779 to enjoy their wealth and French culture.
Her money and beauty secured her several beaux, and in 1781 she wed a French Army Captain named Jean-François Capot de Feuillide, the Comte de Feuilide. Regrettably, he was purportedly more interested in her lucre than her luster. As the Comtesse de Feuillide, the witty and beautiful Eliza should have been able to live a life of pleasure. Nevertheless, sorrow did intrude on her – she suffered two miscarriages and her only surviving child, a son she named Hastings after her benefactor and godfather, was burdened with ill-health and some sort of mental disability. Moreover, her mother, who loved her very much, was rather an idiot about men and money, inadvertently causing Eliza more problems.
Eliza was often in England, both for her mother’s happiness in visiting family and for her own, and after the onset of the French Revolution in 1790 the Comtesse stayed in the United Kingdom for good. Her husband did not join her, but instead remained in France. This didn’t appear to bother Eliza, who was by this time consumed with her mother’s decline as well as caring for her disabled son.
When Philadelphia Austen died in 1792, Eliza seems to have had a complete breakdown for more than a year. She found solace in visiting Jane Austen’s family, especially in seeing Jane’s father, George Austen. Eliza wrote in a letter that, “Often do I sit and trace [my deceased mother’s] Features in his, till my Heart overflows at my Eyes. I always tenderly loved my Uncle, but I think he is now dearer to me than ever”.
In 1794 Eliza’s husband was actually stupid enough to try to bully the peasants on his lands and (unsurprisingly) the Comte was given an appointment with Madame Guillotine. Unlike the death of her mother, this didn’t seem to disturb Eliza unduly. Her life revolved around her little boy, and although she joked about her suitors she appears to have decided against ever remarrying.
However, Jane Austen’s brother, Henry Thomas Austen, had fallen in love with his cousin and set about changing her mind. Henry Austen was finally successful in his suit and wed Eliza in December of 1797. Henry was wise enough to give Eliza a great deal of freedom, allowing her and Hastings to remain in London while he traveled in the course of his career.
Unfortunately, little Hastings passed away in 1801, plunging Eliza into grief. After his loss, Eliza’s social circle contracted to those who are closest to her … including an ever-growing friendship with her youngest sister-in-law, Jane. Eliza’s other in-laws were less fond of her, however. Several of Jane’s elder brothers had been in love with Eliza before they married, and their current wives still resented her for it. Henry would often visit his brother’s on his own, rather than subject Eliza to any coldness from her theoretical sisters.
Eliza’s health began to deteriorate in the autumn of 1811, and it became clear she was dying of the same kind of cancer that killed her mother. In early April, one of Edward Austen Knight’s sons escorted his Aunt Jane to Henry Austen’s home to comfort both the dying Eliza and the grieving Henry. Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen passed away on 13 April 1813, with Jane and Henry at her side.
I agree that Eliza was the starting point for Mary Crawford, in much the same way that Henry Austen was the seed of Henry Crawford. It was not that Jane did not love either Eliza or Henry, and therefore depicted them in “bad” characters; it is that the essential makeup of Mary and Henry Crawford are the same admixture of personal excellence and excrement as those possessed by Jane’s cousin and brother. Henry Crawford was charming, urbane, and intelligent, but like Henry Austen he could also be very self-centered and thoughtless. This is not evil, but it is “dangerous”, in that it can lead to suffering for both the selfish person and others. Mary Crawford was witty, careless, worldly, and very aware of the importance of money, yet was “almost wholly motivated” by “good feelings” and kindness. What Mary Crawford lacked was Jane Austen’s rectory-centric upbringing which was taught her that it was appropriate to be appalled, rather than amused, by scandalous behavior. For me, that is what made Mary such a dynamic personality, and why I wanted to write her side of the story in Mansfield Parsonage.
The double-edged sword of Jane Austen’s love and condemnation for her cousin (and hence Mary Crawford) is that Austen had the same sardonic view of society’s veneer of morality as Eliza (and Mary Crawford) did. The thing is, I don’t believe Austen liked that about herself. She wanted to be a better person than that. She wished to be as ‘gentle’ as Fanny Price in fact. In one of her prayers, not meant for other people’s eyes let alone publication, Austen pleaded with God to remind her of “every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures” and that she should “consider our fellow-creatures with kindness”. Austen knew her sharp wit could cut deep, and that her humour could hurt other people’s feelings. She knew that she, like Mary Crawford, lacked the true “delicacy” of the gentle hearted. She loved her cousin Eliza, but she was as realistic about Eliza’s flaws as she was of her own failings.
Margaret Drabble argues that the power of Mansfield Park is in the fact that it, like the Eliza Hancock and Mary Crawford, isn’t perfect:
“The world is not inhabited by ideal people, or even by a mixture of heroes and heroines (Darcys and Bingleys) and grotesques (Collinses and Catherine de Bourghs) – it is full of real, defective, halfway people … sometimes pushed one way by events, sometimes another … in this novel she presents us with an almost impossible choice … the readers of Mansfield Park are … tossed between Crawford-feelings and Fanny-and-Edmund feelings, and if and when they are forced to choose Fanny Price, they feel that the price has been, perhaps, too high.”
Jane Austen, in an attempt to embrace the morality and goodness she strove for personally, forced Mary Crawford out of Mansfield Park so that the ‘deserving’ and meek Fanny Price could be rewarded. This isn’t necessarily a great thing for readers. While the reader is glad the perfectly sweet Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingly live happily ever after, their story isn’t as fascinating and important as the relationship between the saucy, too-sardonic Elizabeth Bennett and the over-proud Mr. Darcy. Likewise, in Mansfield Park the character of Mary Crawford was much more entertaining and relatable than Fanny Price. The reader is sad to see her go.
Another reason Austen could have wanted to subconsciously punish and exile her cousin Eliza in the form of Mary Crawford is the fact that Austen appears to have disliked the way her brothers – whom she seems to have had non-sexual affection for that no man could compete with – fell so hard for the witty Eliza when they SHOULD have loved only “worthy” paragons. Eliza, like Jane, wasn’t ideal and therefore shouldn’t have been chosen by one of the Austen men let alone adored by all of them. Loving Eliza revealed the Austen brothers as no better than other men, and Edmund’s rejection of Mary Crawford for the perfect maiden Fanny Price allowed Jane Austen to reconstruct the ideal world of paragon brothers and matching paragon wives.
Yet Jane herself seems to be no better than her brothers in regards to Eliza. Flawed or not, Eliza (like Mary Crawford) was loveable and Jane Austen could not help but love her too. Austen may force the reader of Mansfield Park to chose Fanny Price, but she cannot command the reader’s heart away from Mary any more than she could prevent herself or her brother’s from adoring Eliza.