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Posts Tagged ‘James Austen’

Jane Austen was born on this day, 16th December in 1775.

The little imagining that follows is a picture, a glimpse into life at Steventon, written from Jane’s point of view as she remembers carefree, summer days and a birthday with her cousin, Eliza de Feuillide.

It is the smells and sounds of Steventon that I most recall, the particular fragrances and resonances peculiar to my beloved home of twenty-five years. Returning home from time away with my sister I recall the glow I felt at the familiar scene as the coach swept through the carriage drive to halt before the red-roofed Rectory surrounded by sloping meadows sprinkled with elm trees. Passing under rose-covered trellis into the hall, the sound of noisy, clattering boys and raucous laughter deliciously combine into a pot-pourri of memories sharper now than ever. The joy of coming home again to see my father running out into the hall to greet us surrounded by clamouring pupils, his beautiful hair as white as a silver fox and those soft, hazel eyes expressing the love he always bore for us is a picture that immediately springs to mind. My mother’s welcome is a brisker affair when she chooses to make an appearance at last, yet loving nevertheless, as she enquires after our relatives.

I’m running upstairs at the first opportunity. I’m not really at home until I’m back in the rooms that we share, Cass and I. Oh, such delights await me, my pens and paper on my desk, my pianoforte and the painted press with my books above. Striped curtains at the windows match the summer sky outside and the papered walls within. The wonder of lying on my bed, blue-checked curtains drawn about me to keep out the draughts and those I do not wish to find me. Hidden under the bed is my box of delights, all my writing to date. I fetch it out hauling it onto the coverlet disturbing the dust lurking below to sparkle in sunlit clouds like powdered diamonds. Opening the heavy lid with impatient fingers I can’t wait to fetch my scribblings out, to glance through the familiar pages. I enjoy a feeling of greeting old friends as I stroke the papers one by one, stopping to read a draft, laughing at another or exclaiming over something that needs to be written again is a pleasure as satisfying as any worldly sensation and surpasses any other amusement. Am I a little vain to think they are diverting? But, truly, I am convinced of being quite a comic genius and of their merit!

CASSANDRA was the Daughter & the only Daughter of a celebrated Millener in Bond Street. Her father was of noble Birth, being the near relation of the Dutchess of —-‘s Butler.

How I long to write something more substantial, a full-length novel with a little more shade like those from the circulating library or in my father’s bureau. Well, I am determined to do so some day soon.
The sun feels warm. It is good to be home for the summer with the thought of long days bright with light and heat. To run wild, play cricket, and roll down the slope at the back of the house without a care. The garden is my retreat, the arbour my refuge – a heavenly place for private moments and for sharing intimate conversations. To spend time with my darling Henry, my dearest brother of all my sweet brothers, I have looked forward to above everything else.
The garden in June calls me and so I float as in a dream back downstairs past my father’s study and the back kitchen to the sunny side of the house and run down through the strawberry beds to the sundial. I turn to wave at my father framed in the window as he sits at his table, and see him look up with a smile pleased to be distracted from the corrections of the last Latin lessons of young boys.

My sister Cassandra is sitting in the garden with a visitor, Mr Thomas Fowle, who is an old friend and past scholar of the Steventon school that my father and mother supervise between them. Cassie, at fourteen, is already something of a beauty and I suspect young Tom’s calling is not only to pay his respects to my parents and brothers. His admiring glances directed at my sister are amusing for me to watch. He makes a comment about the coral necklace at Cassie’s throat. Her fingers fly to her neck. Stroking the beads she is all too aware of his lingering expression, her discomposure flooding her cheeks in carmine blushes to match the wild strawberries snug in the flowerbeds. At twenty two Mr Fowle cuts a dashing figure, one that my young brother Charles clearly admires. He is pulling at Tom’s arm demanding yet another piggy-back by his hero who does not seem to notice so engrossed is he in my sister’s conversation and her modest looks.
I wander along further away from the house. Birds chatter and chirp in the branches above hidden amongst the foaming elder flowers, pungent and intoxicating. Spruce firs in the avenue scent the air with pine recalling Cowper’s words to my mind –

‘…the stock-dove unalarm’d,
Sits cooing in the pine-tree nor suspends
His long love-ditty for my near approach.

Shaded under their outstretched arms, the giant guardians of the Rectory form a cool colonnade to the terrace walk and the gate beyond. Sitting down upon the bench I give in to the pleasure of listening to the swinging scrape of the weathercock high on the end of a long, white pole, as it moves to and fro in the warm breeze and watch the faded ribbons Cassandra plaited at its base snap and flutter.

What shall I write of next – comedy or tragedy, of love or poetry? The possibilities flow along in my mind like the hedgerows winding and curling along the edge of the rolling meadows. Within their secret lanes of copse-wood and timber those who wish to steal from view may walk and talk, whisper and converse without the world knowing of their existence. My near presence is not observed on the other side and it is here that I sometimes snatch parts of the most interesting conversations, not that I care to eavesdrop, you understand. Henry and my cousin Eliza choose to walk this way sometimes skirting the fields quite alone. I watch them disappear arm in arm through the gate to the Wood Walk overhung by tall, magnificent elms knowing that my company will not be required. They whisper and laugh, their heads bent toward the other, enraptured.

My earliest recollection of Eliza is at Steventon in the best parlour decorated in gleaming winter greenery of laurel and holly, a perfect foil to her slender, white arms lit by candlelight as her fingers fly over the keys of a borrowed pianoforte; her voice sweet and lively as she sings. My sophisticated French cousin was a revelation – French by her marriage to Count de Feuillide and French in the adoption of that country’s ways from spending much time at the Court – she captivated and entranced us all.

I was just eleven; Christmas was almost upon us when Betsy (as my father called her) arrived fluttering into our lives like an exotic, bejewelled bird along with her small boy, Hastings, and her mother, my Aunt Hancock. Presents for everyone, extravagant treats were lavished upon us along with Betsy’s exuberant embraces to bring a blush to my brother Henry’s cheeks. A wonderful set of books written in the French tongue bought especially for my birthday made my heart sing – leather bound; white paper, crisp and uncut, lay within!

Eliza’s upbringing, a cosmopolitan concoction of growing up in India, France and London was of endless fascination to me and she readily satisfied all my curiosities and questions about her time spent in such different surroundings to mine. India was a land of exquisite spices, textures and fragrances – curry leaves, coriander and cumin, sandalwood, jasmine, and attar of roses. Parcels of scented, flowered chintz, white muslin and brocaded silks made my mother gasp with admiration and my father shake his white head in wonder. France was described in terms of fairy tale imaginings, of far away princesses and chateaux – silver gauze, white lilac, feathers and ribbons gleaming in diamond-sprinkled tresses tall as the towers of the petit Trianon.
Eliza’s portrait describes a young woman at ease in the French court at this time showing her delicate features, an elfin beauty with large, dark eyes. Dressed in white, trimmed with ribbon, she is the epitome of fashion with her cascade of hair caught by a loop of the same blue ribbon on top of her head. But her serious expression does not convey the Eliza I remember, a girl who laughed at life with a perpetual twinkle in her eye! I loved Eliza, indeed, we all fell under her charms! My brothers were all captivated by her charisma, her flirtatious manners, and other worldliness. James and Henry, in particular, were mesmerised, quite entranced by the faerie enchantment that cast its spell during the following winter of 1787.

I seem to remember that it was James’s idea to put on a play, though I am certain that Eliza put forward the first suggestions for particular choices. ‘The Wonder’ was decided upon after much debate and long after my father’s tithe barn had already been fitted up with wooden flats, a green baize curtain and a row of candle footlights.
I watched my brothers court Eliza in turn.

Copyright Jane Odiwe 2009
Illustrations:
Jane Austen’s birth – Jane Odiwe
Miniature Eliza de Feuillide
Blindman’s Buff- Jane Odiwe
Jane Austen – Jane Odiwe

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By Christmas 1787, Eliza was at Steventon Rectory again, and excited about performing in a make-shift theatre (her uncle’s tithe barn) with her cousins. The Austen brothers most likely fitted out the barn with a stage, scenery, curtain and oil lamps to illuminate the actors. Eliza tried unsuccessfully to invite her cousin Phila to join them all, but the latter declared she had no wish to appear in public. The play decided on was The Wonder: A Woman keeps a Secret!
James Austen wrote a prologue and epilogue for the play which celebrated the abilities of women to conquer men by their wit and charm – one cannot help wondering if Eliza had influenced his thinking and inspiration! Though I am certain the Austen brothers behaved impeccably, I am sure they were both captivated by the sophisticated and flirtatious Comtesse who exercised every opportunity to steal their hearts by acting alongside them. When Jane Austen later wrote Mansfield Park, surely some of the inspiration for the play scenes came from similar ones she must have witnessed.

By the late 1790’s after Eliza had become a widow, and when James himself became a widower, he most likely pursued Eliza along with Henry, but she resisted them both vowing she would not give up ‘dear Liberty, and yet dearer flirtation’ for any of her beaux. However, Henry won her heart at last. They were married on 31st December 1797. George Austen sent them £40 towards wedding celebrations with Henry’s regiment.

In a letter to Warren Hastings Eliza wrote:

…I have consented to an Union with my Cousin Captn. Austen who has the honour of being known to You. – He has been for some time in Possession of a comfortable income, and the excellence of his Heart, Temper, and Understanding, together with his steady attachment to me, his Affection for my little Boy, and disinterested concurrence in the disposal of my Property, in favour of this latter, have at length induced me to an aquiescence which I have withheld for more than two years…

Eliza was thirty six, and Henry ten years her junior.

Read more – Deirdre Le Faye has written a book – Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’ – The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide. The letters she wrote to her cousin make fascinating reading!

The top photo shows Manchester Street off Manchester Square where Eliza lived at around the time that Henry was courting her. Coincidentally, I chose Manchester Square for the London home of the Brandons in my new book, Willoughby’s Return. I wandered all round the area trying to decide where I should house them, and the Square seemed perfect.
The bottom photo is from the film Becoming Jane showing Henry and Eliza’s marriage.

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Eliza de Feuillide (1761-1813) is a fascinating personality in Jane Austen’s life. Eliza’s mother was Jane’s aunt, her father’s sister, Philadelphia Hancock. Jane’s father George and Philadelphia had been orphaned from a young age and though it seems they managed to stay in touch with one another, they both had to make their way in the world. Philadelphia was apprenticed to a milliner in Covent Garden for five years before being shipped off (most likely by her uncle Francis Austen) at the age of 15 to India in order to find a husband. She met and married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a surgeon, twenty years her senior but remained childless for the first six years of their marriage. In Calcutta they befriended Warren Hastings who later became the Governor General of India. When Eliza was born Hastings became her godfather and took his role so seriously that there was a certain amount of gossip spread about that he was in fact her father. Whatever the truth of the matter, he set up a trust fund for Eliza of £10,000. After Mr Hancock died, Philadelphia took Eliza to France and it was here that she became part of the glittering French society and where she married her first husband, Captain Jean-Francois Capot de Feuillide, a self-styled count who had little fortune but had been given the grant of an area of marshland near Nerac. It was decided that her first child should be born in England though in fact Hastings, as the child was named, was born prematurely at Calais.
Eliza, her mother, and the baby first visited the Austens in Steventon on December 21 1786 just in time to celebrate her own twenty fifth birthday, also bringing a present of books for Jane’s birthday which had been on the sixteenth. Jane was 11, Cassandra, nearly 14, Henry, 15, Frank, 12, and Charles, 6. James was away at this time travelling to France to visit the count. Jane must have been intrigued by the exotic Eliza who would have shared wonderful tales of her life in India and France. Mrs Austen’s description of Eliza in a letter paints her as lively and entertaining, amusing them all with her performances on the pianoforte. It is interesting to note that Henry, ten years younger than Eliza (and most likely already infatuated) went to stay with her in London the following April. Eliza must have introduced Henry to a style of life he had never witnessed before and to have a beautiful young woman accompanying him around the metropolis would have been enough to turn any young man’s head.

This extract from a letter she wrote to her cousin gives us an idea of her life in the capital.
…I have been for some Time past the greatest Rake imaginable…I only stood from two to four in the Drawing Room & 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 Almacks where I staid till five in the Morning, all this I did not many days ago, & yet am alive to tell You of it. I believe tho’, I should not be able to support London Hours, & all the racketing of a London Life for a Year together.

Eliza’s letters at this time are full of descriptions of society gatherings in London and her cousin Philadelphia Walter wrote of their experiences in Tunbridge Wells; shopping for bonnets, attending balls, horse races and the theatre. Whilst in Tunbridge Wells they saw the plays Which is the Man? and BonTon which by the following Christmas, Eliza had decided would be the very entertainments to show off her dramatic talents and simultaneously flirt with the Austen brothers, James and Henry!

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