What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Eliza de Feuillide was born on 22 December 1761 in Calcutta, India, and was affectionately known as ‘Betsy’ within the family. Cousin Eliza made quite an impression on all the Austen family and it seemed they would all come to love her in some way.
She was daughter of Rev George Austen’s sister, Philadelphia Hancock who married Tysoe Saul Hancock whilst living in India. Philadelphia and Tysoe were close friends of Warren Hastings, and it was whispered that he was actually Eliza’s father after years of a childless marriage. This could have been why Hastings settled Eliza with £10,000 upon his death.
When she made her arrival in the sleepy little Hampshire village of Steventon she was 22 years old. She was pretty and petite, and thought of as quite exotic.
Jane was only 8 years old at the time, and she was quite taken with Eliza’s fun and beauty. Eliza loved to flirt, and you can see why many have thought that Eliza inspired Mary Crawford in Jane’s novel Mansfield Park. The theatricals that play such a significant part in Mansfield Park are reminiscent of the plays in which Eliza was the leading lady in their amateur productions that took place in the barn. ,Jane completed the novel a few months after Eliza’s death.
It was when she returned to Paris with her mother that Eliza met and married Jean-Francois Capot de Feuillide in 1781. He was an officer in the Queens Regiment of Dragoons, and athough it was not official, had a title of his own.
With the money Eliza inherited from Hastings, she was a wealthy woman and moved within the royal circles and upper classes in Paris. Eliza often wrote home to her cousin Philadelphia Walter with descriptions of the many parties and fireworks she went to, and all the latest Paris fashions.
Eliza gave birth to her son Hastings on 25 June 1786, and named him after his Godfather. Although he was fairly robust as a baby, he was a sickly child and was 15 years old when he became ill and died in 1801.
Eliza was living back in London when Jane’s eldest brother James proposed to Eliza. As a clergyman he had a humble living and lived back in leafy Hampshire, a world away from Eliza’s life in Paris and London. She refused his proposal and he later asked Mary Lloyd, Martha’s sister, to be his wife.
It was Jane’s fondest brother Henry, in business and banking, who Eliza accepted. With his easy nature and sense of fun, it seemed they were suited in marriage and had a Christmas wedding on 31 December 1797.
They lived in Sloane Street, and Jane would often visit when Henry would be negotiating with her publishers on her behalf. It was on one of these visits that Eliza had decided to throw a party similar to one she had been to in Versailles.
As Cassandra was at Godmersham, Jane writes on Thursday 18 April 1811 that preparations were underway,
Eliza is walking out by herself. She has plenty of business on her hands just now - for the day of the party is settled, and drawing near; 80 people are invited for next Tuesday eveng. and there is to be some very good music.
And on the Saturday 20 April both she and Eliza decide to go shopping,
If weather permits, Eliza and I walk into London this morng. She is in want of Chimney lights for Tuesday and I an ounce of darning cotton. It will be amusing to see the ways of a French circle.
The party was so lavish it was reported in the newspapers, and on Thursday 25 April Jane writes another long letter to tell Cassandra all about it.
Our party went off extremely well.. The rooms were dressed up with flowers &.. looked very pretty. -A glass for the Mantlepiece was lent, by the Man who is making their own ... Including everybody we were 66 - which was considerably more than Eliza had expected, & quite enough to fill the Back Drawg room, & leave a few to be scattered about in the other, & in the passage. - The Music was extremely good. ...The House was not clear till after 12.
Eliza became ill at the same time Jane was writing Mansfield Park. She was suffering from breast cancer, the same illness that had taken her mother, and it was to be a long illness.
In February 1813, Henry was away in Oxford when he received news that Eliza had taken a turn for the worst. He took his carriage to pick up Jane from Chawton Cottage and returned to London on 21 April.
Eliza died four days later on Sunday 25 April 1813 and Jane was at her bedside when she passed away. She was 51 years old. Eliza was buried at the Cemetery of St John-at-Hampstead alongside her mother and son. Her gravestone was written by Henry.
Also in memory of Elizabeth wife of H.T. Austen, Esq. formerly widow of the Comt. Feuillide a woman of brilliant, generous and cultivated mind just disinterested and charitable she died after long and severe suffering on the 25th April 1813 age 50 much regretted by the wise and good and deeply lamented by the poor.
Further Reading: Jane Austen’s Cousin: The Outlandish Countess de Feuillide