Authors: Jill Pitkeathley
A Jane Austen Novel
For my dear husband, David
Cast of Characters
Jane Austen at Steventon Rectory
Philadelphia Austen Hancock Aboard the Madras Castle
Tysoe Saul Hancock
Eliza Hancock in Paris
Mrs George Austen at Steventon
Eliza de Feuillide
Eliza, Comtesse de la Feuillide
Jane Austen at Steventon Rectory
Philadelphia [Philly] Walter, Eliza and Jane’s cousin, Orchard Street, London
Eliza at Her House in Orchard Street, London
Cassandra Austen, Steventon
Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, at Steventon
Jane Austen, Steventon
Comte de Feuillide in La Bastille Prison
Letter from Henry Austen to His Sister Jane
James Austen at Deane parsonage
Philly Walter at Tunbridge Wells
Eliza de la Feuillide, London
The Reverend George Austen
Philadelphia [Philly] Walter, Tunbridge Wells
Letter from Henry Austen to Eliza Austen
Eliza at Her Residence in Dorking
Mary Austen [Mrs JA] at Deane Parsonage
Eliza in Upper Brook Street, London
Philly Walter at Tunbridge Wells
Mary Austen [Mrs JA] at Steventon
Eliza at Brompton
Henry Austen at Bath
Jane Austen at Brompton, London
Mrs Austen at Lyme
Philly Walter at Tunbridge Wells
Jane Austen at Bath
Henry Austen at Brompton, London
Philly Walter at Tunbridge Wells
Eliza at Brompton
Letter from Cassandra Austen to Eliza and Henry Austen
Mary Austen [Mrs JA ] at Steventon
Jane Austen, Sloane Street, London
Philly Walter Whitaker at Pembury, Kent
Eliza, Sloane Street, London
Henry Austen at Sloane Street
Jane Austen at Chawton
Jane and Henry Austen in Hampstead Cemetery
Henry Austen at Chawton Parsonage
Henry did marry Miss Jackson, who made him a loyal…
The History Behind the Story
About the Author
Other Books by Jill Pitkeathley
About the Publisher
Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Reverend George Austen (1731–1805),
father of Jane
Cassandra Leigh Austen (1739–1827),
mother of Jane
James Austen (1765–1819),
brother of Jane
Mary Lloyd Austen (Mrs JA),
Edward Austen Knight (1767–1852),
brother of Jane
Elizabeth Bridges Austen Knight,
Henry Austen (1771–1850),
brother of Jane
Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen (1761–1813),
known as Betsy as a child and later as Mrs HA
Cassandra Austen (1773–1845),
sister of Jane
Francis (Frank) Austen (1774–1865),
brother of Jane
Mary Gibson Austen (Mrs FA),
Charles Austen (1779–1852),
brother of Jane
Frances (Fanny) Palmer Austen,
George Austen (1766–1838),
mentally handicapped brother of Jane
Philadelphia Austen Hancock (1730–1792),
sister of Reverend George Austen, mother of Eliza
Tysoe Saul Hancock (died 1775),
husband of above and father of Eliza
Jean Capot, Comte de Feuillide (executed 1794),
first husband of Eliza
Hastings de Feuillide (1786–1801),
son of Eliza and the Comte de Feuillide
Philadelphia (Philly) Walter Whitaker,
niece to Mrs George Austen and cousin to Jane and Eliza
first governor-general of India, godfather of Eliza
have always found that the most effectual way of getting rid of temptation is to give way to it, so I shall accept both your offers,’ said Eliza as she glanced from one of my brothers to the other. Smiling at them both, she took the hands that each of them had held out to her and stepped down from the stage. ‘The wind is chill in here,’ she went on. ‘Now which of my two charming squires will fetch me my shawl?’
‘I will,’ they chorused eagerly, but while James waited for her to choose the messenger, Henry, younger and more agile, was already running down to the other end of the barn where the outdoor clothing was piled upon a chair. As he returned with the multicoloured shawl, a gift from Eliza’s godfather, I saw him glance triumphantly at James. Because Henry was my favourite brother, I was always on his side in these silly competitions that had developed between him and James for Eliza’s attention, but even I could see how she flirted outrageously with them both and played them off against each other. I had overheard my parents talking about it, too. They were not quarrelling, my parents never did that, but they were certainly disagreeing about Eliza and the way two of their sons were reacting to her.
‘’Tis nothing but harmless fun my dear,’ said my father. ‘After all, she is a married woman with a small child so can have no serious designs on them.’
‘Mr Austen,’ replied my mother, ‘you may be a clergyman well versed in the sins of your parishioners, but you are innocent of the wily ways of a woman like her. Why, she has been headstrong and spoiled since the time we first knew her and that racketing life she has led in France has not made her conform to our simple country ways. I tell you both James and Henry are in a fair way to having their heads turned and it is not a good example either to our girls. Cassandra is almost fifteen now and we must think of these things.’
‘But Cassandra is as innocent as her father,’ he replied, ‘and not one to think ill of anyone.’
‘What about Jane then?’ my mother persisted. ‘I can see that she is fascinated by Betsy, and you know how easily impressed she is by anything out of the common way.’
My mother had never quite become used to the idea of the niece she had always known as Betsy being called Eliza, as she suddenly announced she wished to be known when she was fifteen years old, and found it even more difficult to refer to her as Madame la Comtesse, as she should rightfully be known since she became the wife of the Comte de Feuillide three years ago.
‘Jane listens to everything Betsy says and takes it all in. Why only yesterday I overheard both girls being told how the Comte adores her and would never think of taking a mistress as most French counts do. I ask you, Mr Austen—is that suitable talk for a child of twelve?’
‘If you are worried,’ said my father, ‘have a word with my sister. I am sure that Philla will reassure you that it is just Eliza’s way and there is nothing to worry about. As far as I can see, both the boys are enjoying the acting scheme, and James’s writing talents are being encouraged after all. Now that he is back from France and going up to Oxford, the parsonage might seem a little dull to him without our acting plans. After all, my dear, it is Christmas and we should
all be enjoying ourselves. Look how we all enjoyed Eliza’s playing last night.’
‘Come Mr Austen, did I not arrange the hiring of the instrument especially for her? And you know I am the first to encourage the acting, but I do not want to risk encouraging anything else.’ Glancing up and seeing that I was nearby and might be overhearing, she closed the conversation with a meaningful look at my father, telling him, ‘I am sure you know just what I mean.’
Henry, fresh from his triumph with the shawl, was eager to begin rehearsals again, but Eliza told him that she must now spend some time with her son, little Hastings, and could rehearse no more until he was abed.
‘Mama and your sister have watched him all day you know, and it must now be his mama’s turn.’ Her dark, wide-set eyes held his fascinated gaze.
‘But dear cousin,’ said James, ‘you know that both my sisters are only too delighted to care for him, even if Aunt Philla needs to rest.’
I was out of humour that he should volunteer my services without asking me. I was, in fact, rather nervous about taking care of little Hastings because of his peculiar condition. No one mentioned it, but it was clear he did not thrive. He could scarcely walk and, though Eliza made light of it, I had heard my mother whisper that he reminded her of my brother George, who was similarly stricken and could not live a normal life at home with us but had to be boarded out at Monk Sherborne. As Cassandra and I had been away at school in Reading, I had not been to visit him at Monk Sherborne recently, but I knew my parents went regularly. We had first seen Hastings last Christmas when Eliza and Aunt Philla brought him to stay; his father, the Comte, was engaged with his estates in France. James was not at home on that occasion
as he was with the Comte in France. Eliza had invited him for a visit there. Our family could not afford a grand tour such as many young men undertook before Oxford, but my parents thought a visit to France might be a substitute. The result was that Henry had had all Eliza’s attention that year and, although but fifteen at the time, had been her escort and played quite the gentleman to her in their first tries at acting. His nose was quite put out of joint that James, older and taller and an Oxford man, was now competing for her attentions. He was writing some of the scripts, too, so Eliza gave him a good deal of attention in return, diligently asking him how he wanted this line or that spoken. It was really amusing and gave Cassy and me some fun to watch them making fools of themselves.
‘She is a married woman,’ we repeated to each other in our bedroom, ‘she can have no serious intent.’
I liked the idea of two men fighting over me, but Cassandra was as ever sensible and serious.
‘No, Jane, she is improper and our brothers are ridiculous. Have you read the piece that James has written and Eliza is to act tomorrow?’
‘Oh yes, and I think it very fine.’
‘Fine? When it refers to women being superior and no longer in second place?’
‘But Cassy, why should we be in second place? Eliza does not seem to take second place to anyone. She has plenty of money as far as I can see, a husband who adores her, and yet she is free to go about as she pleases. Do you not envy her?’ But I knew what my dear sister’s response would be before she said it.
‘No, I envy no one. I am content.’
The next day Eliza read James’s piece and both he and Henry watched her, fascinated.
Her dark curls hung about her face as she read and her voice, the tone always low for a woman’s, became deeper and softer as she read.
But thank our happier stars, those times are o’er
And woman holds a second place no more
Now forced to quit their long held usurpation
These Men all wise, these ‘Lords of Creation’,
To our superior sway themselves submit,
Slaves to our charms and vassals to our wit;
We can with ease their ev’ry sense beguile
And melt their resolution with a smile…
My aunt Philla sat nursing little Hastings and smiled encouragingly at James.
‘Bravo James—we shall have a writer in the family yet.’
I could see that my mother, who also sat watching, was displeased by this remark. Though she liked to have James, always her favourite of her six sons, praised, she felt that her own skill with words should be acknowledged by her sister-in-law. I tried to make amends:
‘He has doubtless inherited Mama’s talents—you know how she is always dashing off rhymes and riddles for us and for the boarders.’
As ever, I could not manage to please her.
‘What nonsense, Jane. James has a fine talent and shows it in this script.’
‘But surely it is the way the lines are spoken that shows them off to advantage,’ put in Henry, gazing at Eliza. ‘Our neighbours will be in raptures when they hear us the day after tomorrow.’
‘Who are we expecting?’ asked my aunt, trying perhaps to avert any more strife between her nephews.
‘Oh the Biggs and the Lloyds, of course, and perhaps even Tom Chute if he does not consider himself too grand now that his papa sits at Westminster. James was hunting with him yesterday and invited him I believe.’ My mother got up. ‘Come, sister, we must attend to our household affairs and leave these young people to their rehearsals—it grows cold in this barn and will do that little boy no good.’
I think it must have been Eliza who suggested the theatricals the previous year when she visited us at Christmas. We would not have taken much persuading—we were ever a family for readings and scenes. But through Eliza we grew more adventurous and soon the large barn was fitted up with a proper stage and we began to collect many a costume and piece of scenery, side wings and backdrops, too. It was most amusing and though the presence of Eliza added spice to it and she always had the best parts, we all participated and enjoyed it. As well as our neighbours, we had been expecting our cousin Philly Walter to join us that year, but in the end she did not. I overheard my mother and aunt discussing it.
‘Eliza is most disappointed that Philly has after all decided to stay in Tunbridge Wells for the festive season,’ said my aunt. ‘Eliza is very fond of her, you know, and did so wish she might join us.’
‘Well for my part,’ said my mother, ‘I prefer her to stay away rather than be with us only to disapprove.’
‘My dear, Philly and her mother disapprove of everything—from the way I bring up my family to the number of times we have beef on our table.’
‘Really? She and Eliza seem to get along tolerably well.’
‘That may be because Eliza is too forgiving and does not realise that Philly will judge her most severely for what she sees as frivolous behaviour.’
‘I hope, sister, that you are not suggesting my Eliza behaves frivolously?’
‘Why no, but in her last letter to Mr Austen, Philly was wondering that Eliza does not join her husband in France. And even you, my dear, must own that the Comte ought to have had sight of his only child before this—he is near two years old and has never seen his papa.’
‘We intend to return to France in the spring as you know, but things are so unsettled there at present.’
‘Sister, it is not I who makes the criticism but that minx Philly. Betsy—pardon me, I mean Eliza, of course—would do well to be wary of her.’
Philly was not a person who found favour in my eyes either—especially as I know she had described me ill the last time we had met when we all travelled to Kent. She said I was whimsical and affected and, though I laughed with Cass about it, I found the judgement hurtful.
But I knew, too, that both Eliza and my aunt should be wary of Philly’s opinions because she seemed to believe there was something very shocking in Aunt Philla’s background. I had heard this referred to once or twice, but whenever I approached the subject was changed. Cass and I often speculated about what it was. We knew she had travelled to India as an unmarried girl and had met Uncle Hancock there very shortly before marrying him.
‘Do you think it could be that Cass?’ I asked her one night
‘I think it makes her very brave to travel alone and so far, but I cannot see that it is shocking.’
I could not either and longed to know the truth, but of course it was not a subject we could raise before Eliza and my mother would have been very angry had she known we discussed such matters. She came upon us once, Cassandra and me, with Eliza, discussing her husband.
I was asking if she loved him very much, as I thought it very romantic to have a French Comte for a husband.
‘Why no, I do not love him, but he provides me with a comfortable means of living and he adores me, which is, you know, the most important thing. It is a bargain one makes: I perform my conjugal duties and he provides me with an agreeable way of life.’
‘Eliza,’ said my mother, coming into the room in a great hurry, ‘you forget yourself. These are innocent young girls and you are under my roof. You will kindly remember that in future.’
I do not know if it was this conversation that caused the prompt departure of my aunt and cousins. Of course, there was the excuse that my father’s pupils would soon be returning to school and we would be short of space, but I could sense Mama’s relief when they departed, in a hired carriage with their mountains of trunks and bags.
‘Next time we come, dear aunt,’ said Eliza, kissing my mother on both cheeks, à la française, ‘I do hope it will be in our own carriage. It is
inconvenient to have to hire a chaise and four.’
As our family had never owned a carriage, I could see that this remark was not very tactful, but my mother merely smiled and said to her sister-in-law: ‘Come again as soon as you might and take care of the dear child when you travel to France.’
I do not think she meant Eliza.
I am not sure who told us that Eliza was an heiress, but I think it might have been when our brother Edward visited Cassandra and me when we were away at the Abbey School. Our cousin Jane was there, too—how confusing it is to have so many in our extensive family sharing so few names. Edward and Jane’s brother—also called Edward, but we always called him Ned—came to see us and to our great delight we were allowed to go into Reading with them. We took our dinner at an inn in town and while we were there I remember telling my brother about a novel I was reading in which
an heiress was cheated out of all her possessions by an unscrupulous uncle.
‘Why, it is good fortune then for our own family heiress that our father has the guidance of her fortune—he is, I think, unlikely to cheat her. In fact, I can see him being too indulgent with her and letting her have any monies she begs for,’ said my brother.
‘And anyway,’ joined in Ned, ‘if it were to be spent, there would surely be more coming from her benefactor eh? I hear Warren Hastings is worth a pretty penny.’
‘But why,’ asked Cassandra, ‘does Warren Hasting endow Eliza? She is no relation is she?’
‘Well that depends how—’ began Ned, but my brother cut him off. ‘Now now,
pas devant les enfants
, as they say in France.’ He laughed and changed the subject.
I found it very romantic to have a cousin who was an heiress, and I expect I boasted of it to the girls at school. We were poor compared to many of them, judging by their tales of fine houses, carriages, and outings, so it was something to boast about, especially since Warren Hastings was famous enough for many of the girls, and certainly the teachers, to have heard of him.
I was not sure how much money you had to have to be an heiress, but I knew Eliza must have a considerable amount. My cousin Jane told me that my mother had told her mother that my aunt’s ‘abandoning herself’ to Warren Hastings had done Eliza no harm financially, even though the scandal had harmed their reputations in India.
When I spoke of Eliza’s being an heiress, though, my sister reminded me that upon her marriage all her fortune became the possession of her husband, so being an heiress no longer counted for anything.
‘Is that not unfair?’ I asked her.
But she replied patiently: ‘Of course not, it is the way it is for married women.’
I could see that this was a disadvantage to being married, though upon the whole it seemed to be a very desirable state. But I wanted any man I married to be a dashing hero, much like I imagined the Comte to be. I envied cousin Eliza vastly and hoped that when I was older I might be allowed to spend more time with her. She was generous in her attitude and conduct toward me and made me feel important in a way that Mama never permitted.
‘I am an only child,’ said Eliza to me one day at Steventon, ‘so I shall never have a niece to spend time with me as so many fortunate women have. So you, dear Jane, can be in lieu of a niece to me and we shall spend time together. I shall supervise your coming out and inspect all your beaux and teach you to flirt in the most acceptable way. How I long for that time!’
I longed for it, too.
ow lively little Betsy has become. She runs about the ship from morn till night and it takes all my energy and that of the two nursery maids to keep her amused. Sometimes Mr Hancock takes a turn to help out and once or twice even Mr Hastings himself has taken her upon his knee to tell her a story. It touches my heart to see him with her, to see how the curve of her cheek resembles—No, I will not think of that.
Her liveliness increases as the weather grows cooler. Four months since leaving Calcutta, and we begin to feel a chill breeze of an evening and shawls are needed as we walk the deck before dinner.
Perhaps it is as they say and the climate of India—and especially of Calcutta—is not conducive to the health of an English child. The Portuguese nursery maids are quite energetic themselves, especially Diana and Clarinda, and I am glad that we chose to bring them rather than Betsy’s Indian ayah, though Betsy’s heart quite broke when she bade farewell to her. One hears such tales about the Indian nursemaids—of their indolence and propensity to lie. I have even heard some ladies say that they believe their ayahs have drugged their charges with opium. I can only say that all my Indian servants have been most satisfactory. Mr Hancock believes that I have been insufficiently firm with them because I was not used to dealing with
servants, but he, too, has been indulgent with our household staff. Why, he has offered to deliver their babies for them when he thought they might have trouble and would have done so had they not been shocked at the idea of a man—even though a doctor—being present when they gave birth. They were shocked, too, when he attended me but as he said: ‘After eight long years of waiting for a child, I want to ensure that both you and the infant are in the best of hands, my dear, and that means a doctor’s, even though he is your husband, not an Indian midwife’s.’ He delivered our dear little girl himself while attending me most discreetly, keeping my body covered with a sheet all the while, and the joy on his face when he held her for the first time was sufficient recompense for any embarrassment I might have felt—or any guilt, perhaps?
Betsy has been asking ‘When shall we see the white cliffs, Mama?’ almost since the moment we sailed in January, and it is impossible to explain to a child of four that the voyage will take at least half a year, perhaps longer if the winds do not favour us. But in truth it was the same with me when I made the voyage out from England twelve years ago. I could not really imagine the distance we would have to travel on the
or how long it would take. How frightened I was, how strange everything seemed.
My dear brother George came with me to the dockside and though we were not in the habit of demonstrations of affection, I shall never forget how he clung to me.
‘Oh take care of yourself, my dear sister,’ he said as he left me at the top of the gangway. I had been feeling quite excited on our tour of the ship, though a little taken aback at how cramped the ladies accommodation was. The
was known as a fast modern ship, one of the best owned by the East India Company and my uncle Francis, who had arranged my passage, had implied
that it would be richly furnished and spacious. It was far from that, being very cramped and small and of course the ladies were to share cabins. I was fortunate to be placed in one with only two beds—or bunks as I learned to call them—while some had four in a very small space. There was a great deal of wood about the boat also so it was no wonder we had heard tales of fires aboard that caused the poor passengers to take to the lifeboats, awaiting rescue that sometimes never came. We had heard too that the mariners—many of them Portuguese—were not very skilled and quite often went off course, so it was no wonder George was anxious about leaving me.
‘Oh my dear, if only I had the means to take care of you or that our dear mother had been able to pay more for your education—then at least you might be travelling with some gentleman’s family as a governess.’
‘Hush George, do not fret. Uncle Francis has paid my fare and given me letters of introduction. I may yet find a position as a governess—they do say that many an English family longs for a well-spoken English woman to take care of their children until they are old enough to be sent home to school. And brother, please remember that this ship, small as it may be, is infinitely better than being at Mrs Coles’s.’
My brother had never visited me at Russell Street, where I had been an apprenticed milliner for five years. The long hours hunched over worktables in airless rooms meant an early death for many like me.
‘You are right, Philla.’ He sighed. ‘And at least you will have six months or so on the high seas with fresh air to restore you to health.’
‘Why yes, and I am not alone here you know—I believe from the passenger list that there are at least twenty young ladies who
are travelling alone as I am, and I shall surely find congenial company among them. Some have husbands waiting for them, I suppose, but there will also be some like me who have to shift for themselves and undertake this voyage else die an early death.’ I did not add ‘an early death as an unloved spinster,’ but I knew he caught my meaning. With no dowry, no one to give me an allowance of any kind, and no means of meeting a respectable man, what else was a young woman like me to do but try my luck in India?
There was something else I did not mention either—I did not feel I could to an unmarried brother. For me, at least as bad as the conditions in which milliners worked was the attitude of some people to workers in the millinery trade and indeed in other dressmaking professions. Because we earned our living by selling our skills, there were those who thought we sold ourselves. For this reason I had asked my uncle to ensure that on the passenger list I appeared as ‘governess’ not ‘milliner.’ I was intent on bettering myself and would use the journey to do so.
The first time I could send a letter to my brother and uncle was from Gibraltar. By then we had been at sea six weeks and I had made friends. My principal friend was Mary Buchanan, with whom I shared a cabin. She was the wife of Lieutenant Buchanan, who had been some years an officer in the Indian army. I thought it most romantic that he had come back to England expressly to find a wife and had become acquainted with Mary’s brother, an officer in the same regiment as they travelled home. They spoke a great deal about their families as the voyage progressed, so that, as Mary put it: ‘By the journey’s end he was quite ready to fall in love with me as soon as we met, and my brother contrived to arrange that directly they reached Portsmouth.’
So they married before the end of his leave, having known each
other but three months and spent only one week as man and wife. So unlike me, she had a husband awaiting her in Madras and was able to help me a great deal by telling me all she knew of India and its customs and what might be expected of us there. I was able to be of assistance to her, too, when she began to suffer dreadfully from seasickness.
The first part of our journey was made surrounded by a thick mist and it felt very strange to be setting off for the unknown as we were, but with the visibility no more than the length of the boat and the fog horn sounding every few minutes. As the mist cleared away, the wind began to pick up, and the sailors told us that we should soon begin to feel the Atlantic rollers. When we did I was surprised to find that I was what the crew called ‘a good sailor’ and, though I was afraid of falling on the slippery decks and companionways, I was never affected in the stomach like poor Mary. For near weeks together she could keep no food down and grew so thin and pale that I feared she would die on the voyage, as many had before her. As we travelled south, the sea gradually became calmer and she began to be able to take the broths that I got the cooks to make from the salt meat they carried. Luckily they had gruel also, and Mary took a basin of thin gruel almost every day if I made it myself on the small stove in our cabin. If we left it to the cooks it was inedible, being either too thick or too full of lumps. We laughed a great deal over that gruel, dear Mary and I, and by the time we reached the Cape of Good Hope we had a very firm friendship, which lasted for the rest of her sadly short life.
I have thought of her on this present voyage also, especially when we were at the Cape and I took little Betsy shopping to buy bonnets and gowns so that we should look respectable when we reached England. I thought of how Mary and I had ventured out there, so pleased to have dry land under our feet again. How
we wondered at the strength of the sun, at the numbers of native people in the markets, and how she pondered over what present to buy for her new husband. Little did we know on that carefree day that the poor lieutenant would soon be dead in the horrors of the Black Hole of Calcutta, when so many white people were crowded into an airless dungeon by the natives and dozens were dead by morning, leaving Mary with two small girls. But then, I reflected, had that tragedy not happened, Mr Hancock and I would never have become acquainted with her second husband, Warren Hastings.
‘Mama, Mama,’ Betsy’s insistent voice called me from my reverie. ‘Papa says we have just seen the first English gull—oh look there, look there!’ she cried, running to the rail and pointing her chubby finger. ‘If we are soon to be in England, shall I not ask Diana to dress me in my new frock and bonnet?’
‘The little minx is ever concerned with her appearance—instruct her if you will, wife, that it is not becoming for an English lady as she is to be,’ said my husband. But he looked at her with an affectionate and indulgent eye as he was ever wont to do. He is a good man and I am fortunate to have him for a husband and no one could have been a better father to Betsy. Even if he suspects, and I am almost sure he does not, there has never been an atom of blame in his behaviour either to her or to me.
‘There is still a long way to go child,’ he went on. ‘You must learn patience as your Mama had to do. Come, I will take you below as it is time for Papa to change for dinner. Will you join us Philla, my dear?’ And he held out his arm to me in his old-fashioned, very courteous way.
‘No, you go with Betsy, I will come below presently.’
I needed a few more minutes to collect myself, as I had been deep in my thoughts about the first time I met my husband.
He was a business acquaintance of my uncle Francis who had arranged accommodation for me when I arrived in Madras and who would give me letters of introduction to English families with whom I might present myself as a potential governess.
On the voyage, though, I had confessed to Mary that I thought Mr Hancock was himself in need of a bride and that it was possible that he and my uncle had discussed, in the most delicate of terms of course, whether I might be suitable.
‘Oh my dear.’ said Mary excitedly. ‘You talk of
marriage being a romantic affair, but this is surely more so. Only consider, to come all this way to marry a man you have never set eyes upon—why it is the stuff of which those novels are made.’
One of the other travellers was a great reader and had whiled away the long voyage reading to herself and aloud to us from one of a stack of novels she had brought aboard. So we were by this time quite familiar with tales of innocent young girls finding themselves adrift upon the high seas with handsome pirates or in the Indies meeting merchants who turned out to be princes.
‘Well, it is not at all a settled thing you know,’ I said nervously. ‘My uncle was not explicit.’
Of course, he emphasised how everything depended on what Mr Hancock and I thought of each other.
‘I say only, my dear’—he laughed his rich laugh—‘the doctor is in want of a wife and would infinitely prefer an English one, even without a dowry, than to get himself involved in one of those native arrangements that—’ He stopped abruptly, realizing, perhaps, that reference to such ‘arrangements’ was not suitable for an unmarried lady. Though after six months on board ship, overhearing conversations and whispered confidences from the other ladies, some of whom had spent time in India before, I was quite familiar with the widespread practice among men who lived in India of taking a
native wife and knew that the problem of half-caste children was an acute one.
As I leaned upon the rail of the ship, I reflected how much more tolerant we had all become of such unions now—why even Mr Hastings, the governor-general himself, has half-caste nephews.
It was August 1752—the fourth to be precise—when our ship docked at Madras and I caught my first glimpse of Mr Hancock—he rarely used the title of doctor, though he was a fully trained and skilled surgeon. I could not pick him out among the crowd gathered on the jetty to see our arrival and, indeed, all I could think of was the oppressive heat—unlike anything I had ever known in my life. The heat and the noise—those were my vivid first impressions, together with the confusion, the people shouting, the smells. Oh it was all too exciting, too overwhelming. But then I saw a tall and rather melancholy-looking man approaching me. He took off his hat and bowed courteously. ‘Miss Austen?’ he enquired, and when I nodded and dropped a curtsey, he said, ‘Tysoe Saul Hancock at your service madam.’
To tell the truth, his appearance was a disappointment to me and when I presented him to Mary, who came over to make her farewells and to present me in turn to her handsome lieutenant, I was saddened to see the look of disappointment on her face, too. But as I took my leave of her, with many promises to ‘write at once and often’ I took comfort from how bereft I should have felt had Mr Hancock not been there to give orders to servants and to escort me to my lodgings. He had been in India for more than seven years and was fully conversant with all the many things a new arrival had to learn.
What I should have done without him I do not know, but as it was I was able to sit back in the carriage that had brought him to the harbour and take in the white buildings—how welcome to see
buildings after so many months at sea. There were green trees almost down to the white sand and the walls of the fort were visible in the distance. I was amazed to see how civilised the town was, with long tree-lined avenues and fine-looking houses. When I remarked on this with surprise, Mr Hancock, who had been sitting back watching my reactions, said dryly, ‘Why, did you expect us to be living as savages? My household contains thirty servants—perhaps more. I confess I have not totalled them recently.’