What do we know of Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, other than the fact she became Henry Austen’s wife?
Austen’s sister in marriage was born in Calcutta, India, on 22 December 1761 to her British parents, Philadelphia Austen (sister of Jane Austen’s father, George) and Tyson Saul Hancock, a physician with the East India Company. Eliza Hancock was, therefore, first cousin to the Austen siblings. Philadelphia had traveled to India in January 1752 with the specific purpose of finding a husband. She had no dowry, and so she met and married Hancock within six months of her arrival in the country. The couple had no children through the first 8 years of their marriage. It was only after the couple changed residences and took the acquaintance of Warren Hastings, the future Governor General of India, that Mrs. Hancock found herself with child. Many scholars believe that Hastings was Eliza’s father, but at any rate, he did serve as Eliza’s godfather. He presented her with £10,000 as a trust fund.
Mother and daughter traveled to England in 1768, while Hancock remained in India to finance their future. Unfortunately, Hancock died in 1775. Philadelphia took Eliza to live in Paris in 1777 for it was cheaper to live there than in England. In Paris, Eliza experienced a social coupe of sorts. She was known to have attended parties at the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Eliza enjoyed the lifestyle offered to her in Paris. She was known to be a great horsewoman, and she openingly expressed a passion for hot air ballooning in her letters to her cousins. At age 20, Eliza met and married a French Army captain if the Dragoons, Jean-François de Feuillide, who eventually became a French count.
Eliza was traveling to England by ship when she gave birth to Hastings de Feuillide, who was known to have seizures and learning difficulties. This was her second pregnancy, the first ending with a miscarriage. Eliza’s cousin Phylly Walter wrote in a letter, “[Hastings] has had another fit; we all fear very much his faculties are hurt; many people say he has the appearance of a weak head.” (Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 85) He was slow to learn to walk and to speak. Some wonder of Eliza’s maternal instincts for she once referred to the child as “my wonderful Brat.” More than likely, Eliza experienced the frustration and the feeling of hopelessness when confronted with her son’s seizures.
Eliza, the baby Hastings, and Philadelphia arrived at Steventon to mark Christmastide 1786. An eleven-year-old Jane found much to admire in this sophisticated cousin. It is said that Henry Austen flirted with his cousin, who was ten years his senior. When Eliza’s husband was guillotined in 1794, Eliza, Hastings, and Philadelphia fled the reign of terror.
Eliza did not play the role of “grieving widow.” Instead, she defied social expectations. She acted as her own woman, despite suffering social disdain. Eliza’s cousin Phylly Walter said of Eliza, “Poor Eliza must be left at last friendless & alone. The gay and dissipated life she has so long had so plentiful a share of has not ensured her friends among the worthy; on the contrary many who otherwise have regarded her have blamed her for her conduct and will now resign her acquaintance. I have always felt concerned and pitied her thoughtlessness.” (Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin,’ London, British Library, 2002)
Eliza regained some of her reputation when she married Henry Austen in 1797.
Jane Austen appeared in awe of Eliza’s worldliness, and they shared a biting insight into the foibles of others. Eliza was known to be a bit outlandish, but she was also noted for her optimism, her caring nature, and her intelligence. Her son Hastings died in 1801, assumably from epilepsy. Eliza passed after a long illness on 25 April 1813.
Many think that the amorous and amoral Lady Susan Vernon is based on something of Eliza Austen. If nothing else, the rambunctious Eliza “introduced” the vicar’s daughter to the “puzzling matter of sexual attraction.” (Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life. New York, Vintage, 1999)
Cousin Eliza, the incurable flirt who inspired Jane Austen from The Telegraph
Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen from Madame Gilfurt
Eliza (nee Hancock, then de Feuillide) Austen: kindly, strong, deep feeling and thoughtful from Reveries Under the Sign of Austen