Jane Austen’s Cousin: The Outlandish Countess de Feuillide
The subtitle of this book is “The Outlandish Countess de Feuillide,” and outlandish she was to her neighbors in the Austens’ home area. Elizabeth “Eliza” Hancock was Jane Austen’s first cousin, and Jane’s older brother Henry was Eliza’s second husband. Geri Walton’s premise is that Eliza greatly influenced Jane’s writing, particularly in Jane’s creation of some of her pivotal female characters.
Born in 1761, Eliza was born in India. Her parents, Tysoe and Philadelphia Hancock, were intimate friends with the Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, and rumor had it that Hastings was Eliza’s real father. Raised in luxury in India, Eliza grew into a headstrong beauty; when Tysoe Hancock died, Philadelphia Austen Hancock and Eliza lived in England with and near the Austen family. Philadelphia soon took her daughter across the Channel, to live in the opulent society of pre-Revolution France. Eliza fell in love with and married Jean-Francois Capot de Feuillide, who styled himself Count. The couple lived happily enough until the Revolution; fortunately, Eliza was in England when Jean-Francois was guillotined. After her mourning period ended, Eliza lived a highly social life in England, and wound up marrying Henry Austen.
Eliza and Jane apparently were close friends, and Eliza’s brilliant background in India and France delighted Jane. While I’ve read Austen’s novels, I’d never heard of Eliza and was a bit doubtful about the author’s premise when I started the book. However, Geri Walton’s extensive research and clear fondness for her subject convinced me of her conclusions. While I didn’t find Eliza all that outlandish, it’s clear that the Divine Jane Austen really was influenced in her writing by her cousin’s much more exciting life. For that, readers owe the Outlandish Countess a great debt, and I’m glad to see Eliza finally getting a biography of her own.