Eliza de Feuillide was born on 22 December 1761 in Calcutta, India, and christened Elizabeth Hancock, but affectionately called “Betsy.” She was the daughter of Tysoe Saul Hancock and Philadelphia Austen, sister to George Austen, Jane Austen’s father. However, even before Eliza was born controversy surrounded her.
There were rumors that she was the daughter of Warren Hastings, who was her godfather. He had gone to India to seek his fortune and become the British Resident in the Bengali capital of Murshidabad in 1758. He would go on to become the first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal, the head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, and thereby the first de facto Governor-General of India from 1774 to 1785.
There were several reasons why people thought that Hastings seemed to be a likely candidate as Eliza’s father. First, the Hancocks were on extremely friendly terms with Hastings, and, second, Betsy was named after Hasting’s dead daughter Elizabeth. There was also the fact that Philadelphia had been married for eight years without producing any children and so when she suddenly became pregnant it seemed highly probable that it was not Hancock’s child, which furthered the belief among many in Calcutta that Eliza had to be Hastings’ child.
Eliza was a cute child described as having tiny delicate facial features on a large moon-shaped face. As a toddler she was said to be a “fine little girl” or a “sweet little girl.” Furthermore, while living in India, everyone found her delightful and she entertained them as much as she was intrigued by an amiable young lady named Miss Ironside who played the guitar.
When Eliza was four, Hastings and the Hancocks left India believing they had enough money to live out their days in comfort back in England. Their return trip happened in January of 1765 when they boarded the HMS Medway, “a ship of war, and the passage was presumably granted as an act of grace; but Hancock mentions that he had to pay £1500 for the transport of his own and his wife’s possessions, so that the naval officer of the day was not averse from making an honest penny out of his guests.” Also, onboard was one of the Hancock’s servants as Philadelphia had been blessed to have four while in India: Dido, Diana, Silima, and Clarinda. It was Clarinda who was the most beloved and she the servant onboard when the Hancocks returned to England.
The ship carrying Hastings and the Hancocks docked in London in the summer of 1765. Their arrival happened a little over a year after Philadelphia’s brother George married Cassandra Leigh at the Walcot Church in Bath on 26 April 1764. After arriving in London, Hastings and the Hancocks found residences near each other. New acquaintances were also made. For instance, the Hancocks met Hastings’ sister Ann and her husband John Woodman, who lived on Cleveland Row, St. James. The friendship that developed between the Hancocks and the Woodmans became so close Hastings once remarked that the two families were like one and even sent joint letters to them. Moreover, the Woodman’s son was near the age of Betsy and for some time there were great hope between the families that their children might someday marry.
After the Hancocks returned to England, rumors continued to swirl that Philadelphia and Hastings had an affair and that Eliza was his child. If that was not bad enough, by 1768, Hancock concluded that the fortune he had returned with was inadequate to support his family in the style they were living. He came to the realization that to solve his financial crisis, he needed to make more money, and the only way to do that was to go back to India.
Hastings reached a similar conclusion once his own debts ballooned. In fact, Hastings likely recognized he had to return to India even earlier than Hancock because like the Hancock family he too had been living at fashionable addresses and spending far beyond his means.
The decision by Hastings and Hancock to go back to India was not an easy one. Nothing in the system allowed for furloughs for either military or civil service. This meant that if a man returned to Bengal, he did so of his own accord and at his own expense. Moreover, the man who found it necessary to sail to India again usually remained there until he made a fortune or until he died.
Philadelphia and Eliza remained in London while Hancock left to seek his fortune once again in India. During the time that Hancock was gone, Philadelphia focused all her attention on her daughter. The couple also decided that Eliza should have the best when it came to education and even though Hancock would waiver on this point, he would ultimately determine that Eliza’s education was a priority. He further decided that if her education was interrupted, she would never obtain any ‘Degree of Perfection’ as he maintained that could only be obtained in a child’s early years.
Having decided Eliza deserved the best education possible, Philadelphia kept her daughter busy learning French, practicing music, and studying “Arithmetick.” Philadelphia also devoted herself to finding Eliza marvelous tutors and obtaining for her the “best Writing Master.” In addition, while Hancock was saving money and living frugally everything purchased for Eliza was extremely costly or the most prized. This included a harpsichord for her music lessons that Hancock stated should be of the highest quality without its price being a consideration.
Unfortunately, despite Hancock’s attempts and desire to earn a fortune, he failed. He was often ill which made it difficult for him to survive in India. For instance, he suffered frequently from gout. He also had gravel, a disease that involves small stones forming in the kidneys that then pass through the ureters to the bladder and are expelled in urine. In addition, probably because he was often ill, he suffered continually with a pessimistic outlook on life and wrote many sad letters to his wife.
Eventually, poor suffering Hancock died, but before his death, Eliza received a generous gift from her godfather Hastings. This gift of £10,000 was placed in a trust and was to go to Eliza upon her parent’s death. Some people believe that because of the gift, it further indicates that Hastings was indeed Eliza’s father. Yet, if that is true, he never acknowledged it and when she died, he hardly recognized her passing.
By the time Hancock’s finances were finally settled, Philadelphia realized that she and 15-year-old Eliza could not afford to continue living in expensive London. The interest derived from the trust would allow Philadelphia and Eliza to live comfortably, although not extravagantly. Philadelphia had always been a spendthrift and this characteristic was not something she could easily change. Thus, she decided that after taking a brief tour of the continent, they would settle somewhere cheaper.
Where they settled was in cosmopolitan Paris. It was also there that Eliza met her future husband and become Eliza de Feuillide after marrying Jean-François Capot de Feuillide. Contemporaries described him as bold, captivating, and dashing with a reputation for being one of the handsomest men of his time. His father owned an estate that he passed on to his son upon his death, and Feuillide also possessed 5,000 acres known as “the marsh” near the village of Gabarret in south-western France, but Feuillide left the area to join a dragoon regiment. When Eliza met him, he had established himself as one of the dragoon’s finest officers and was serving as captain of the Queen’s Regiment of Dragoons. He also titled himself the Count of Feuillide even though he was no count and merely the son of a provincial lawyer, who served as mayor of Nérac.
Eliza was introduced to the Count as an heiress of immeasurable wealth because her mother had let it be known throughout Paris that they were connected to “la famille du fameux lord Hastings, ancient gouverneur de l’Inde,” which caused people to believe they would receive more money from Hastings. Yet, neither Feuillide or Eliza were as illustrious or rich as portrayed. He was not a count and her financial situation was good rather than great.
As to Feuillide’s financial status, when his father died in 1779, he did not receive the amount of land or wealth expected. Moreover, the 5,000-acre estate he owned was useless swampland that he had acquired because of his father’s position in the forestry and marshland department. To be of any value, it needed to be drained and converted to farmland and the Count did not have the money necessary to accomplish the task unless he married a wealthy Englishwoman.
Eliza solved his financial problems and he offered her the possibility of wealth and a title that would raise her status within society. Therefore, the couple married in late 1781 and the newly minted Eliza de Feuillide began leading an exciting life full of glittering balls, brilliant fetes, and illustrious events. Of her time in Paris, she wrote letters to her countrified cousin, Philadelphia Walter, known as Phylly, and provided her with all sorts of details. For instance, when Eliza saw Marie Antoinette she reported:
“The Queen is a very fine Woman, She has a most beautiful complexion, & is indeed exceedingly handsome; She was most elegantly dressed, She had on a corset & Petticoat of pale green Lutestring, covered with a transparent silver gauze, The petticoat & sleeves puckered & confined in different places with large bunches of roses an amazing large bouquet of White Lilac, The same flower, together with gauze, Feathers, ribbon & diamonds intermixed with her hair. Her neck was entirely uncovered & ornamented by a most beautiful chain of diamonds, of which She had likewise very fine bracelets; She was without gloves, I supposed to shew her hands, & arms, which are without exception the whitest & most beautiful I ever beheld.”
When Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s son, the dauphin, Louis Joseph Xavier François, was born on 22 October 1781 there were many celebratory events. Eliza attended some of these and of this memorable time she wrote to Phylly stating:
“Paris has been remarkably gay this year on account of the birth of the Dauphin. This event was celebrated by illuminations, fireworks, balls etc. The entertainment of the latter kind given at court was amazingly fine. The Court of France is at all times brilliant, but on this occasion the magnificence was beyond conception.”
Other letters to Phylly followed like one written to her in May of 1783 that mentioned Longchamps and how carriages and horseback riders appeared there just like they did in Rotten Row at Hyde Park. Of the Paris version of Rotten Row at Longchamps Eliza de Feuillide wrote:
“The Elegants or fashionable young men are in general either on horseback or in open carriages. The Queen & Royal Family are generally there & what much contributed to the beauty of the Shew this year several of the Princesses made their appearance in open Calashes drawn by six horses; the most elegant were the Duchess de Chartres Cousin to his Majesty & the Princess de Lamballe whose natural beauty does not want all the additions it had received on this occasion.”
Eventually, the exciting and lively experiences in Paris ended, and Eliza de Feuillide and her mother traveled to Nérac to join the Count, who was already busy draining his swampland as he had left months earlier. There Philadelphia and Eliza settled in until Eliza found herself pregnant and the Count decided the baby should be born in England. Eliza and her mother then undertook an arduous trip to England but unfortunately, despite leaving at least a month before the date of the baby’s expected birth, she delivered a baby boy at Calais on 25 June 1786. Eliza named him Hastings-François-Louis-Henri-Eugène, with his first name given in tribute to her godfather, Warren Hastings, and another reason people believe Hastings was likely her father.
Although appearing to be a robust and fat child, Hastings Jr. would soon be plagued by numerous health issues. He had a weak head, unusual eyes, and an inability to speak. He would also have fits, just like Jane’s Austen older brother George. However, unlike George who would be sent elsewhere to live, Hastings Jr. would remain with his mother and she would do everything possible to ensure he had a good life.
After the baby’s birth, Eliza, Philadelphia, and Hastings Jr. arrived in England and went straight to George Austen’s where Jane and her siblings would later recall Eliza’s grand entrance. It would be a good trip and although Philadelphia and Eliza would return to France, they would return a second time in 1789. At that time, Philadelphia had some business related to Eliza’s trust and although they expected the second trip to be short, it was not. Instead soon after their arrival the French Revolution broke out and fearful about the situation in France, they decided to delay their trip back to France.
While in England, Philadelphia began showing the first signs of breast cancer in April 1791. Treatments at the time varied and it was tough going for Eliza who could not imagine her mother dying. Eliza did everything possible to help her find a cure and to keep her mother’s spirits up as the illness progressed, but the situation was inevitable. Her mother died on Sunday, 26 February 1792 and was buried in the churchyard of St. John-at-Hampstead, London NW3.
Eliza was heartbroken with her mother’s passing. The Count came to join his wife, but his presence did little to brighten her spirits. Ultimately, however, the Count could not stay and was forced to return to France or risk losing his property and he left England for the last time. Once he was back in Nérac, unhappy peasants would drive him off his land and he would flee to Paris where he would go into business with a woman, who would be accused of treason and guillotined. Ultimately, because of his relationship with her he would also come under suspicion, be arrested, and convicted of bribery and attempting to corrupt a French citizen. He was then executed alongside other convicted criminals on 22 February 1794 by France’s “Le Rasoir National,” the guillotine.
Eliza had always been a flirtatious woman. She was also lively and outgoing and with an appealing manner that drew her plenty of admirers. Of course, she was sad about her husband passing, but as she had not married him for love, she was soon able to enjoy her life as a single widowed woman. Many men made their interest in her known and among the many admirers of Eliza were two of Jane Austen’s brothers, James and Henry.
James had married but his wife had unexpectedly died and as both he and his cousin Eliza were widowed and each a child, he thought that marriage might solve the problem of providing his daughter with a mother and Eliza’s son with a father. He proposed marriage to Eliza, but she said no. She also said no to Henry when he suggested marriage, although ultimately a few years later she changed her mind and agreed to become his wife.
Henry and Eliza married by special license on the last day of 1797. Although Eliza wrote to Phylly with all the particulars of the wedding, the letter was not preserved, and no one knows for sure the details. Henry’s sister Jane also provided no clues as to what happened at their nuptials. However, as to how everyone felt about the wedding between Henry and Eliza de Feuillide, it appears to have been mixed. Reports are that Mrs. Austen was not necessarily pleased, Jane appeared neutral, and Henry’s father George gave a generous £40 to his son’s regiment for feasting and celebration of the nuptials. George also seemed genuinely proud of his niece and new daughter-in-law because shortly after their marriage, a local squire remarked, “Mr. Austen has put a coronet on his carriage … because of his son’s being married to a French countess.”
Eliza found that her marriage to Henry was ideal in many ways. It provided few changes to her lifestyle as she could continue to live comfortably and she could flirt and have many admirers, something she considered a harmless diversion. In Eliza’s letter dated 16 February 1798 from Ipswich to Phylly she mentioned two gentlemen she was interested in, the “remarkably handsome” Captain Tilson and the married Colonel Lord Charles Spencer to whom she was greatly attracted because of his charm, mild manner, and superior breeding.
Over the years, Eliza de Feuillide would also prove to be an excellent, concerned, and caring mother. She always maintained a positive outlook on any accomplishment Hastings Jr. made and she spent much time and effort taking him to spas and bathing establishments to help his physical issues. She and her mother also taught him to speak and later to read. Still despite all the attention lavished on him he would never overcome his health difficulties and he would die in 1801 at the age of fifteen.
Eventually just like her mother, Eliza de Feuillide began to suffer from breast cancer. The first signs of the illness appeared about the time that Jane began writing Mansfield Park around 1811. However, it is unclear if Eliza was aware that she was suffering from breast cancer. In addition, soon after her marriage to Henry, the couple began to lead parallel lives with him leaving her alone for long periods while he fulfilled his military calling and then later after leaving the military often visiting his brother Edward’s Godmersham estate alone. Perhaps, the ill health of her son and then her own ill health contributed to their parallel lives.
During her marriage to Henry, Eliza was known to entertain on occasion. It was reported that when she did have parties, she attempted to recreate the type of party one might attend at Versailles but of course on a much smaller scale. Jane attended one such party that was mentioned in the papers and was noted by Jane in the following fashion:
“Our party went off extremely well. There were many solicitudes, alarms & vexations beforehand of course, but at last everything was quite right. The rooms were dressed up with flowers &c., 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 fil 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.”
Although Eliza had been the one to take care of her dying mother, Eliza found that she had to rely on her two French maids, Madame Bigeon and her daughter Madame Perigord, to take care of her when she fell ill. Eliza had hired them a few years after her husband’s death and during her illness she developed a close relationship with them. Because her illness had been long lasting, regular life continued for those around her and in February 1813, when Henry was yet away on another business trip, this time to Oxford, he received news that Eliza’s end was fast approaching. He therefore quickly returned to London stopping at Chawton on 21 April to pick up his sister Jane.
Eliza de Feuillide died four days later, on Sunday, 25 April 1813, at Sloane Street. Jane was reportedly at her bedside when she passed. Jane returned home a week later and after her departure, Eliza’s funeral was held. She was buried in the parish churchyard alongside her beloved mother and son. It was a small affair with neither James nor Edward attending. Henry, however, added his own thoughtful epitaph to her gravestone and although today it is faded, it once clearly stated:
“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.”
If you are interested in learning more about Eliza de Feuillide, note that my book on her will be out in late 2020 or early 2021. Stay tuned for more information.
-  Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine v. 175 (London: William Blackwood, 1904), p. 499.
-  A. M. Devert, “Le Marais de Gabarret et de Barbotan,” no. 340 (1970): p. 336; Bulletin de la Société de Borda
-  D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 46.
-  Ibid., p. 54.
-  Ibid., p. 57–58.
-  D. Nokes, Jane Austen: A Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 178.
-  D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 183.
-  N. Ennos, Jane Austen: A New Revelation (Manchester: Senesino Books Limited, 2013), p. 227.