Jane Austen’s paternal aunt Philadelphia Austen Hancock (1730-92) is one of the most fascinating and understudied characters in the extended Austen clan.
Like her younger brother, the Rev. George Austen, father of our beloved novelist, Philadelphia was orphaned in early childhood; unlike him, she had no male patron interested in sponsoring her education and smoothing her path to respectable middle-class status.
Instead, she was apprenticed to a milliner at fifteen, and seven years later, she set sail for India, where a young Englishwoman with no fortune beyond her pretty face had a chance of finding a husband among the expatriate employees of the East India Company. Her gamble succeeded: five months after arriving, she married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a company surgeon some nineteen years her senior.
It was nearly nine years into their marriage that the Hancocks welcomed their first and only child, Elizabeth – known as Betsy in childhood and, to generations of Janeites, as Jane Austen’s glamorous older cousin (and eventual sister-in-law) Eliza de Feuillide. Even before Eliza’s birth, spiteful rumors circulated that her biological father was not Philadelphia’s husband but the powerful, charismatic, and recently widowed Warren Hastings, a top official of the East India Company.
Was it true? Who knows? As my mother likes to say, I wasn’t under the bed. What we do know is that all three Hancocks remained on good terms with Hastings, who became Eliza’s godfather and the namesake of her only child.* Eventually, the Hancocks sailed back to London, where Philadelphia and Eliza remained even after Tysoe Saul returned to India three years later.
Sometime during their London sojourn, however, it appears that the Hancocks engaged the illustrious Joshua Reynolds to paint a portrait of their little family, along with their much-loved nanny, Clarinda, whom they had brought with them from India.
Or so argue English literature scholar Charlotte Mitchell and her collaborator, Gwendolen Mitchell, in a compelling Times Literary Supplement article published last year but only now coming to my attention. Sleuthing through East India company archives, Austen family letters and Reynolds papers, the Mitchells convincingly deduce that the subjects depicted in a 1760s-vintage painting now hanging in a Berlin museum have been misidentified as “George Clive and his family.” In fact, they claim, the painting really shows the Hancock household.
We still don’t have a definitive portrait of Jane Austen herself. But this discovery helps us put new life in the story of her resourceful and complicated family.
* Hastings de Feuillide -- Eliza’s son by her first husband, a French count who was guillotined during the Revolution – died at the age of fifteen, after a lifetime shadowed by illness and, possibly, by mental or physical disability.