Jane Austen’s family had connections with the highest echelons of the East India Company, and Company money likely paid for the publication of her novels—yet India is airbrushed from her novels. Why might this be, asks Catriona Luke…
Early in 1752 a vivacious but not entirely happy young woman joined the East India Company ship the Bombay Castle and began a six-month journey from England, around the coast of Africa, to India. Her name was Philadelphia, she was known as Phila, and being orphaned, she had trained as a milliner at the age of fifteen. Pretty, intelligent, but equally impecunious and vulnerable, she was part of the “Fishing Fleet” of young women who were sent out to India to provide English wives for East India Company husbands.
Also on board was Margaret Maskelyne, the future wife of Robert Clive (Clive of India), and with little else to do, the women formed a friendship. In Madras, where the Bombay Castle arrived in August 1752, Phila was married, effectively by contract, to an English surgeon and East India Company man, Tysoe Saul Hancock, some twenty years her senior.
Some forty years later, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a country parson in Hampshire began a short story entitled Catharine, or the Bower. The following passage tells the story of an orphan girl, given the character name Miss Wynne:
“The eldest daughter had been obliged to accept the offer of one of her cousins to equip her for the East Indies, and tho’ infinitely against her inclinations had been necessitated to embrace the only possibility that was offered to her, of a Maintenance; Yet it was one so opposite to all her ideas of Propriety, so contrary to her wishes, so repugnant to all her ideas of Propriety, so contrary to her Wishes, so repugnant to her feelings, that she would almost have preferred Servitude to it, had Choice been allowed her. Her personal Attractions had gained her a husband as soon as she had arrived in Bengal, and she had now been married nearly a twelvemonth. Splendidly, but unhappily married. United to a man double her own age, whose disposition was not amiable, and whose Manners were unpleasing, though his Character was respectable.”
The young woman who wrote this, just emerging from childhood, was Jane Austen. It was a direct account of her Aunt Philadelphia, her father’s sister, who had been sent off to India at the age of twenty-one.
What is so fascinating about it is the frankness on family matters that Jane Austen would never address with such openness again. Clear too from this family experience is the profound influence on Jane’s direction of travel which informed all her books: don’t allow yourself to be sold in marriage for society’s pleasure, don’t marry someone you don’t love, listen to your inner self and if all else fails remain unmarried. In an age of money, money, money and marriage, marriage, marriage, Aunt Phila’s experiences made Jane Austen a feminist, and a very careful one at that.
Jane Austen rarely refers to the Indian subcontinent in her novels. In her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, a character, Marianne Dashwood, speaks of the country in passing, “the climate is hot and the mosquitos are troublesome”, but that is about it. Mansfield Park is a story underpinned by the corrupt and vast wealth of the British in the West Indies which funded country houses back home—but no mention is made of Bengal.
These omissions are puzzling as Jane Austen’s writing is, as she described it herself, “that little bit (two inches wide) of ivory, in which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour”, or as she wrote to a niece, “3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on”. But her work is conspicuously silent about the major events of her time, such as the French Revolution of 1789, the war with England that increased with Napoleon’s hostilities and threats of invasion of England from 1793 until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 just two years short of Jane’s death. And she is particularly silent about India.
This is problematic because in 1811 when her first novels began to be published, the funding for this—£150, a vast sum, close to £10,000 today—came from her family’s and notably her brother Henry’s association with Warren Hastings. It was probably at its core Indian money.
Allow me to present another way to look at this. It was Indian opium, salt, and timber workers that brought Jane Austen’s novels to the world two hundred years ago. Her novels went on to become one of the world’s great literary legacies only because of the salt workers, the timber transporters, the opium poppy cutters of Bihar and Bengal.
The Warren-Hastings connection
Jane Austen had a phuppi, Aunt Philadelphia, her father’s sister, who had been sent off to India at the age of twenty-one. She was married to an English surgeon and East India Company man, Tysoe Saul Hancock, who was about twenty years her senior.
In 1759, Jane Austen’s aunt’s husband, Tysoe Saul Hancock, obtained a Company post at Fort William, Calcutta through the connection with Robert Clive. (Clive of India or the Commander-in-Chief of British India established the military and political supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal).
Mr Hancock went into a business partnership with Warren Hastings of the East India Company, trading salt, opium, carpets and rice for personal wealth. Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia had moved north from Madras first, and stayed in the Clive household in Calcutta for several months. In February 1760, the Clives, after a bankruptcy scandal, sailed for England. Margaret Clive kept in touch with Aunt Philadelphia, writing to her friend Major John Carnac on 16 September 1761, “I flatter myself your Opinion of my friends Mr & Mrs Hancock is the same as mine. I have indeed a great Regard for her & I am pleased to find by her Letter that you were so much attached to her Family, & thought my Voyage worth relating to her”.
Major John Carnac from Calcutta, in return, kept Margaret Clive informed of Phila in Calcutta. He wrote two months later, “Would You believe it, Madam, Mrs. Hancock is pregnant. The scandalous chronicle gives the credit thereof to Hastings . . .”
Warren Hastings, who would become Governor General of Bengal and then the most powerful man in India, was as far as Calcutta society concerned, the father of Philadelphia Austen Hancock’s child.
Warren Hastings’s first wife had died in 1759. His little daughter Eliza and his son George were about to be sent back to England for schooling. Philadelphia Austen Hancock’s daughter was born in December 1761 and christened Elizabeth. Just like Warren Hastings’s lost daughter, she was known as Eliza.
The greatest portrait painter of the late eighteenth century, Sir Joshua Reynolds, paints Warren Hastings, but he also receives a commission to paint Philadelphia, Eliza as a toddler, Clarinda her Indian ayah and Tysoe Saul Hancock.
The Austen-Hastings connection
The closeness of the Austen-Hastings family ties was even more incredible. In England, just after their wedding, the Rev George Austen (Jane Austen’s father) and his new bride (her mother) took care of Warren Hastings’s little son George, who had been sent to England. It seems not to have affected relations at all that little George Hastings caught a fever and died “of a putrid throat” in the Austen home in 1764. Aunt Philadelphia and cousin Eliza continued to be regular visitors to the Steventon rectory when Jane was growing up.
In 1771, when Warren Hastings was appointed governor of Bengal, he had settled £5000 on Eliza Hancock, as his “god-daughter” when she was just ten years old, and frequently sent money to Philadelphia. Eliza married a minor French noble in France before the Revolution and then on being widowed returned to England. The Hancock and Austen domiciles again became interchangeable.
The impeachment of Warren Hastings for corruption in 1785 and his eventual acquittal revealed his enormous wealth. In June 1797, Eliza had £10,000 which had been put in trust for her by Warren Hastings. She had it removed from the trustees, one of whom was Rev George Austen, and made available to her. Then on 31 December 1797, Eliza married her first cousin Henry, Jane Austen’s brother. Two years previously, Henry, at that time at Oxford, had written flatteringly to Warren Hastings after his acquittal and to thank him for “many instances of your kindness shown to me”. As Jane Austen well knew, it wasn’t just women who made compromises for financial reward.
Funding the novels
After their wedding, Eliza and Henry lived in grand style in Upper Berkeley Street, off Portman Square, later in Hans Place in Knightsbridge. Henry Austen, older than Jane by four years, and previously on an income as regimental paymaster and captain in the army of £300 per year, began to use both his military and East India contacts, including Warren Hastings to establish a bank, one branch in London and one in Alton in Hampshire. His financial affairs fluctuated wildly.
If anything, more puzzles flow from this. At the time of Henry and Eliza’s marriage, Jane had three novels in first draft written down. First Impressions, which became Pride and Prejudice, was begun in 1795, Sense and Sensibility in 1796, Northanger Abbey in 1798. It was 1811 before Henry and Eliza provided the funding of £150 to publish Sense and Sensibility privately, with Pride and Prejudice following in 1813. Their contacts took them so close to the top of society that when Emma was published in 1816 Henry had managed a royal patron for Jane: the Prince Regent asked that the book be dedicated to him (which it was, by his “obedient, humble servant the Author”). But why were they not published sooner?
It would be nice to think that there were aspects of Pride and Prejudice in its earliest draft that had the spirit and family detail of Aunt Phila’s being sent off into the marriage trade. It is tempting to think Jane Austen’s father and brother Henry bullied or insisted, “Jane, you must not mention India in your novels – think of our family connections”, or that when she “lop’d and crop’d” the manuscript of Pride and Prejudice for publication in 1812 it was to remove sensitive material. But with so much of her letters and journals destroyed at the end of her life by her family, there is no evidence for this.
On the other hand, for the best part of ten years, until 1809 when Jane settled at Chawton, the censorship practised by the Austen family after her death was more severe than at other times. We cannot know why there were such long gaps between the novels being first written and being published, but censorship has played a part in that.
What is clear is that Jane Austen found subtle ways to make her views come through her novels: the marriage markets operated just as pervasively in rural England as they did in India. In her novel Mansfield Park, the exploitation in the West Indies is deplored and therefore by extension the East India Company in India too. It is so difficult, for women and for men, to not do as society wishes.
Beneath the surface of her novels are the testing individual choices that women and men must make for their integrity and happiness, which can be so at odds with society’s expectations and politics. Jane Austen recognises that to be in society is to be a performer of many roles, and that for most people it is easier to go along with performance. Thinking for oneself is not only difficult to achieve, but actively threatening to society and its smooth running, and you are not going to be treated well for doing so.
Jane Austen, like many women of her time, had a tough life. Never being free, either of debt, or dependency or simply of the way things are, was something she shared with the workers of India whose hard labour lay behind the colonial finances that brought about the publication of her books. Not being free meant being compromised and owned in tangible and intangible ways.
Jane writes wearily in 1813 about the publication of Pride and Prejudice, “I suppose in the meantime I shall owe dear Henry a great deal of money for printing…”
Today, happily, no one remembers Henry, or her other brother Francis who became Admiral of the Fleet and was knighted, or Edward or James her older brothers, or Jane’s father the Rev George Austen, or her mother’s maiden name, or much cares about Cassandra, her sister.
We remember Jane because everything in the society and times she lived in rejected individuality and freedom of thought, and she had the bravery to believe in these things. And best of all, to write about them.