THE STORY JANE AUSTEN WOULDN'T DARE ATTEMPT
Life Imitates Art: Jane Austen wrote extensively about love and tragedy
Sunday September 25,2011
By Sophia Hillan
WHEN Jane Austen’s niece Anna began to try her hand at writing, her aunt gave her two pieces of advice.
One was to keep to two or three families in a country village, and the other was to avoid writing about Ireland. ‘You know nothing of the manners there,’ she told her. She could never have guessed that three of Anna’s cousins, Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight - May, Lou and Cass - would live out their lives there, through famine, bitter land wars and political upheaval, or that they would lie buried, far from England, in almost forgotten graves. She might have been more surprised still to discover that they would live out the plots of her novels, and find themselves in situations which only Trollope, Thackeray or the Bronte sisters would have dared tackle. I have had the privilege of telling their story, with its uncanny echoes of Jane Austen’s plots, in May Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland.
There was no need to write it as a novel, for the facts of their lives are stranger than fiction. Yet, theirs was a story played out far from the Regency world where these girls grew up, expecting to live a calm and ordered life in England. Their father, Edward, Jane’s older brother, was more fortunate than his siblings in being adopted by wealthy relatives, and his eleven children grew up comfortably between his country estates in Kent and Hampshire. A bank failure in 1816 then caused Edward to suffer heavy losses, as Cassandra Jane, the youngest of the sisters, realized when she met her real life Mr Darcy, in 1827.
Like Elizabeth Bennet, she was twenty: he, a handsome Irish nobleman named Lord George Hill, was twenty-five. Jane had been dead for ten years: yet here was one of her plots unfolding. They fell in love: he proposed, and she accepted. Then his mother, the formidable Lady Downshire, forbade the match. ‘No money: all charms!’ she is reported to have said. Jane Austen knew that a young man, however handsome, needed money to survive in the world. Lord George, a career soldier, had charm, education and looks, but, as a posthumous son, very little money, and none if he offended his mother. It took her eight years to relent, during which time, just like Anne Elliott in Persuasion, Cass almost married someone else. In the end it was Jane’s sister Cassandra Austen, who persuaded Cass, sitting in Chawton Cottage where Jane had written her finest work, that she must not marry the wrong man. No sooner had she done so than Lord George himself, to everyone’s delight, arrived in person at Chawton Cottage, and renewed his proposals. Everything seemed perfect again. Or, was it? Cass married Lord George, in a grand society wedding at St George’s, Hanover Square, on a blustery October day in 1834. It should have been joyous. Yet, the weeks and days before, full of whirling autumn storms, rainswept journeys and catastrophes - like the burning down of the Houses of Parliament - make it seem more like a tale by Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens than Jane Austen. Cassandra ‘looked like a victim’, her brother Charles wrote, ‘as if she was going to be buried alive’.’ It was an inauspicious beginning. As Jane Austen hinted at Persuasion’s end, no-one can guarantee happiness in dangerous times, and these young people were about to leave for Ireland, where dangerous times were a given. Eight years later Cassandra died, suddenly, following the birth of her fourth child. What was Lord George to do? In Persuasion, Jane Austen has Anne Elliot suggest that a man’s love does not survive the death of the beloved. Captain Wentworth indignantly asserts the opposite. It seemed that Anne was right: after Cassandra died in 1842, it fell to Lou to leave her family, move to Ireland and bring up her sister’s four children. By 1847, she and Lord George were married. It was not straightforward: under Lord Lyndhurst’s Act of 1835, marriage to a deceased wife’s sister was forbidden, and they had to marry abroad. In 1851, by which time Lou had a two year-old son, born when she was nearly forty-five, the case was discussed in the House of Lords. Poor Louisa, bookish and reserved, had to endure the torture of an investigation to establish whether she and her family were indeed acceptable to society. George Eliot or Anthony Trollope might have tackled that: hardly Jane Austen. Marianne - May - the third of the sisters, was thought by the family to be ‘very like poor Aunt Jane’. Slight and dark, sharing her aunt’s clear eye and lively wit, she was considered ‘bewitching beautiful’ by her cousin James Edward Austen Leigh, Jane’s first biographer. Still, someone, had to look after the family’s widowed father, Edward, when the two eldest girls, Fanny and Lizzy, married so, like Jane, she was relegated at nineteen to the role of spinster aunt, dependent on the men of her family. She ran her father’s great household, without complaint, for over thirty years. Then, when her father died, her brother, like Sense and Sensibility’s John Dashwood, required vacant possession. Marianne lost the only home she had ever known. Over the next thirty years she moved from brother to brother as housekeeper until, in 1884, almost eighty-three, with no more brothers to look after, she crossed the Irish Sea to care for Louisa, remaining in Ireland until her death in 1895. She is buried beside her sister Lou, on a windswept hill in Donegal, one headstone leaning towards the other. Lord George, however, is not there. Like Captain Wentworth, he remained in his heart true to his first love, Cassandra. They were buried together, ten miles away: Louisa lay alone until Marianne joined her. Jane’s nieces, virtually forgotten for so long, deserve to be remembered in their own right as the clever, brave, pioneering women they were.
Dr Sophia Hillan was formerly Assistant Director at Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies. Her short fiction is in The Faber Book Of Best New Irish Short Stories (2005) and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4.