Henry Austen’s 1818 Biographical Notice for Jane Austen:
“Her power of inventing characters seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited. She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals.”
James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen:
“Some persons have surmised that she took her characters from individuals with whom she had been acquainted. …But surely such a supposition betrays an ignorance of the high prerogative of genius to create out of its own resources imaginary characters, who shall be true to nature and consistent in themselves…Her own relations never recognised any individual in her characters… She herself, when questioned on the subject by a friend, expressed a dread of what she called such an ‘invasion of social proprieties.’ She said that she thought it quite fair to note peculiarities and weaknesses, but that it was her desire to create, not to reproduce…”
File the following post in your folder marked “Some of the best evidence yet that HTA and JEAL both lied through their teeth, and protested WAY too much, when they penned the above propaganda that was so decisively crucial in creating The Myth of Jane Austen, in particular, the notion that her novels do not point to real people.
Today, you’re going to read a true Smoking Gun, that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jane Austen, in Sense & Sensibility, her first published novel, hid, in the plain sight of her family, a savagely satirical portrait of the real life—both public and private---not only of Warren Hastings, but, to make the allusion unavoidable to everyone in her family, also of his nefarious right hand man in India!
Those of you with strong knowledge of modern scholarship about JA’s family, whether through reading biographies, or reading along in Austen-L, Janeites, and/or my blog, will already be aware of the longstanding, scandalous theory that Eliza (Hancock de Feuillide) Austen, JA’s cousin and wife of Henry Austen, was the illegitimate daughter of the major public figure Warren Hastings.
The most fervent denier of this theory has of course been the (re)doubtable Deirdre Le Faye, but I think it fair to say that the theory has acquired a large and increasing pool of subscribers in recent years. And at least some of those subscribers, including myself, also believe that the tale of the two Elizas—especially the younger illegitimate Eliza--in S&S is in part based on that very same real life subtext. I.e., JA chose to include this real-life open secret, that prudish propriety would have dictated be ignored at all costs, in her first published novel, and to put the theme of illegitimacy front and center, and to connect it firmly, to Colonel Brandon.
In support of that core thread of allusion, there has also been in more recent years a parallel track of theorizing, in which Colonel Brandon is seen as a representation of Warren Hastings in regard to Hastings’s very famous impeachment trial during the 1790s, for misconduct by him during his lengthy tenure in Bengal (India).
Most notable in that regard have been:
The 1998 book Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History by Gideon Polya; and
The 2013 article by my good friend Linda Robinson Walker, “Jane Austen, the Second Anglo-Mysore War, and Colonel Brandon’s Forcible Circumcision: A Rereading of Sense and Sensibility”: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol34no1/walker.html
The smoking gun I bring forward today fills in a heretofore unrecognized large piece in the jigsaw puzzle of JA’s allusion to Warren Hastings in S&S, it being something that, in hindsight, I ought to have recognized back in 2010 when I wrote, in these two posts about that allusion….
…the following: “…Lady Middleton is the key because, during Warren Hastings’s never-ending impeachment trial, the leading “supporting actor” throughout—mentioned several dozen times by Sheridan, for all manner of chicanery, cruelty, and depravity--was Hastings’s right-hand man—who in essence played Christopher to Hastings’s Tony Soprano in regard to the complex plot that Hastings was accused of—was a gentleman by the name of Middleton! “
What it never dawned on me to check till yesterday was a lead that was staring me (and, for that matter, everyone familiar with details of JA’s residence from 1809-1817 at Chawton Cottage, just down the road from the Chawton Great House) right in the face, i.e., that the tenant of Chawton Great House from 1808-1812 was a man named….”John Middleton”!
Was it possible, I wondered, that the John Middleton who lived in Chawton while JA lived there, with his daughters and sister in law whom JA mentions in her letters, was somehow related to the Mr. Middleton who was the notorious “star” of Warren Hastings’s sensational, OJ-like trial while JA was a young teenager?
Certainly there was NOTHING in Le Faye’s Biographical Index entry for John Middleton in her edition of JA’s letters: “JOHN MIDDLETON: (1755-1826). Mr. Middleton seems to have had no fixed home or estate of his own, but moved constantly from one rented property to another throughout his life. He was at Hinton Ampner and Twyford in Hampshire, and Weybridge in Surrey; at Chawton Great House 1795 and again 1808-1813; and finally at Hildersham House, Cambridge 1824-6. Married 1793 Charlotte Beckford (d. 1803) and had six children….His wife’s sister, Miss Maria Beckford, lived with him as his hostess.”
I was already looking at the real life John Middleton at Chawton, in the aftermath of researching my most recent post about the connections between Fanny Knight’s young suitor Mr. Wildman and the notorious super-rich slavery heir William Beckford, equally famous for having written the Orientalist-gothic novel Vathek:
As I speculated about the likelihood that JA could have covertly gathered all sorts of data about Beckford from his female first and second cousins, with whom she socialized, I became curious to know more about the father of the family, Mr. Middleton, and that’s when the question popped into my head, to wonder whether this was yet another situation where Le Faye, whether through ignorance born of a negligent (for a biographer) lack of curiosity, or through intentional omission of biographical data she knew, had failed to provide to Janeites, who might, like me, have noticed the suspicious TRIPLE coincidence of last name among a major character in S&S, an intimate neighbor of JA while publishing S&S, and a real life figure who was so prominent in the Hastings impeachment trial which had already been identified as a source for S&S.
Well, as I’ve already given away in my Subject Line and introductory comments, you’ve surely guessed by now that my hunch proved accurate. It took a bit of digging online, but eventually, after a day’s repeated attempts with a variety of search terms in Google, I came upon the following 1995 publication: Some Indian or related bookplates by the late antiquarian Brian North Lee, at ppg. 53-4: “John Charles Middleton was ' Memory' Middleton 's second brother, and he also served in the East India Company….The estate [Townhill] was purchased by the wealthy Nathaniel Middleton whose name is well known in association with the impeachment of Warren Hastings. Making Townhill his seat, the great potentate—often spoken of as the Nabob—expended vast sums. On the decline of the Middleton fortunes as sudden as their rise, the property was sold to William Gater. John Charles Middleton resided at Shawford House, Twyford, and later at Chawton Manor, which until 1812 'was let to the Middletons', according to Marghanita Laski's JA and her World (P 69)…”
So, ironically (but typically of the extraordinarily Balkanized state of Austen studies over the years), the little-noted, late Austen scholar/biographer Marghanita Laski, 45 long years ago, noted in passing that the John Charles Middleton who rented Chawton Manor was in fact the younger brother of the Nathaniel Middleton who was, along with the aptly named “Impe” Hastings’s nefarious minion in Bengal, whose name Sheridan mentioned about 75 times in his famously eloquent and widely read closing argument in the Hastings impeachment trial!
I.e, JA’s ageing neighbor, the squire who rented Chawton Manor from JA’s brother Edward (not only from 1808-12, but also in 1796 as well) was, as a young man, up to his neck in the grievous misconduct that had resulted in the most famous English court case of JA’s youth!
Now, doesn’t that put a whole different spin on JA’s decision, as an author, to give the name “John Middleton” to the character in S&S who is intimately connected, in so many mysterious ways, to Colonel Brandon (aka Warren Hastings)? What do you think of Henry Austen’s and JEAL’s protesting so much about JA never writing about real people? Especially when you think about how Henry Austen was known to have sucked up to Warren Hastings bigtime? And especially when you think about the myriad personal connections between Warren Hastings and the Austen family, many of them involving shadowy goings on with the movement of children back and forth between families?
The mind of any curious Janeite must simply reel at the thought that Jane Austen KNEW Hastings’s right-hand man personally—especially when that same man was ALSO directly connected (via marriage) to one of the OTHER most notorious men in all of England, William Beckford.
I could expand upon many of the points I have made, above, but I’ve gone on long enough, and I am eager to hear reactions, especially from anyone reading this who has heretofore believed that scholars like myself were overreaching in claiming the existence of covert allusions by JA that her family would most definitely NOT have approved of!
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P.S.: For those who enjoy tracing the history of insights and ideas, Polya came close in 1998, as I did in 2010, to connecting the dots I connected above:
“The connections between Warren Hastings and India in this novel extend to the names, conduct and locations of some of the characters. While "Middleton" is the name of the Austens' neighbour at Chawton who rented Chawton House from Edward, it is also the name of Warren Hastings' associates in Bengal, the brothers Samuel and Nathaniel Middleton.”