Saturday, September 20, 2014

On Tysoe Hancock in The Austen Papers

On the Jane Austen lists, a handful of us are reading The Austen Papers, the Austen family letters and documents retrieved and published by Jane Austen's great-great nephew, Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. I find these papers a rich trove of information for understanding Jane Austen within a wider social context than that of her family of origin. Right now, we are up to the letters Jane's uncle by marriage Tysoe Hancock wrote from India, primarily to his wife, Philadelphia, and to his daughter Eliza or Betsy.

Eliza Hancock

Philadelphia was Jane's aunt, the sister to her father. While falling short of spelling it out, the letters make obvious what most Jane Austen scholars have already surmised: the wealthy and powerful Warren Hastings, not Hancock, was Eliza's father.

Hancock wrote these letters in the early 1770s, in the years before Jane Austen's birth. Jane later became close with Eliza, who ended up married to Jane's brother Henry.

I include some remarks I made on the lists about the letters Hancock wrote from 29 March 1772 to 27 February 1773. He lived in India at the time; Philadelphia and Eliza (also called Betsy) lived in England. The family was deeply in debt, but Hancock, driven by money, couldn't seem to stop spending and insisted that Betsy have the best of everything. I am grateful for Hancock's candor and the window it opens on how people in Austen's milieu made--or didn't make-- money. He is possiby more to be pitied than scorned: he is caught in India in a culture of systemic injustice. The pursuit of money makes him miserable, but he can't think beyond a paradigm that values money above all else, even human life: In my last post, I wrote about the mass starvation caused by British East India Company policy, in which 10 million Bengalis died.

An idealized portrait of the British in India by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810).
Zoffany actually visited India on occasion, but lived mostly in England

My comments are below. 

Ellen Moody has noted the lewdness of the garters story Hancock shared with Miss Freeman. Miss Freeman was an older spinster whose family helped raised Philadelphia, and who sent Hancock a frugally made pair of garters. Hancock doesn't repeat this lewd garter story to his wife.

 In Hancock's telling, at a party of his, women apparently wanted to tie him up to his bed with the garters. Why tell this story to Miss Freeman?  He follows this story with a joke to Miss Freeman that again strikes an off note, teasingly reminding her that her "flattery" of him doesn't make him believe she has "thrown aside the Courtier." Miss Freeman, on the other hand, knows how to say what he wants to hear, for he tells her he hopes Eliza is "what you describe Her."

Earlier,  on receiving the handmade, frugal garters, Hancock had rhapsodized to Philadelphia, wishing he had economized, as Miss Freeman still does, years ago (which has all the persuasiveness of Donald Trump saying he'd wished he'd joined an ashram). 

As for Betsy, the letters continue the admonishments that she be the person he wants her to be: accomplished, musical, beautiful, always deserving "the good opinion" of her friends. In this, he shares similarities with the parents of Jesse in Breaking Bad, for those of us who have watched the series. Jesse's upper middle class parents want to produce perfectly programmed upper middle class children, sons who play the piano and go to college. However, Jesse's parents lack any emotional connection to their sons, merely robotically repeating a middle class script that has no relation to the reality of their children's lives. Hancock is equally ludicrous in wanting Eliza not be herself but a manufactured object. Of course, as we have noted before, he is Midas. Lucky for Betsy/Eliza, she had a humane mother. 

Hancock writes a masterful letter telling Philadelphia that Hastings has replaced her with the pretty, vivacious, 26-year-old German, Mrs. Imhoff. While this could not have been good news for a man whose chief sources of revenue seem to have been pimping his wife and sponging off her rich uncle Francis, he doesn't altogether seem to mind that she's been displaced. By December 11, the buy off has been sent in the form of 40,000 rupees or 5,000 pounds (about $500,000) for Betsy from Hastings. Hancock anxiously insists that this amount be kept secret--Philadelphia is to suggest a token gift for Eliza. I imagine Hancock still trying to keep Eliza's parentage secret.

Warren Hastings

 Hancock shares similarities with Mr. Imhoff, the new favorite's husband, a painter of miniatures who, according to Hancock, couldn't make it as a solider. Imhoff was possibly physically impaired in some way, if Hancock's comments about the failure at soldiering functions as coded language. Possibly he was gay--as possibly Hancock was (no children). Did Hastings have an eye for vulnerable men with pretty wives--men who couldn't or wouldn't make the situation messy, want a duel or threaten him?

We hear of an apparently lost letter in which Hancock describes India to Philadelphia. I imagine it as a grim post-famine picture. We do have another forceful letter telling her in no uncertain terms to keep herself and Betsy away. He also says he has no idea of the state of his debts and says this "embarrasses" him "very much." How much easier it all is to be far from the people who could cause you to feel acute humiliation in person.

Finally, Hancock writes several letters about Mr. Imhoff's son, who is coming to England to deliver the money to Eliza. Mr. Imhoff must be much older than his 26-year-old wife if his son can travel independently and deliver money. Hancock wants Philadelphia to be helpful to this son.

I will say I appreciate Hancock's candor, which offers unvarnished insights into how upper class English society functioned. How close Jane Austen was to this world of corruption that ranged from ruthless colonial exploitation of native peoples to profiting through the extramarital sexual liaisons of one's wife!  We see more glimmers of this world in Austen's juvenilia, however, than in the novels, by which time the corruption is carefully submerged, but not forgotten.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

India and Austen

Much attention in the Austen world has been lavished on the West Indian slave plantations that financed wealthy families like the Bertrams in Mansfield Park. Less attention has been paid to Jane Austen's proximity, via close relatives, to the ruthless exploitation of native peoples in India.

In The Austen Papers, Austen's uncle, Tysoe Hancock, mentions the Bengal famine of 1770 in a letter of 7 March 1770 to his wife Philadelphia, Jane Austen's aunt:

"The diseases which have been and continue to be very fatal here are chiefly owing to putrefaction occasioned by the prodigious number of dead bodies lying in the streets and all places adjacent. This mortality is the effect of a most terrible famine which had half depopulated Bengal."

The Bengal famine, probably caused by British East India Company policies.

Hancock is too focused on his own not inconsiderable woes, including a long bout of sickness amid the stench of rotting corpses, ceaseless financial worries, and fear he would be "perpetually banished" to India to put the famine in context--and he probably knew little of the context.

The Bengal famine killed 10 million Indians and caused vast sections of Bengal to go back to jungle because of depopulation. The British East India Company's policies of forcing farmers to plant indigo rather than food crops, raising rents fivefold, which forced farmers to plant opium poppies rather than food, and forbidding the "hoarding" of rice largely caused or exacerbated the famine. The company did little to respond to the crisis. 

During the famine, Warren Hastings was the first governor-general of British India, a powerful position. He probably fathered Eliza, Jane Austen's first cousin and friend. Philadelphia,  Eliza's mother, was Jane's father's sister.

Warren Hastings. We wish he had been kinder to the Indian people. 

Hastings treated Philadelphia and Eliza generously, at one point bestowing 10,000 pounds on them, roughly a million dollars in today's money. He also, among other acts of generosity, provided Hancock with diamonds he could send to Philadelphia to sell to offset expenses. 

Eliza Hancock

Hancock wasn't the only Englishman who arrived in India at great risk to seek a fortune. The pressures on Hastings to provide not just sustenance but wealth for this English population must have been intense.

Yet at what cost to the Indian people, who were starved en masse in the process? 

If Hastings is a hero in the Austen family drama, not so much in India. There, Hastings engaged "violent" tax collecting after 1771. This resulted in revenues earned by the East India Company that were higher in 1771 than in 1768. 

It is chilling to think how Hastings got the money he bestowed on Philadelphia and Eliza--and in what close proximity Eliza was to Jane Austen. None of this was their fault. We live in the world we are given, and Austen was born into a privileged place in a world of systemic injustice. And yet living on the peripheries of a glittering society in which vast wealth poured into a few laps from all over the globe, Jane often felt her relative poverty. Ironies pile upon ironies. 

Maybe one less crystal chandelier and instead some rice for the starving Indians?

One thinks of the line from Great Expectations that "some must live rough that other might live fine." One wishes that the English upper classes of Austen's time could have lived less lavishly so that many others might have lived. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Jane Austen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This may be the first blog post ever to mash together Jane Austen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but in honor of both my upcoming Bonhoeffer book and my favorite English author, I write about some of the similarities between the two. 

What could an early nineteenth century English woman novelist with no political involvement  have in common with a twentieth century German theologian executed for his part in conspiring against Hitler? Even I was surprised at the number of parallels:

Both probably had bouts of depression.

Both Dietrich and Jane had a serious streak and periods of depressions (or so has often been assumed about Austen in the years after the family moved to Bath.) Bonhoeffer wrote of spells of accidie or dejection. 

Both were the second-to-youngest in close knit families of eight children. 

This image, probably not of the Austens, though the possibility has been raised, shows a close knit gentry family of Jane Austen's era. Only four  children are in this, casting doubt on its authenticity: Why would the Austens leave the other children out? If it is the Austens,  Jane would be the girl on the center left, her arm raised in the air. 

An idealized family portrait shows all eight Bonhoeffer children gathered around  their mother in 1911 or 12. Dietrich is the blond boy standing with his arm on the table. The father is not in this photo but was very much the paterfamilias.

Both were talented pianists. Bonhoeffer's family thought he might pursue a career in music before he turned to theology.

Austen's piano. 

This shows a Bechstein piano of 1920s vintage, of the sort that might have travelled with Dietrich to London and later Finkenwalde seminary. Bonhoeffer made a special effort to have the piano removed before the Gestapo closed Finkenwalde. The wife of the owner of the Bechstein company supported Hitler early on, introducing him to polite society in Berlin and Munich and wishing he were her son. That the Bonhoeffers owned these pianos (purchased prior to Hitler's ascent) show the complications of German life and politics. 

Both were exceptionally close to a sister. We know of Jane and Cassandra’s lifelong devotion. Likewise, Dietrich remained extraordinarily close to his twin sister Sabine. Though Sabine and Dietrich necessarily developed independent lives as adults, arguably the greatest rupture in his life was her marriage and removal from the family of origin. This left him groping for almost a decade for  "a ground to stand on." Being cut adrift led him first to Spain and then to a transformative year at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Later in life, Bonhoeffer wrote that Sabine was one of the two people in the world--the other Eberhard Bethge--who seemed entirely real to him.

Dietrich and the darker-haired Sabine. We have no portrait of Jane and Cassandra together.

Both had a sibling tragedy, Jane in her older brother George, who was mentally disabled, and Dietrich when his brother Walter was killed in WWI after only two weeks at the front.

Both came from families that nurtured their talents and both maintained strong relationships with siblings all their lives. For both, the necessary adult breakup of the family of origin as siblings married was devastating.

Both were good with children. Some of the most delightful images of Austen from her nephew's memoir, and her own letters, depict her joy in a good slide on the ice with her nephews or engaging with her nieces and nephews in lively games and stories. Bonhoeffer shone as a youth minister in Barcelona who grew the youth program from one to 40 students. In Berlin, he worked as a youth pastor in a poor neighborhood and former students remember him taking them to his family's vacation home in the Harz mountains --a great treat for kids who never got to leave Berlin. 

Both had a close friend who was--or could have been--the replacement for the beloved sibling. 
Bethge, taller and darker, with Bonhoeffer. He filled in the empty space left by the marriages of Bonhoeffer's siblings.

Martha Lloyd. She eventually married Jane's brother Frank, but had Cassandra married, it's likely Martha would have become Jane's closest supporter. 

Both came from roughly the same gentry class background. Like the Austens, the Bonhoeffer family was not aristocratic but had relatives in the aristocracy and circulated on the periphery of the highest social circles. Unlike the Austens, the Bonhoeffers were wealthy and, leaving aside wars and the German hyper-inflation of 1923-24, did not suffer from financial worries.

Austen grew up in a respected family in a rural parsonage.

Bonhoeffer spent much of his childhood in this grand house in a well-heeled Berlin suburb called Grunewald.

Neither family would have ever imagined, in their wildest dreams that Jane or Dietrich would be the child to catapult them to fame. Jane was a spinster, Dietrich the son the family thought had thrown his talents away by pursuing a pastoral career.

Neither was well-known in his or her lifetime.

Both grew famous because of the power of their writing, Jane through the four novels she published in her lifetime and the two released after her death, and Dietrich through two books published while alive (he also published three scholarly tomes)--Discipleship and Life Together--and through the posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison

The writing desk from Dietrich's attic bedroom in the house his parent's moved to in his adult years. Dietrich often wrote standing. Did Jane?

Jane's writing desk

Both died young, cut off in their prime. Austen was 42 when disease took her. Bonhoeffer was 39 when the Nazis hanged him in the last weeks of the war. The loss of their talent at relatively young ages is incalculable.

Austen died wanting more of  life. She had a long, slow decline, but died with her sister and Martha Lloyd in attendance and was buried in Winchester Cathedral, shown above.

Bonhoeffer did not suffer a lingering illness but was hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp in the last days of the war, far from family, alone, also young. He was most likely thrown in a mass grave and cremated. 

Both transcended limitations of their time and class to achieve greatness: they wrought more than they knew. 

Both came from families that closed ranks to protect, control and ultimately distort the image of their most famous member. (We can argue that in each family, some did this more than others.)

Neither could have imagined the impact their small body of work would have on the world. Austen could hardly have envisioned herself as one of the pivotal, canonical novelists in English literature, rated with Shakespeare as among the greatest English authors of all time. Bonhoeffer could hardly have conceived the worldwide impact his writing would have on theology, including liberation theology in places like South Africa and Latin America. He could hardly have imagined that he would often be rated with Barth as one of the two greatest theologians of the 20th century or become an object of popular fascination.

Jane no doubt would have been amused to see her face depicted on a ten pound note. This idealized portrait dates to the publication of her nephew James Arthur Edward Leigh's Memoir. Given her almost constant concern for money, ending up on a bank note would have constituted a wonderful irony to this supreme ironist.

Bonhoeffer specifically wrote that he did not want to become  a "pillar saint." Naturally, he became a pillar saint. 

Both had enough sense of humor and self irony that it is easy to imagine that they would have been amused and bemused at the adulation now paid them. Bonhoeffer said more than once he didn't want to be considered a saint; about Jane Austen we need only direct ourselves to her novels.

Would they have liked each other? That's a difficult question to answer.