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.


  1. Excellent comments, Diane, we really do get to know Tysoe Hancock through all these letters, in particular the letter about the garters.

    I have a slightly different take on that strange passage in Hancock's letter, which I spell out here:

    Basically, I wonder whether there is Shakespeare in there!

    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  2. It is unlikely that Hancock paid for Eliza's education. The funds no doubt came from her real father, Warren Hastings. Hancock was not extravagent, it was his wife that was. In his letters he says it was his wife's extravagence that necessitated him having to go back to India. Hancock did not pimp out his wife to Hastings, he admonished his wife in his letters for giving in to the attentions of a handsome young man. He did not sponge off her uncle Francis, indeed it was likely that Francis paid the fare for Philadelphia to travel to India. Imhoff was perfectly capable of being a soldier, he was already a soldier in the service of the Duke of Wurtenburg. Under the terms of his service he was not allowed to marry his "wife" who was therefore only his common law wife. His point in travelling to India under cover of being a soldier was to make money from his talents as a portrait miniaturist. Imhoff was not gay, after his "divorce" he remarried almost immediately to Charlotte von Stein and had a daughter. There is a lot of information about this in the book "Imhoff Indienfahrer" which is a German book containing the diaries of Count von Imhoff.

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