History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 October 2009

Scooby Doo meets Miss Austen and Mr. Hastings

A friend of mine has a theory that there are really only fifty people in the world, all the rest being nothing more than cardboard cutouts provided for verisimilitude. This, he claims, explains why everyone you meet already seems to know someone else you know. Forget six degrees of separation; it’s more like three.

This holds true for the historical landscape as well, in bizarre and unexpected ways. I just researched two books that were as different as different could be. One, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily (coming out January 12th, 2010! Yes, my publisher has programmed me to say that) is set in India during the Mahratta conflicts of late 1804. The other, still untitled, is set in Bath in late 1803 and involves none other than everyone’s favorite proto-romance novelist, Miss Jane Austen. Aside from being in roughly the same time period, they are, quite literally, a world apart.

Or not.

One of the most controversial figures in the history of Anglo-Indian affairs is a man called Warren Hastings. If you study colonial India, it’s impossible to avoid him. He bestrides the historiography like a colossus, a larger than life figure, whose trial in 1795—for crimes and misdemeanors during his tenure as Governor-General—was the show trial of the era. Think OJ and Madoff rolled into one. Edmund Burke wrote some of his most stirring prose in prosecution of Hastings, while the novelist, Fanny Burney, a staunch Hasting supporter, kept an account of the trial in her famous journals.

What, you might ask, has this to do with Miss Austen, chronicler of English country life? Foreign events seldom figure in her novels, much less events so foreign as the governance of Bengal. Yet, while India and Hasting may not have played a role in her prose, they were intimately connected with her personal circle. Austen’s aunt, Philadelphia, sailed off to India in 1752 to make her fortune the only way a young lady of some looks but no means could—by finding a wealthy husband. She landed an East India Company surgeon named Saul Hancock, whose fortunes were furthered by his close friendship with Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal.

How close was this friendship? Historians have speculated that Austen’s first cousin Eliza Hancock (who, just to make things more complicated, would eventually marry Austen’s brother, Henry), was, in fact, the natural child of Warren Hastings. Evidence mustered in support of this theory includes the long childlessness of the Hancocks prior to Eliza’s birth, financial gifts from Hastings to Philadelphia, and a handsome settlement of five thousand pounds by Hastings on his goddaughter, Eliza. No less a personage than Lord Clive, victor of the battle of Plassey, claimed that Philadelphia Austen Hancock had “abandoned herself to Mr. Hastings”. Eliza herself named her firstborn son “Hastings”, in tribute to her generous godfather.

In an even stranger intersection between homely Steventon and exotic Bengal, Warren Hastings’ only son, George, was sent home from India and spent some time boarding with Jane Austen’s parents in Steventon. Sadly, the climate of Hampshire did not agree with him; young Hastings died of diphtheria while under the Austens’ care, a sad circumstance for all concerned. Doesn’t it seem incongruous that the son of the controversial and flamboyant Governor-General of India, everyone's favorite example of the evils of decadent Oriental Despotism, should die beneath the modest roof of George and Cassandra Austen?

Naturally, I tried to think of a way to work all this into my Jane Austen book, but there wasn’t really a place for it—so I had to save it for this post instead, marveling at the coincidence that tied my two very different books together.

What strange historical overlaps have you encountered?


Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

None so fascinating as these! What wonderful research to encounter, Lauren! I can't wait to read this one. One of the things I love about your books is the rich tapestry of history you weave around your stories.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Thanks, Louisa! That's so sweet of you. I am constantly amazed and thrilled by the richness of the historical record-- there's so much good material there.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Not me either, and it does sound fascinating, Lauren.

I do know, though, that the six degrees of separation phenomenon was discovered by Dr. Stanley Milgram, of the famous obedience to authority experiments.

And that the Marquis de Sade (who has an offstage role in The Bookseller's Daughter, had an ancestor names Laure de Noves, a learned lady who wrote poetry and might have been Petrarch's Laura. The family claims her as a descendant and names a daughter Laure in every generation (up until Philippe de Montebello, who recently was like chief curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York). But then, at one time they also claimed the Magi as descendents.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

My favorite was the Renaissance pope who claimed Cereberus (as in the multi-headed dog guarding the gates of Hades) as an ancestor. I mean, really, once you're doctoring the family tree, isn't it more convincing to go with non-canines?

9:23 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating, Lauren! I've found a number of interesting overlaps in researching my Congress of Vienna book. Metternich and Tsar Alexander were entangled with two of the same women, which isn't quite so coincidental as it sounds, as I think the two men carried their conference table rivalry into the boudoir. But one of those women, the Duchess of Sagan, had a younger sister Dorothée who was Talleyrand's niece-by-marriage and serving as his hostess at the French embassy. Dorothée was unhappily married to Talleyrand's nephew. Her first love had been the Polish patriot Adam Czartoryski, who had been the Tsar's best friend and also the lover of the Tsarina Elisabeth (an affair that may have been rekindled in Vienna). I haven't had to create connections between my real historical characters, they're already there.

Can't wait for "The Betrayal of the Blood Lily," Lauren!

9:51 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What a fascinating post Lauren! It somehow seems fitting that Eliza would have such romantic origins, if it's true!

9:40 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

My favorite was the Renaissance pope who claimed Cereberus (as in the multi-headed dog guarding the gates of Hades) as an ancestor.

Unsurprising, somehow, since one Roman emperor, Caligula, I believe, made his horse a senator.

Terrific post Lauren. I adore your wit. I'm always amazed when I do my research into the late 18th c. historical figures who people my historical novels, at how many of them crossed paths. I wish I could give specifics, but I'd have to hit my notes, which I can't do now because I'll blow a deadline.

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't Eliza also loose her first husband in the French revolution? I don't what that has to anything, except make her more interesting.

2:42 PM  

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