Eliza de Feuillide (1761-1813) is a fascinating personality in Jane Austen's life. Eliza's mother was Jane's aunt, her father's sister, Philadelphia Hancock. Jane's father George and Philadelphia had been orphaned from a young age and though it seems they managed to stay in touch with one another, they both had to make their way in the world. Philadelphia was apprenticed to a milliner in Covent Garden for five years before being shipped off (most likely by her uncle Francis Austen) at the age of 15 to India in order to find a husband. She met and married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a surgeon, twenty years her senior but remained childless for the first six years of their marriage. In Calcutta they befriended Warren Hastings who later became the Governor General of India. When Eliza was born Hastings became her godfather and took his role so seriously that there was a certain amount of gossip spread about that he was in fact her father. Whatever the truth of the matter, he set up a trust fund for Eliza of £10,000. After Mr Hancock died, Philadelphia took Eliza to France and it was here that she became part of the glittering French society and where she married her first husband, Captain Jean-Francois Capot de Feuillide, a self-styled count who had little fortune but had been given the grant of an area of marshland near Nerac. It was decided that her first child should be born in England though in fact Hastings, as the child was named, was born prematurely at Calais.
Eliza, her mother, and the baby first visited the Austens in Steventon on December 21 1786 just in time to celebrate her own twenty fifth birthday, also bringing a present of books for Jane's birthday which had been on the sixteenth. Jane was 11, Cassandra, nearly 14, Henry, 15, Frank, 12, and Charles, 6. James was away at this time travelling to France to visit the count. Jane must have been intrigued by the exotic Eliza who would have shared wonderful tales of her life in India and France. Mrs Austen's description of Eliza in a letter paints her as lively and entertaining, amusing them all with her performances on the pianoforte. It is interesting to note that Henry, ten years younger than Eliza (and most likely already infatuated) went to stay with her in London the following April. Eliza must have introduced Henry to a style of life he had never witnessed before and to have a beautiful young woman accompanying him around the metropolis would have been enough to turn any young man's head.
This extract from a letter she wrote to her cousin gives us an idea of her life in the capital.
...I have been for some Time past the greatest Rake imaginable...I only stood from two to four in the Drawing Room & of course loaded with a great hoop of no inconsiderable Weight, went to the Duchess of Cumberland's in the Evening, and from thence to Almacks where I staid till five in the Morning, all this I did not many days ago, & yet am alive to tell You of it. I believe tho', I should not be able to support London Hours, & all the racketing of a London Life for a Year together.
Eliza's letters at this time are full of descriptions of society gatherings in London and her cousin Philadelphia Walter wrote of their experiences in Tunbridge Wells; shopping for bonnets, attending balls, horse races and the theatre. Whilst in Tunbridge Wells they saw the plays Which is the Man? and BonTon which by the following Christmas, Eliza had decided would be the very entertainments to show off her dramatic talents and simultaneously flirt with the Austen brothers, James and Henry!