Daughter of the house: Cassandra Hill, Jane Austen’s Irish great-niece
Sophia Hillan tells the fascinating story of Jane Austen’s Irish family
Cassandra Hill: epitomised the conservative ethos of the Big House, yet her best friend was Charlotte Grace O’Brien, daughter of William Smith O’Brien. Photograph: Courtesy of Cassandra Wedd, private collection
“Cass sends her love and bids me to say to Monty that as he does not invite her to go to Chawton with me, she shall do her best to make other plans for herself or stay on here.”
The writer of these lines was Jane Austen’s niece Marianne Knight, the child who in 1813 at 12 years old had been privileged to watch her aunt at work and accompany her to the theatre. Yet by 1890, aged almost 89, she was facing eviction along with her niece, Cassandra Hill, who had never known any home but Ballyare House, outside Ramelton in Donegal. How did it happen, that these gentleborn women, exemplary daughters of the house, could find themselves in such a situation? I have told some of this story in my book, May Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland (Blackstaff Press, 2011), but not all, for there is still more to find. Jane Austen’s great-niece, Cassandra Jane Louisa Hill, seen here in a previously unpublished family photograph, remains something of a mystery; though now that an entire album of previously unseen photographs of the Austen/Knight/Hill family has just been found, we may come to see and know more about her and her family.
What we do know is that Cassandra Jane Louisa Hill was born at Gortlee House in Letterkenny on March 12th, 1842, the only one of her parents’ four children to be born in Ireland. Three days later, her mother unexpectedly died of puerperal fever, aged just 35. Initially, it was to look after little Cassandra and her three older siblings that their aunt Louisa Knight, Jane Austen’s goddaughter, came to Ireland. A subsequent marriage to Lord George in 1847 – despite the embarrassment and anxiety of a parliamentary examination into the legitimacy of a union between a widower and his deceased wife’s sister – made Louisa a much-loved stepmother to her four nieces and nephews, and to Cassandra, the only mother she ever knew. In 1849, when Cassandra was seven, Louisa gave birth at forty-four to her only child, a delicate little boy named George. One of the photographs from the newly-discovered collection, which I have been privileged to glimpse, shows a laughing Louisa with her brother Edward Knight and her little son, George Hill; and I understand that there is another showing Cassandra and her young half-brother together.
They all lived at Ballyare House, just outside Ramelton, bought by Lord George after his wife’s death. It was not a large house, but it was comfortable and welcoming and, because of Lord George’s modern methods of estate management, commended in parliament. His highly successful and innovative Gweedore Hotel (now An Chuirt) had many distinguished visitors, sometimes without much warning.
As in the time of Jane Austen, art and music were given priority in a young woman’s education, with the expectation of performance for family and visitors, and even when they visited Dublin for Cassandra’s elder sister Norah’s season at the Castle, were “squeezed to death” in their accommodation “ and ha[d] no Piano”, the girls were still obliged “to practise daily at a friend’s” because they had to be ready to perform if required. So when Lord Carlisle, the Lord Lieutenant, rather unexpectedly arrived in 1858 with his retinue, and they were all squeezed to death again, 16-year-old Cassandra and her elder sister Norah found themselves put forward as the evening entertainment. “Norah and Cassandra sang to us,” wrote Lord Carlisle to Lady Campbell, daughter of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. “They are near being Muses, Sybills, Sirens, but stop just a little short of these.” What Jane Austen might have made of that scene!
When not practising her piano and holding herself in readiness for impromptu performance, Cassandra studied art, for which she appears to have had a particular gift. Naturally, she made the usual young gentlewoman’s round of family and friends. She was, like Norah, presented at Dublin Castle, attending many of the great gatherings and state occasions. In particular, she and her siblings were frequent visitor to Castle Ward in Strangford, Co Down. “George and the two girls went to Castle Ward about three weeks ago – to come back in ten days – they are still there and enjoying it very much – Lady B is such a nice and excellent friend of them, particularly of Norah,” wrote Louisa in January 1858, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the following year Norah went on to marry the fifth son of Lord Bangor, Captain Somerset Ward, with whom their brother Arthur had served during the Indian Mutiny.
Over the next 20 years Cassandra, who, unlike her sister, remained single, became established as Miss Hill of Ballyare, an Irish Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich”. She was committed to living in Donegal, and working with the people there, having inherited something of her father’s imaginative understanding of custom and tradition. She felt and declared herself Irish, and like Lord George spoke the language fluently. Not long before Marianne came to join them in Ballyare, she stood up on the stage at the opening of Ramelton Town Hall in 1879 and sang, in Irish, the haunting An Chuilfhionn. Even when, to her great sorrow, her father died in April of that same year, and was succeeded by his son Arthur, there seemed to be little that could disrupt the even tenor of the life Cassandra expected to live.
All around her, however, the world was changing rapidly. As Stephen Gwynn, son of the then rector of Ramelton, wrote of her: “Miss Cassandra Hill, daughter of old Lord George Hill, laboured strenuously to promote among the peasantry pleasant social life – reading, writing, dancing, and the study of the Irish tongue – but to promote only what she herself would entirely approve.”
Since the first Land Acts had started to take effect, Land League agitation was everywhere. In 1878 their neighbour Lord Leitrim was assassinated at Mulroy Bay; yet, like the rest of her family she was baffled by the unrest among her tenants. “When a new revolution began,” Stephen Gwynn continued, “it drove Miss Hill and all her good, kind kindred into despairing opposition to those whom they had loved and for whom they had laboured – those peasants of Gweedore who in my boyhood would have drawn Lord George’s old pony phaeton from the back of Errigal to his hall door at Ballyare.”
It was during this volatile period that, in 1884, Marianne came to live at Ballyare. On her family visits to England, Cassandra had always had a kindred spirit in her aunt May. Soon, they would have even more in common than before. This was the aunt whom the family thought “very like poor aunt Jane”, much loved by all as the welcoming presence the family home at Godmersham. Described in her teens as “bewitching beautiful” she had nonetheless been relegated at 19, much like her aunt Jane, to the role of maiden aunt and housekeeper to her father; and despite her place in the family’s heart, Marianne found herself in 1853 suddenly required by her eldest brother to leave her home for ever, quite in the spirit of Sense and Sensibility. Initially moving from brother to brother, keeping house and garden, she was left in 1884 with no more siblings to mind, nowhere to go, and very little money. At 83 years old, therefore, she set off to journey through England, make a stormy October passage from Stranraer to Larne and on to the only permanent home she had been offered, with the widowed Louisa and Cassandra in Donegal.
No unmarried woman, however, could be sure of a permanent home, in Donegal any more than in Kent. The men of the family, as Jane Austen well knew, did not regard provision for their unmarried sisters, aunts or nieces as a priority. In 1890, a year after Louisa’s death, Arthur Hill – unlike his father, an absentee landlord and deeply unpopular in Donegal following his opposition to the Land League and his evictions of tenants – seriously considered selling Ballyare House and asking his sister and his almost 90-year-old aunt to find themselves somewhere else to live. He relented on that occasion, but Cassandra and her Aunt May lived afterwards under the shadow of likely eviction.
There would be no battering ram for them, no breaking down of the door, no finding themselves left outside in a ditch; but they would have no home, and they would have to try to find someone to take them in. Cassandra’s cousin Montagu Knight, owner of Chawton House, offered his aunt May a home if this should happen: but not his cousin Cassandra. Hence the letter quoted at the top of this piece.
Yet between them, Marianne and Cassandra somehow maintained the witty, ironic optimism that marks them as Jane Austen’s kin. In February 1895, on the occasion of a family wedding in England, aunt and niece wrote a joint letter: “It seems the fashion to be poor,” Marianne wrote, “so of course I am, but if I can hunt up a new 6d before very long, I shall send it to Henry to spend on a present for himself – if it never arrives, tell him I am probably frozen, or in prison”.
In the only sample of her writing that I have so far found, Cassandra added a mischievous postscript: “So ‘the girl that had hold of the tow rope’ has landed her ‘boy’ safely! & I enclose a line in Aunt May’s letter to wish you and Cecy joy very heartily, as Miss Godley sounds so nice & moreover has Irish blood in her: I do not think that is a drawback in your opinion (remembering pathetic reminiscences of Julia O’Sullivan!) (poor thing, I always think you behaved rather badly to her, so you had better be doubly kind to Miss Helen Godley on the other’s account. Of course you won’t show this to Cecy). An’t I a bad girl? I mean old woman, how one does forget that one gets old…”
Just before Marianne arrived, in the winter of 1883-84, Cassandra was actively engaged in activities close to her heart. As an artist, she exhibited her paintings in Dublin to the Royal Hibernian Society: one of them, entitled No More Breakfast, is described as showing a young Donegal girl with an empty bowl. Ever conscious of the deprivation under which many of the people round her lived, she worked hard to ensure that Ballyare gave employment to those who lived nearby. One letter written during that dangerous time of 1884, held by the family, is a polite application by a young man “wanting a situation”. “I am not a practice[d] butler,” he writes, “but I will be very happy to do anything in the house that I can”.
With two other ladies of the neighbourhood, Cassandra was at the same time working hard to try to establish in the nearby seaside town of Rathmullan a convalescent home for working women. It was not easy, as contemporary newspaper articles make plain, because a number of influential local people opposed it, saying they did not want the presence of illness or disease to discourage potential visitors to the town. Despite them, the nursing home did open: yet by 1895 Cassandra, though no longer sure of the roof above her own head, was clearly struggling hard to keep it going, writing to The Irish Times to appeal for funds for its continuation and pointing out that it was above all, “a shelter to the sick and weary without distinction of creed or party”.
In many ways she epitomised the conservative ethos of the Big House: nonetheless, her best friend was Charlotte Grace O’Brien, the daughter of William Smith O’Brien, one of the Young Irelanders who, following the failed rising of 1848, was due to be to be hanged, drawn and quartered for treason before his sentence was commuted to transportation. Charlotte Grace was in addition a vigorous supporter of Home Rule, a stance impossible for Cassandra. How, despite the fact that Charlotte Grace was the sister-in-law of the Hills’ rector, Dr Gwynn, could they possibly be friends?
The answer is that they had one great thing in common. Both daughters of the Big House, Cassandra and Charlotte Grace shared a philanthropic mission – Charlotte Grace setting up a refuge for Irish women emigrants in New York, while Cassandra Hill worked to set up her convalescent home for working women in Donegal – and this sense of shared purpose seems to have transcended their opposing views in politics. Therefore, when Cassandra’s brother Arthur Hill finally sold the family house, it was to Charlotte Grace’s house and former home at Foxrock in Dublin that Cassandra went. In the Census of Ireland of 1901 she is registered as “Head of Family” with “income derived from mortgage on land and dividends”: clearly, it was still the fashion to be poor.
Known today as “Gortanore”, the house was then named Failthe or “welcome”. For Cassandra Hill and her brother George, it provided for a little while just that; but it was there that on August 16th, 1901, just months into the 20th century, she died, the cause on the death certificate given as “haematoma, 8 days” and “exhaustion”. She lies today beside her brother George, who died in 1911, in Dublin’s Deansgrange Cemetery, far from her family; not unlike her great-aunt Jane Austen. For this story, however, it would have taken perhaps an Irish writer who learned from Jane Austen to write it – Elizabeth Bowen perhaps, or Molly Keane – one of those who, as daughters of the Big House and dedicated to those who depended on them had, like Cassandra Hill, been compelled to stand by and see it all disappear before their eyes.
Dr Sophia Hillan, former Associate Director of QUB’s Institute of Irish Studies, and fellow literary executor of the McLaverty Estate with his daughter Maura Cregan, is author of The Silken Twine: A Study of the Works of Michael McLaverty (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1992), The Edge of Dark: A Sense of Place in the Writings of Michael McLaverty and Sam Hanna Bell (Bethesda, MD: Academica Press, 2000) and editor of In Quiet Places: The Uncollected Stories, Letters and Critical Prose of Michael McLaverty (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1989). She is the author of May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2011) and of two novels, The Friday Tree (Dublin: Ward River, 2014) and The Way We Danced (Dublin: Ward River, 2016). Her newest work, The Cocktail Hour (Arlen House, 2018) is now available from Dubray Books, Hodges Figgis and, in Belfast, at Books, Paper, Scissors, Waterstones and No Alibis.