Tale of Austen's spirited nieces related with verve

 

LITERARY HISTORY: May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in IrelandBy Sophia Hillan Blackstaff Press, 294pp. £16.99

ON A BLEAK hilltop in Co Donegal is an almost forgotten headstone. Dedicated to Marianne Knight, it is overgrown with nettles and wild flowers, listing towards that of her younger sister Louisa. A few kilometres distant, in the town of Letterkenny, another grave marks the last resting place of their younger sister, Cassandra.

May, Lou and Cass, as they were known in life, were Jane Austen’s nieces; not only her nieces but favoured companions during the last 16 years of her life. Growing up nearby, in the great house of Godmersham Park, they were frequent visitors to Aunt Jane. She played with them, they did their sewing and reading together, and, in later life, they recorded their memories of an aunt who clearly preferred the company of children, and those of her own family, above all others.

“Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply,” Austen observed in Mansfield Park. Her society assumed that relations between siblings and cousins would be more lasting – and more intimate – than those contracted by marriage. Such families, extending as webs that stretched over counties and countries, held brothers and sisters who married into the far reaches of empire or served its armies or navy as close as the heart would allow.

Not even the iron boundaries of class could defeat such fierce affections – although lack of money often did the more precarious business of marriage. May, Lou and Cass were the daughters of Jane Austen’s older brother, Edward. Adopted by the Knights, a wealthy childless couple of the neighbourhood, Edward eventually inherited the great house of Godmersham Park as well as the family name. It is a storyline that Austen adopted for her novel Emma. There the diplomatic manoeuvres of Frank Churchill, moving between the family of his birth and that of his eventual inheritance, mirror those of Edward, who never allowed his good fortune to obstruct the flow of family from one house to another. May, Lou and Cass inhabited Austen’s home at Chawton Cottage as fully as they haunt her novels.

Like all of Austen’s heroines, they were spirited, but spirits ruled by stoic discipline. They would have need of it. Although daughters of the great house, they would never inherit. Marriages could not be made without money, yet “a single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls,” as Austen’s Emma remarks.

Austen herself had no income, unlike her mother and sister, Cassandra: each left a small legacy on the death of her husband or fiance, respectively. Without such prospects, Jane’s niece Marianne would live out her long life as one of the overlooked heroines of the age, the maiden aunt: managing households, rearing her nieces and nephews, nursing the sick and elderly – the linchpin of the extended Victorian family.

The younger sisters, Cass and Lou, always close, were bound by a common fate. When Cass was 20, Lord George Hill proposed marriage. As the youngest son of Lord Downshire, his future depended entirely on his widowed mother, the formidable marchioness. Her verdict on Cass: “No money – all charms.” But Cass, like Anne Elliot in Persuasion,held to love even when all hope seemed lost. Lord George devoted himself to his career. When he returned eight years later, he proposed again, this time successfully. After they married, they set out for Ireland, where Lord George’s family had their seat at Hillsborough Castle.

Ireland in those days was a dark, mysterious place. As Austen warned another niece, writing about Ireland was risky, as “you know nothing of the Manners there . . .” So alien was the place that, at the wedding, Cass’s brother wrote of her as a “sacrificial lamb”. Although Cass never had actually to live in Ireland, she died here – like her own mother, within days of childbirth. Now father to four children under the age of seven, Lord George asked her sister Louisa to take over their care, later making her his wife.

Meanwhile, his own circumstances had changed. Following his mother’s death, in 1836, Lord George had inherited enough to invest in a large estate in the remote hinterland of Gweedore, to which he now removed his entire family.

The story of how Louisa – later joined by her older, unmarried sister Marianne – coped with this raw and turbulent place would make a novel in itself. For his part, brought up in Ireland and familiar with its ways, Lord George proved for the most part an exemplary landlord, even during the Famine and the political disruptions that followed it – although he could be ruthless when it came to anyone setting up against his various enterprises.

A memorial in the small Anglican church in Bunbeg records how Lord George “devoted his life and fortune to civilize Gweedore and to raise its people to a higher social and moral level”. The phrasing of the memorial, which was vandalised during the Troubles, exposes much about the troubled relations between Ireland, England and the British Empire.

How these histories are straddled by this one family, eventually involving all three Austen nieces, is exceptional. Many of its plots and subplots already appear in Austen’s novels. Others are so unexpected, and yet inevitable, that if they were written as fiction no one would believe them. It is a tribute to Sophia Hillan that her far-reaching and scrupulous research has unearthed such a compelling hidden history. Like a true Austen aficionada she tells it with verve – and with an ear for its many, and often plangent, ironies.


Jerusha McCormack is honorary professor at the Irish studies centre in the school of English and international studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, in China. Her book of essays China and the Irish has been translated into Mandarin