As I was devouring Jane Austen biographies a few years ago — a rapid-fire binge which began as purely reading for pleasure, and then almost without my noticing it evolved into research for my Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer — the revelation of Cousin Eliza burst onto my imagination like a firecracker.
Here, so say the many and diverse biographers of Jane Austen, is the glamorous, lively young woman, fourteen years older than Jane, who could well have inspired the bright, articulate, entrancing Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice; the equally delightful (albeit deeply flawed) Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park; the venal, yet fascinating, eponymous Lady Susan; Northanger Abbey’s attractive, superficially engaging Isabella Thorpe; the ill-fated Elizas in Sense and Sensibility; and even, to a lesser degree, Mansfield Park’s indolent Lady Bertram — specifically in her deep attachment to her little pug. (Eliza was said to have carried a pug about with her, whether out of genuine affection or almost as one might tote around a stage prop depends, I noticed, on the perspective of the biographer.)
How, then, to write about Eliza in Young Jane Austen, whose narrative section is a hybrid of fact and fiction, framed as if through Jane’s emerging consciousness, intellect, and creative development?
It was difficult to settle on an integrated view of Cousin Eliza.
For one thing, she was a creature of fluid transformation. Born in exotic India, brought up in England and Europe, she began life as little Betsy Hancock, morphed as a young adult into the glittering Madame le Comtesse de Feuillide, and eventually, after her husband’s death by guillotine in the French Revolution, became Eliza Austen, the wife of Jane’s older brother Henry.
For another thing, while Austen biographers agree that Eliza was clever, cultured, intellectually gifted, sophisticated, self-assured, strong-willed, graceful, charming, vivacious, and powerfully attractive (all descriptives that certainly make one think of young Jane Austen’s indelible female characters-to-come), the words “coquettish” and “flirtatious” inevitably accompany these word-portraits of the fascinating Cousin Eliza.
I couldn’t help but wonder, a little, if a certain gender bias was being censoriously aimed at a woman we might today describe as “empowered” or “self-directed,” thanks to both a confident personality and the lucky circumstance of being financially independent. Unlike the vast majority of women in Jane Austen’s world, Eliza didn’t need a man to sustain her, literally or otherwise.
On the other hand, Eliza’s letters reveal a person who seems to have derived a great deal of enjoyment out of coolly maintaining the upper hand in her relations with the male sex, as well as offering glimpses of calculating self-centeredness: for example, she breezily writes about her husband the comte as being completely in her thrall; in another letter she remarks upon how she favors young Jane over her sister Cassandra: “still my heart gives the preference to Jane, whose kind partiality to me indeed requires a return of the same nature.”
Ultimately, I concluded that to the child Jane Austen, Eliza had to have been an almost magical figure of dazzling, worldly glamour:
Lovely, laughing, affectionate Cousin Eliza fluttered about the house like some exotic bird — her dark eyes sparkling, charming them with her skill on the pianoforte, organizing little dances, interested in everyone and everything. To Jenny it seemed as if Eliza had stepped straight from the pages of a book.
It seems highly likely that as the preternaturally intelligent, observant Jane left childhood behind, she was able to view Eliza with a wider lens, as it were — one that encompassed both Eliza’s delightful attributes as well as those which were, perhaps, less worthy. (As noted above, we may, in fact, see this laid out before us in Jane’s fiction.)
The next task was that of rendering 24-year-old Cousin Eliza in illustration form, as 10-year-old Jane might have perceived her. Here is the preliminary sketch by Young Jane Austen’s illustrator, the artist Massimo Mongiardo:
Massi was clearly focusing on Eliza as a youthful figure of motion, grace, pleasure. You can see, even in this rough sketch, a hint of satisfied self-consciousness (as, perhaps, Miss Bingley might have felt as she paraded round the Netherfield drawing-room, with the reluctant Eliza Bennet accompanying her).
But Massi and I agreed that this sketch of Eliza was too girlish for a comtesse who, by all reports, dressed richly in the height of fashion, and who was, moreover, a wife and mother.
So Massi turned to these images for inspiration:
And here is his second sketch:
With some other illustrations in Young Jane Austen, we had multiple iterations as we moved from sketch to final, but here, suddenly, in this roughly penciled image, was clearly our Cousin Eliza!
Here is the final as it appears in the book:
A lovely, approachable young woman, with a sweet, intelligent expression, yet also a curiously monumental figure — almost as if, to young Jane, Eliza was truly larger than life, a flesh-and-blood luminary who caught hold of her formative imagination and who would never really let it go.
More about Young Jane Austen here.
More about artist Massimo Mongiardo here.