Jane’s mother’s little helper at Jane’s birth – Philadelphia Austen Hancock


Jane’s birthday was yesterday and in her honour I ask: who was with Jane’s mother, when Jane was born? Interestingly it was her sister-in-law Philadelphia Austen Hancock, George Austen’s sister. From this we can assume that Phila, as she was called, was a well liked and trusted sister-in-law. George, Phila and Leonora were left orphaned and penniless but with family connections – their mother had been a baronet’s daughter. George used education as an avenue for advancement but this was not an option for Phila.  Denied an education as a path to advancement she initially stayed living in London with an aunt. She had no dowry and so had to work for a living, hence she was apprenticed to a milliner in Covent Garden. It must have been a big step down for this baronet’s granddaughter. At that time, many milliner shops around Covent Garden were actually fronts for brothels.  Poor Phila would have seen the seedier side of life that women could be so easily reduced to.

Jane would have known her story and surely would have seen her as daring and adventurous. What is most fascinating about Philadelphia,  is her different set of values to George and Cassandra. Or it might just be a totally different set of circumstances.  The young Philadelphia had voyaged to India in the hope of finding a respectable man to marry in a marriage market that was weighted more towards single women without the ubiquitous dowry. She was part of the “fishing fleet”. This was the phrase applied to women who traveled to find husbands in places where dowries and family background were not so important. One of her relatives paid her fare. Phila went fishing in a place where British marriageable women were scarce and she found her fish, Tysoe Saul Hancock. He was thirty years old and a man who himself had come to India to make his fortune. He was in league with the famous Warren Hastings (Governor General of India and later a British senior politician) and he did indeed make a substantial sum, although not enough to keep his wife and child in the luxury they might have liked.

I wonder what Phila was thinking as she decided to travel across the treacherous seas: did she worry about pirates and ship wreck or were these risks nothing to the drudgery she could expect as a milliner amongst the brothels in Covent Garden? This is what it was like for women without fortune and without sufficient connections.

Philadelphia, and her daughter Eliza who also married for the first time for money, are important in the Jane Austen story as their experience of being women and making very difficult choices  permeates the Austen Six. Marrying without love for a position of advantage was the choice both these women made. Phila may have found love outside marriage: there are rumours that Philadelphia had an affair with the important, well connected and rich Warren Hastings and that Eliza was his child. Whatever the truth, Hastings became Eliza’s godfather and gave her a 10,000 pounds legacy, a huge amount of money in those days. Hastings stayed close to all the Austens, advancing the careers of the boys who became sailors. If Philadelphia chose a husband and a lover on terms of advantage, then she did well as both men ensured that neither Philadelphia nor Eliza would ever have to consider returning to a life of millinery. And the Austens, Jane’s parents, obviously were close to Phila as she was there at Jane’s birth.

Dynamic and resourceful women exist throughout the Austen family. Jane would have grown up with their stories, cementing her practical and robust outlook on women’s lives rather than a sentimental or romantic view.  Remember Elizabeth Bennet would not judge her friend, Pragmatic-Charlottle Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen was highlighting the odious choices that women had. Surely it is a subtle critique of her society albeit within the confines of domestic settings. Often the assertion is made that Jane’s books are narrow. To me this is what makes them subversive: it gave them a broad audience but challenged the status quo significantly.


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