Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Jane Austen and the Donegal Connection.

Dr Sophia Hillan has kindly provided this article on her book, 'May Lou and Cass: Jane Austens Nieces in Ireland,' for the JASI, for which we are very grateful.  

When Jane Austens niece Anna began to try her hand at writing, her aunt gave her two pieces of advice. One was to keep to two or three families in a country village, and the other was to avoid writing about Ireland. You know nothing of the manners there, she told her. She could never have guessed that three of Annas cousins, Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight May, Lou and Cass would live out their lives there, through famine, bitter land wars and political upheaval,  or that they would lie buried,  far from England,  in almost forgotten graves. She might have been more surprised still to discover that they would most uncannily live out the plots of her novels,
            I have had the privilege of telling their story, with its uncanny echoes of Jane Austens plots, in May Lou and Cass: Jane Austens Nieces in Ireland. There was no need to write it as a novel, for the facts of their lives are stranger than fiction. Yet, theirs was a story played out far from the Regency world where these girls  grew up,  expecting to live  a calm and ordered life in England. Their father, Edward, Janes older brother, was more fortunate than his siblings in being adopted by wealthy relatives, and his eleven children grew up comfortably between his country estates in Kent and Hampshire. A bank failure in 1816 then caused Edward to suffer heavy losses, as Cassandra Jane, the youngest of the sisters, realized when she met her real life Mr Darcy, in 1827.  Like Elizabeth Bennet, she was twenty: he, a handsome Irish nobleman named Lord George Hill, was twenty-five. Jane had been dead for ten years: yet here was one of her plots unfolding. They fell in love: he proposed, and she accepted. Then his mother, the formidable Lady Downshire, forbade the match, dismissing Cassandra in a phrase worthy of Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself: "No money: all charms!". Jane Austen knew that a young man, however handsome, needed money to survive in the world. Lord George, a career soldier, had charm, education and looks but, as a posthumous son, very little money, and none if he offended his mother. It took her eight years to relent, during which time, just like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Cass almost married someone else. In the end it was  Janes sister Cassandra Austen, who persuaded Cass, sitting in Chawton Cottage where Jane had written her finest work, that she must not marry the wrong man. No sooner had she done so than Lord George himself, to everyones delight, arrived in person at  Chawton Cottage, and renewed his proposals. Everything seemed perfect again.
Or, was it? Cass married Lord George, in a grand society wedding at St Georges, Hanover Square, on a blustery October day in 1834.  It should have been joyous. Yet, the weeks and days before,  full of  whirling autumn storms, rainswept journeys and catastrophes like the burning down of the Houses of Parliament make it seem more like a  tale by Charlotte Bronte  or Charles Dickens than Jane Austen. Cassandra looked like a victim, her brother Charles wrote, as if she was going to be buried alive. It was an inauspicious beginning. As Jane Austen hinted at Persuasions end,  no-one can guarantee happiness in dangerous times, and these young  people were about to leave for Ireland, where  the inevitability of dangerous times was a given.
            Eight years later Cassandra died, suddenly, following the birth of her fourth child. What was Lord George to do?  In Persuasion, Jane Austen has Anne Elliot suggest that a mans love does not survive the death of the beloved. Captain Wentworth indignantly asserts the opposite.  It seemed that Anne was right: after Cassandra died in 1842, it fell to Lou to leave her family, move to Ireland and bring up  her sisters four children.  By 1847, she and Lord George were married. It was not straightforward: under Lord Lyndhursts Act of 1835, marriage to a deceased wifes sister was forbidden, and they had to marry abroad. In 1851, the case was discussed in the House of Lords. Poor Louisa, still struggling with the realities of life in famine-stricken Ireland, had to endure an investigation to establish whether she and her family were  now acceptable to society. George Eliot or Anthony Trollope might have tackled that: hardly Jane Austen.
Marianne May the third of the sisters, was thought by the family to be very like poor Aunt Jane. Slight and dark, sharing her aunts clear eye and lively wit, she was considered bewitching beautiful by her cousin James Edward Austen Leigh, Janes first biographer.  Still, someone, had to look after the familys widowed father, Edward, when the two eldest girls, Fanny and Lizzy, married so, like Jane, she was relegated at nineteen to the role  of spinster aunt, dependent on the men of her family. She ran her fathers great household,  without complaint, for over thirty years until, on her fathers death, her brother, like Sense and Sensibilitys John Dashwood, required vacant possession, and Marianne lost the only home she had ever known.  Over the next thirty years she moved from brother to brother as housekeeper until, in 1884, almost eighty-three, with no more brothers to look after, she travelled to Donegal to care for her last sister, Louisa,  remaining even  after Louisa died, through all the upheaval of Land War and Home Rule agitation,  until her own death in 1895.
She is buried beside Louisa, on a windswept hill  in Donegal.  Lord George, however, is not there.  Like Captain Wentworth, he remained in his heart true to his first love, Cassandra.  They were buried together, ten miles away: Louisa lay alone until Marianne joined her.  Janes nieces,  three clever, brave, pioneering women, did not ask to go home to England. There was no need: they were already home.

Dr Sophia Hillan was Assistant Director of the Queen’s University of Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies. Her
publications include, In Quiet Places: Uncollected Stories, Letters and Critical Prose of Michael McLaverty (1989);  The Silken Twine: A Study of the Works of Michael McLaverty (1992) and The Edge of Dark: A Sense of Place in the Writings of Michael McLaverty and Sam Hanna Bell (2001). 

Read Sophia's Blog at www.sophiahillan.com