Thursday, May 17, 2018

From the Archives: Jane Austen's Surprising Aunt Philadelphia

Thursday, May 17, 2018
Susan reporting,

With my manuscript deadline drawing ever-closer, here's another favorite post from the archives about a woman who could certainly inspire a book of her own.

In 18thc Britain, it wasn't only younger sons who went out to India in search of fortune and adventure. English women also made the arduous journey in the hopes of finding fortune, adventure, and, most importantly, husbands in a male-dominated land where the odds would be much in their favor.

One of these adventuresome women was Philadelphia Austen Hancock, who in her later years became a favorite aunt to novelist Jane Austen. As a child, however, Philadelphia was no one's favorite. Born in 1730, she soon lost her mother in 1733, and her father in 1737. Her stepmother had no interest in raising either Philadelphia or her younger brother and sister, and as was sadly common at the time, the three young siblings were separated and sent to live with other relatives.

While the two younger children were sent to Austen family members, Philadelphia was given to members of her mother's family, the Hampsons. The Hampsons had both money and position - Philadelphia's uncle was a baronet - but they seemed to have shared little of it with the inconvenient little girl. While Philadelphia's brother George was sent to Oxford to become a clergyman, Philadelphia was apprenticed at fifteen to a London milliner named Hester Cole. No doubt the Hampsons considered their familial obligations done.

Some modern Austen-fans choose to interpret Philadelphia's occupation as a euphemism for prostitution, jumping to the conclusion that because many milliners (and seamstresses, and mantua-makers, and parlor-maids, and just about every other trade that a young woman might attempt in 18thc. London) were so underpaid that they turned to prostitution to support themselves. The fact that Mrs. Cole's shop was in Covent Garden also makes it tempting to speculate about Philadelphia's real trade. But however disinterested the Hampsons may have been in her, it seems unlikely they'd send her to a bawdy house, nor is there any historical proof of Philadelphia earning her living in any less-than-honorable way.

Whatever the case, Philadelphia must not have found millinery to her taste, because at twenty she sailed for India, her passage paid by a relative. No one knows if she went boldly through her own choice, or was perhaps sent away by the Hampsons (another hint of scandal?) Either way, it must not have been an easy decision, and it's hard to imagine a young woman making such a desperate journey alone, and without any real prospects or friends waiting for her in a very foreign land. Without a dowry, her face really would have been her only fortune.

But Philadelphia's gamble paid off.  After a short time in India, she did marry, quite respectably, to Tysoe Saul Hancock, who was a surgeon with the East India Company. They had one daughter, Eliza. Again the centuries-old whispers appear, hinting that Eliza's real father was her wealthy godfather Warren Hastings, the future Governor General of India. Again, too, there is no real proof to substantiate the rumors, but Philadelphia had chosen her daughter's godfather - or her own lover - well: Hastings provided Eliza with a substantial legacy of £10,000.

In any event, Philadelphia and her daughter returned to London, while Hancock continued to toil in India. Eliza was raised as a lady, with a full compliment of lessons in dancing, French, and the harp, and all the advantages that Philadelphia hadn't had for herself. When Dr. Hancock died, the two women found London too expensive for the fashionable life they wished to live, and they went instead to Paris, where they were quickly swept up into the gay life of the French society in the last days before the Revolution. Wanting the security for Eliza that she couldn't provide herself, Philadelphia urged her towards a marriage with a French count, who died on the guillotine. (Eliza's second marriage, to her cousin Henry Austen, was both longer and happier.) While Philadelphia's decisions might not always seem today to have been the wisest for her or her daughter, she made them as a woman of her time, with limited options and resources.

Regardless of the shadows in her past, Phila (as she was known in the family) was welcomed at the home of her brother George, now a clergyman, and she was with George's wife when their daughter Jane was born. It's easy to imagine why Aunt Phila became Jane's favorite aunt: not only was she a trusted member of the family, but she also carried with her that hint of mystery and scandal, along with the exoticism of India and the sophistication of Paris - all in short supply in the home of a country clergyman.

When I look at the little miniature of Philadelphia shown here, I see only an elegantly attractive lady, with a fashionable hairstyle and a genteel smile. That little half-smile only makes me long to know the truth about her personal history, and to fill in all those scandalous gaps that time (and perhaps the well-meaning and more respectable George) have glossed over. Ahh, Jane, if only you'd written your aunt's story!

Top: Miniature portrait ring of Philadelphia Austen Hancock, by John Smart, c1768. Private collection. Photograph copyright Rowan & Rowan.


Sarah said...

Smiling she might be, but sadness lurks in those eyes.

Regencyresearcher said...

Fanny Price shares some history with Aunt Phila.
Mary Lamb, sister of Charles Lamb, was apprenticed to a mantu maker and hated it.
For the Hampsons to treat their relative like that was disgraceful. One would think they would want Philadelphia to have a better position-- a school teacher or companion o something more genteel even if only to make themselves look better.
As for conjectures that Philadelphia engaged in prostitution and that was why she was shipped to India -- they seem to be part and parcel of a general trend to impute scandalous sexual behavior to women of the past. There is enough drama in Philadelphia's story with the conjecture of her relationship with Hancock that it doesn't need any more.

Hallie Rubenhold said...

[This comment from Hallie Rubenhold is cut & pasted from a Twitter discussion she & I about this post. Hallie is a wonderful scholar & author who has studied this era extensively - her book "Covent Garden Ladies" inspired the Hulu/ITV series "Harlots" - and she knows ALL about the notorious Mrs. Cole.]

Philadelphia was fascinating - but I'd argue that there's far more between the milliner's shop and the solo trip to India that indicates she 'strayed off the path of virtue'. No 'respectable' young lady would ever dream of venturing to India unchaperoned.

Mrs Cole's millinery shop was also featured in John Cleland's Fanny Hill. Mrs Cole and her business had a reputation. Although not all milliners were fronts for prostitution, this was often a jumping off point to becoming a man's mistress. In the eyes of 18th century society, whether you were a young woman in a brothel or 'in keeping' with a man, you were a whore - in other words, sexually compromised.

My suspicion is that Philadelphia may have been 'ruined' (in the parlance of the time) prior to being packed off to India. A marriage to a desperate, lonely man in the colonies would have been her best bet to salvage her reputation. Equally interesting is the fate of Philadelphia's other sister, Leonora, from whom the family became estranged. Apparently, she was sent to live with some book sellers near Ludgate Circus. Little is known about her or why the family eventually chose to break off ties.

It may have been that Philadephia's relations didn't know they were placing her at a milliner's with a slightly dubious reputation. Mrs Cole's would have been well known and fashionable, but I can tell you absolutely that working in Covent Garden would have opened her eyes. Premarital sex for young women in trades was very common and was often the route through which women secured marriages. Single motherhood and unwanted pregnancy were just as common, though attempts have been made to write it out of our past.

Just by working in Covent Garden and being a milliner's apprentice, Philadelphia would have been subjected to constant propositions. She would have been surrounded by women of 'compromised reputations' and a different moral code surrounding sex would have prevailed. If she left the shop in the hours of darkness it would be assumed that she was sexually available. She would have grown accustomed to this and the practises & beliefs of those who surrounded her in her community. It would be surprising if she too didn't adhere to them eventually.

However, once women left this community or married, they often didn't care to make their behaviour prior to marriage well known. A great white wash has been applied to our ancestors sexual behaviour but quite a lot shows up in official records. This is my caveat when relying heavily on contemporary literature to paint a picture of sexual practises - what was really was happening vs what people liked to say was happening in novels is borne out in documentation.

Lucy said...

The thing that struck me most about the painting is simply how beautiful she was. And yes, it did surprise me that her relatives treated her so outrageously. The only thing I can imagine that would excuse it, even in that day and age, would be if her mother had married "beneath her," and the father was of a working-class background; or if some other taint of scandal had touched the parents before Phila was born. Otherwise, it reads much like a "heroine cast adrift upon the cruel world" novel.

Lucy said...

Oh, and did you notice how closely she resembles your model for Eliza Hamilton, with even her dress nearly the same color?

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