Jane Austen and the East India Company, Part II, by Elaine Owen

Jane Austen and the East India Company, Part II, by Elaine Owen

In 1752 a young English woman traveled from the land of her birth to the continent of India for the express purpose of finding a husband. She had been an orphan from the age of six and had only a handful of younger siblings and more distant relatives to claim as her own. With no fortune and no family connections to attract possible suitors, this was probably her best shot at making a profitable marriage.

The young lady, just twenty two at the time, was named Philadelphia (“Phila”) Austen, and she had a younger brother named George. Many years in the future she would become an aunt to the newborn Jane Austen. But at the time all she knew was that she was supposed to become a bride for someone who worked for the East India Company.

Philadelphia Austen Hancock

In my last post I talked about the East India Company and mentioned that Jane Austen was connected to the company in some surprising ways. Today I would like to explore that connection in some detail.

On the six month passage to India Phila made friends with another husband-seeking woman named Margaret Maskelyne. When they arrived in India Phila became quickly engaged to Tysoe Saul Hancock, who worked for the East India Company as a surgeon but also earned money by trading Indian products such as salt and cloth. Phila’s friend Margaret married another East India man by the name of Robert Clive. Eventually these two couples also became close friends with another East India couple, Warren and Marian Hastings. The relationships between these three couples would have a profound influence on the life of Jane Austen.

Hastings and Clive were not mere tradesmen. They both rose through the ranks of the East India Company to the very highest positions of leadership. Robert Clive became one of the military leaders of the East India Company and brought India, modern day Pakistan and modern day Bangladesh into the British Empire. He did this by overthrowing the rightful heir to the Bengal throne and installing a puppet leader instead. His official title eventually became Commander in Chief of British India. Clive is known in history as a competent but corrupt leader for removing wealth from the Indian people, condoning atrocities, and implementing land policies that caused one of the worst famines in modern times.

Warren Hastings worked under Clive and helped him implement his programs. While Clive managed the military side of things, Hastings handled the administrative end, eventually becoming the first Governor General of India. To his credit Hastings saw the corruption and abuses of the British rule in India and he often tried to negotiate between the two sides. But he was an East India man and he was bound to enforce even rules he did not personally agree with.

We know that the Phila and her husband maintained close ties with both of these families, especially the Hastings. For a short time all three couples lived in the Clive’s home in India. Phila’s marriage to Hancock seems not to have been a happy one, and there was widespread speculation that Hastings, not Hancock, was the father of Phila’s only child (Eliza). Whether that is true or not we do know that when Hastings sent his young son George to live in England, the child lived with Phila’s relatives, the Austen family. George died of diphtheria while in the Austen’s care, but the warm association between the Hastings and Austen families continued unabated. Many years later, when Hastings was on trial in England for corruption, the Austen family followed every detail of the proceedings and staunchly supported their long time friend. And Hastings eventually gave Eliza Hancock, his godchild and possible natural daughter, an enormous fortune of ten thousand pounds.

Tysoe Saul Hancock, Clarinda, Eliza, and Philadelphia

So, was Jane Austen aware of the less than savory actions of the East India Company? Did she know that her own family was so closely connected to them? She must have. In her lifetime there was such widespread criticism of the East India Company that Parliament passed a series of laws curtailing its powers and bringing it more directly under the control of the British government. Hastings himself was investigated for corruption for an astonishing seven years. (He was ultimately acquitted.) It’s easy to imagine Jane and her family sitting at the dinner table or writing letters to each other, discussing the latest corruption charges against Hastings and wondering how their aunt Phila and cousin Eliza would be affected.,

Jane leaves no direct statements criticizing her family’s powerful friends. We can surmise that the author who crafted such fair minded, morally strong characters as Fanny Price and Anne Elliott was offended by the excesses and abuses of the British government in other parts of the world. But she was a woman, a daughter of the house, and hardly in a position to challenge the status quo. My best guess is that Jane probably felt conflicted at times, as we all do when people close to us are tied to movements or causes we find objectionable. Most likely she tried not to think about it too much.

There is, however, a bare hint of this conflict in Mansfield Park. I suspect that this passage is the closest Jane ever came to publicly expressing her thoughts about the darker side of British colonial policy.

[Edmund to Fanny] “Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. – You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.”

[Fanny] “But I do talk to him more that I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?”

“I did – and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it – but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like – I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”

The “dead silence” comment is interesting, for it exactly describes how Jane treated the subject of British abuses in general in her novels. Fanny Price was speaking of slavery in Barbados, but she could just as easily have been speaking of atrocities in India.

The East India Company eventually collapsed under its own weight. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was harshly put down, but the crown had finally had enough of the business enterprise that had ruled large parts of the British empire on behalf of the crown for so long. It nationalized the East India Company and took over all of its holdings, its finances, and especially its armed forces. In 1874 the company was disbanded entirely.

There is at least one writer out there who believes that we can thank the East India Company, at least in part, for having Jane Austen’s novels available to us today. As I mentioned before, Warren Hastings gave Eliza Hancock, Phila’s daughter, a massive inheritance of 10,000 pounds in the form of a trust fund. Eliza married a French duke who was killed in the revolution. Then, as a widow, she married Jane’s brother Henry, which meant that Henry had control of the inheritance from Hastings–an inheritance that came from Hastings’ work for the East India Company. Henry is the family member who negotiated with publishers on Jane’s behalf, signed contracts in her name, and promoted her works after her death. Without Henry Austen we might not have heard of Jane Austen. In my opinion this is a very tenuous connection, but it certainly gives one pause.

What do you think? Should Jane have addressed this difficult sort of topic in her novels? Should she have openly criticized the British government and East India Company, or was she right to stay silent on the subject? I know these are tricky questions but I would really like to hear your thoughts!

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13 Responses to Jane Austen and the East India Company, Part II, by Elaine Owen

  1. Going to throw the cat among the pigeons here: are we sure she was against it?? Whose to say? If you remain silent about something surely it can be misconstrued either way? Just a thought?

    • You’re absolutely right; she might not have had a strong opinion on the subject, or she may not have been offended at all. Some people weren’t. But a substantial percentage of the population was repelled by the brutality and I prefer to think, based on the totality of her writings, that Jane probably fell into that group. Obviously we’ll never know for sure.

  2. I am sure that this was a difficult decision for her. Given her circumstances, I can definitely understand why she didn’t openly criticize the government and the East India Company.

  3. Though it seems cowardly, I think Jane Austen (in those times), is correct in not overtly expressing the injustice. It would have been great if she always state soemthing in passing about them and give a hint of displeasure. Doing this, will open her book more to the public to plant the seed of awareness (as compared to being too direct and running the chance of her books being banned). I wonder if she were to use a male penname then maybe she can be more direct

    • I never thought of that, Buturot. I wonder if any male English novelists out there tackled such things. Right off hand only Jonathan Swift comes to mind, and he was Irish, not English.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I’m sure Jane was undecided herself as to what to do it if she was going to address East India Company and things.

  5. This certainly promotes the theory of ‘Six degrees of separation.’ Wikipedia defines this as:

    “Six degrees of separation is the idea that all people are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other. As a result, a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.”

    This was very interesting, thanks for sharing.

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