From the desk of Virginia Claire Tharrington:
In the new novel Dearest Cousin Jane, author Jill Pitkeathley paints a wonderful portrait of Jane Austen’s cousin Countess Eliza de Feuillide. Eliza seems to have had an intoxicating effect on most of the Austen family, but Henry, James, and Jane are the most taken with her. It becomes clear very early in the novel that Eliza had a huge influence on her as a young writer both directly and indirectly. Eliza gives Jane a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Right of Women. I thought this as an interesting detail to add, but perhaps a little too assertive on the author’s part. Eliza encourages Jane to write and it is implied that Jane even used her as a model for some of her characters in her novels. Pitkeathley offers an interesting look at an often overlooked relationship in Austen’s life. To a young Jane, her dashing older cousin must have seemed to be leading an adventurous life.
The story is told in a series of journal entries and letters from a variety of characters. It starts in April 1765 with Eliza’s mother Philadelphia Austen Hancock’s travels to India and continues until a little after Eliza’s death in 1813. Questions are certainly raised about Eliza’s parentage and the issue is never fully resolved which is intriguing. Pitkeathley gives many different characters a voice. Philadelphia’s husband Tysoe Saul Hancock even has a section telling of his life and his relationship with Warren Hastings, the Governor of Bengal and Eliza’s godfather. Other narrators include Eliza, George Austen, Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen, James Austen, Henry Austen, and Philly Walter. Eliza’s early life and education are talked about briefly and it is hard to get a full understanding of her as a young girl. By Chapter 5 she is living in France and is married to nobleman Comte Jean-François Capot de Feuillide. I would have enjoyed a little more of Eliza’s life as a single woman and her time with her mother because it would be an interesting time for these women. Eliza’s first marriage is also dealt with and a very interesting part of the novel. To marry a French Count when you were a young English girl took guts to be sure. That is something that I think comes across throughout the novel; Eliza had guts. She deals with the hardships of pregnancies and financial difficulties with a sensitivity that helps the reader to really begin to understand her life. Pitkeathley also does a wonderful job of sprinkling little facts in here and there either about Jane Austen’s life, history of the day, or just everyday life in the Georgian-era. It makes reading more believable and enjoyable.
Interwoven within Eliza’s life story is also the story of the Austen family and her interactions with them. I love how Pitkeathley works in Jane Austen’s writings. Even as a young girl Jane begins to share her writings with her family and Eliza. Eliza says “what a delight I found her! Whimsical she maybe but what virtue there is in her dry wit, and as for her powers of observation! I was touched that she shyly offered me two of what she called ‘scribblings’ to read”. I love Eliza’s observations of Jane because it is what I picture her to be as well. The only problem is that Jane is not really portrayed like that throughout the novel. I see no wit or powers of observation that come through in her own chapters of the book. I don’t think I laughed out loud once while reading her sections (and I believe that if Jane Austen kept a journal I would be laughing a lot). Eliza’s adventures continue throughout the novel. Her husband is beheaded in the French Revolution, and then she marries Jane’s older brother Henry Austen several years later. What an interesting life she must have led.
Overall I found this book pretty enjoyable. There were high and low points. The passage I quoted earlier about Eliza’s pleasure in a young Jane is perhaps my favorite in the novel (There is also a lovely section when Jane begins to write again once settled at Chawton!). One negative though is the number of narrators used makes it hard to keep up with. The first section is particularly hard because it jumps from present to a memory in the past. Thank God there is a character list in the front of the book to help you keep straight who is who. One character that I had particular problems with was Eliza and Jane’s cousin Philly Walter. She is given several sections of the story to tell and yet she reveals very little. She just plots and plans and seems pretty miserable in her lot in life. I believe that much of what we know about Eliza today is from Philly and Eliza’s letters to one another. Philly is so disagreeable that I cannot see why anyone would write to her or even talk to her for that matter. She was a bore and a brat. However, I did appreciate how Pitkeathley dealt with Jane and Cassandra’s lost love. It was not overly sentimental and pretty believable which I found refreshing.
I did enjoy Dearest Cousin Jane and recommend it for anyone interested in Jane’s infamous cousin Eliza. It will wet your appetite to learn more about her life and her major influence on her cousin Jane.
4 out of 5 Stars
Dearest Cousin Jane: A Jane Austen Novel, by Jill Pitkeathley
Trade paperback (276) pages
Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins © 2010; text Virginia Claire Tharrington © 2010, Austenprose.com