I haven’t been writing my blog lately because I’ve been busy writing my book. At the moment I’m wrestling with chapters 6 and 7. It’s 1822. Walter has arrived back in Britain, having made a fortune – over £100,000! – in China. I’m trying to set the scene for this transition point, and I keep tripping over Jane Austen.
In many ways, at this point in his life Walter Davidson was a quintessential ‘single man of good fortune…in want of a wife’. It’s a real phenomenon, and one that Jane Austen obviously knew: first, you make your fortune in some far off outpost of empire (or Yorkshire, in the case of the Bingleys), then you return to your local community, or a friend’s community, and shortly afterwards marry an appropriate girl within the extended family circle. Men like this are peppered throughout her novels.
Here’s Captain Wentworth in Persuasion:
Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match. Any body between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking. A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man…
Frederick Wentworth made his fortune from prize money in the navy (like Jane’s brothers Francis and Charles). In Emma, Mr Weston made his from trade, possibly in the East India Company.
A few months after his arrival, Walter Davidson went home to Scotland to see his family, taking with him a friend he had met on the ship home, Thomas Coats, who had retired from the East India Company. Within a month, Thomas asked Walter’s sister to marry him. Ann Davidson was nearly 42 when they married and moved to his estate near Newcastle. As with Miss Taylor’s marriage to Mr Weston, this late romance was a matter of satisfaction to all the family:
…how much the marriage is to Miss Taylor’s advantage;…how very acceptable it must be at Miss Taylor’s time of life to be settled in a home of her own, and how important to her to be secure of a comfortable provision…
Walter fell in love equally rapidly with a cousin, Anne Mathison. It was when I reread a letter from him saying that their marriage was delayed because Anne’s father was in Jamaica, trying to sort out financial problems with his estates there – just like Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park – that I began to feel seriously haunted by Jane Austen.
I first read Pride and Prejudice as a set text in our first year of high school. I was 13 – and I have loved her novels ever since. I still reread them regularly. Well, maybe not Northanger Abbey…. But how legitimate is it to use them to illustrate Walter’s world? Just how reliable are they as a guide to Regency England? And how will a reader respond to such references, particularly if their ideas are shaped by television and cinema, rather than the original novels?
The real Jane Austen knew something of Walter’s world, and I think that many of her insights are valuable. Her brother Henry was a banker (though a much less successful one than Walter), her parents knew the East India Company through their friendship with Warren Hastings, and her nephew Edward Austen-Leigh was a school friend of another of Walter’s cousins, Walter Farquhar Hook, at Winchester.
As a young curate on the Isle of Wight, Walter Hook read Pride and Prejudice in 1822, and wrote to his mother:
Did you ever read ‘Pride and Prejudice’? I sent for it a few weeks ago when I had a cold, which stuffed up my nose and caused a ringing in my ears, and the weather was rainy, so that I was too poorly to read anything serious, and not in a humour for poetry. It amused me very much; it is a regular gossip throughout. I found myself in a pleasant family circle, and listened to the gossip without having the trouble of joining in it; and at last became so interested in their welfare that the mamma herself could not have been more anxious about marrying her daughters than I was. I loved Lizzie; but I should have married Jane if I had had my choice….
Perhaps he ordered the book because he knew her nephew, but Hook still represents a lost world of readers who discovered Pride and Prejudice for themselves, before it was a set text, a Penguin Classic, a TV blockbuster – and definitely without a single zombie in sight.
We can’t go back there now. It seems to me that Jane Austen’s novels are now so freighted with secondary meanings that they can no longer be used to illustrate their own time. If I was writing about the Church of England in the 1860s I would unquestionably refer to Trollope’s Barchester novels, but I think – very sadly – that the Jane Austen references will have to come out.
There’s an Australian connection too – or rather, an Australian-related puzzle. The first colonial surgeon in New South Wales was a ne’er-do-well medical student called D’Arcy Wentworth, ‘a handsome, tall man with blue eyes who was invariably popular with all classes and both sexes’. In 1787, he appeared at the Old Bailey charged with 3 counts of highway robbery, but his influential relative Lord Fitzwilliam managed to get him off the charges on condition that he went to New South Wales as colonial surgeon and stayed there.
It has to be pure coincidence – but I’d love to know how Jane Austen came to give his names to 2 of her romantic heroes, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Captain Wentworth.
W. R. W. Stephens, The Life and Letters of Walter Farquhar Hook, D.D., F.R.S. (1881) is available here