Mary Pearson: A Possible Inspiration for Lydia Bennett, a Guest Post from C. D. Gerard

This post first appeared on Austen Authors on 21 April 2020. Enjoy! 

Upon opening my inbox this morning, I found the latest newsletter from the Jane Austen Centre.  If you haven’t seen one of these newsletters, you should check in out.  It’s full of fun trivia, products and generally just all things Jane.  My favorite is the quiz, which sometimes I can ace, and sometimes, well, frankly, I totally choke. But I do enjoy the newsletter, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out!!

The first feature in the newsletter really was intriguing.  It contained a miniature of a young woman.  The headline read: “Literary Miniature: Was she the inspiration for Lydia Bennett?” When I read further, I discovered that a portrait miniature of a young lady named Mary Pearson and painted by William Wood was offered by the London Gallery for sale, and was purchased by Chawton House.

Pearson was the daughter of a naval officer and was apparently engaged to Henry Austen, brother of Jane Austen.  The engagement only last a few months.  But the most interesting thing to me was the comment that Mary Pearson was the inspiration for Lydia Bennett Wickham in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” This was news to me.  But they didn’t elaborate further. It wasn’t enough for me. My obsessive need for thorough research got the better of me. I had to find out if there was any validity to this hypothesis.  Here’s what I discovered:

Miss Mary Pearson was the daughter of Sir Richard Pearson, an officer of the Greenwich Hospital.  According to “Becoming Jane Austen” by Jon Spence,  Henry took leave from his post with the Oxfordshire regiment to introduce Mary to his family in the summer of 1796.  They went to Rowling, the estate owned by brother Edward, where Jane was making an extended stay.   Jane invited Mary to go back to Steventon with her when she returned there.  Jane wrote her family there in advance, warning them they might be disappointed by Mary’s appearance:

“If Miss Pearson should return with me, pray be careful not to expect too much beauty,” wrote Jane.  “I will to pretend to say that on a first view, she quite answered the opinion I had formed of her.  My Mother I am austere will be disappointed if she does not take great care.  From what I remember of her picture, it is no great resemblance.”

One person in particular that was not a fan of Mary’s was Eliza de Feuillide, Jane and Henry’s cousin.  She had been married to Jean Capot, Comte de Feuillide, who was guillotined for his support of the French monarchy in 1794.  After Eliza moved to England for protection during the revolution, there was always a chemistry between her and Henry, and when his engagement to Mary was announced, she had a few words to say:

“I hear Henry’s late intended is a most intolerable flirt, and reckoned to give herself great airs.  The person who mentioned this to me says she is a pretty wicked looking girl with bright black eyes which pierce through and through. No wonder this poor young man’s heart could not withstand it.”

There is no record I could find that said why, but Mary and Henry were not meant to last.  By the fall, the engagement was broken. My guess is his attachment to Eliza was too strong. He asked for her hand the year before his engagement to Mary, and she rejected it.  But she ultimately gave in to his charms.  It is said that Jane did not approve of her brother marrying Eliza in the beginning, and would have been much happier had he married the less flamboyant and less experienced Miss Pearson.  She was afraid Eliza would promote Henry’s ambitions of being a professional in the military, and this would take him away from her and she would not see him as often as she liked.

Jane Austen corresponded with Mary years after her brother broke off the engagement.  Mary wed another, but not for nearly 20 years. It is thought that this only known miniature portrait of Mary might have been part of her attempt to get back on the marriage market after the broken engagement.  We know during Austen’s time a broken engagement could be quite the scandalous thing, and that could be why Mary did not have another marriage proposal for all that time.

That leaves us to ponder why it is said that Mary was the inspiration for Lydia Bennett.   The truth is, no one can know definitively what inspires a writer, unless they tell you directly, which is rare.  So the connection between Lydia Bennett and Mary Pearson is clearly supposition.  But it could be surmised that, if Mary did have a reputation as a flirt, and was the daughter of a military officer, and was set to marry a military man, this gave Jane Austen the idea for the character. We know that Austen had started composing “First Impressions,” at about this time as well, which can also give credence to the notion that Lydia was based on Mary.

We will never now for sure, but it’s fun to try and make the connections.  As for Mary Pearson, she has been plucked from obscurity, and 200 plus years later, has a little revenge on the boy who took her on the rebound.

You may also like this article on the same subject from the Smithsonian.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in Austen Authors, British history, Georgian England, Georgian Era, Guest Post, Living in the Regency, Pride and Prejudice, reading habits and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mary Pearson: A Possible Inspiration for Lydia Bennett, a Guest Post from C. D. Gerard

  1. Michelle H says:

    Thank you Regina, for repeating this article. I admit I get very behind in reading the blog post emails I subscribe to, and since I appreciate all of them I am never able to unsubscribe to any when I get that itch to ‘clean up’ my email load.

    So, re this post about Mary Pearson and the miniature: As with so many aspects of Jane Austen’s history that are tantalizingly, heartbreakingly missing, here’s another example. Why did Henry break the engagement? It must have been something rather egregious to have made himself responsible for the break. It may only be my perception from reading Regency fiction that if the the man wanted out of the engagement, it was the gentlemanly thing to give the woman the option of breaking the engagement herself. Either way her reputation was going to suffer, but perhaps a little less so than being found unworthy by the betrothed. Wow. Between a rock and a hard place. Were Henry’s parents glad he broke the engagement, or embarrassed? If Jane continued correspondence with her, she must have felt some sympathy for her (????) So many questions. I’m less interested in whether or not Mary Pearson was inspiration for Lydia, which seems pretty fascinating nonetheless.

    I have to frequently remind myself that our obsession with the details of Jane Austen’s life are rather ridiculous (count me in!) and no better (except it being about a historical character) than having an obsession about a movie star and reading every tabloid news snippet about them gobbling up scandal and private details and (give them a break, people) photos of them coming out of the grocery store harassed with their kids, with no makeup and ‘grocery store hair.’ I can’t care any less for that stuff. Even if it’s Colin Firth. But Jane Austen? Personally, I could never deal with publicity. And if, dreamily, I wrote a novel and it became wildly successful (laugh track) I can’t imagine someone either now or 200 years from now wanting to know everything about me and my family. What a nightmare. I still want to know more about Jane, though. ‘:-|

    • Your circular reasoning reminds me of my own, Michelle. I cannot get enough, even when I know the new information will burst my fantasy bubble.

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