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.