A life lesson universally acknowledged is that when you marry someone, you marry into their entire family. Not infrequently, some family member may act to interfere with the happiness of a couple during their courtship. Such was the case for Lizzy Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.
No sooner does his aunt Lady Catherine deBourgh hear of the growing attachment between her nephew and Lizzy, than she shows up unannounced at Longbourn with every intention of breaking off the possibility of an engagement between them. Announcing she is “not to be trifled with,” she accuses Lizzy of using her “arts and allurement” to draw him in. She insults Lizzy for being socially inferior through her family relations. When Lizzy refuses to promise that she would turn down a proposal from Mr. Darcy, Lady Catherine calls her “obstinate, headstrong girl” and accuses her of being unfeeling and selfish.
Despite being “most seriously displeased,” Lady Catherine’s efforts to prevent the engagement are in vain. As Darcy later tells Lizzy, “Lady Catherine’s unjustifiable endeavours to separate us were the means of removing all my doubts.” He sends off a letter to his aunt, confirming his engagement.
The Bennet relatives also cause uncomfortable feelings for the couple during their courtship. Being in the society of “vulgar” Aunt and Uncle Phillips takes “some pleasure from the season.” Lizzy looks forward with delight (and probably great relief) to the time they should be removed to the comfort of Pemberley in Derbyshire. Even easy-going Charles Bingley and his wife Jane cannot long abide living near the Bennet relations; after one year of marriage, they leave Netherfield and move to Derbyshire.
At least Pemberley was far enough removed from Meryton and Rosings to prevent frequent social intercourse with unpleasant, interfering family relatives. Things were much worse for Jane Austen’s great-grandmother, Eliza Weller Austen, forced to live in the same neighbourhood as her curmudgeonly father-in-law who was opposed to the marriage. Much like Lady Catherine, old man Austen tried to prevent the couple from marrying by grossly insulting Eliza during their first meeting. After the marriage went forward, he continued to be a constant thorn in her side.
Austens of Broadford—The Midwife Chronicles, Book Three
My fictionalized biography of Eliza Weller Austen is based in part, on her handwritten memorandum setting forth her grievances against her father-in-law. This document was passed down through the Austen family for generations, where it was undoubtedly read by young Jane and may have influenced her when she created the character of Lady Catherine. In the following excerpt, Eliza (who has been married to John Austen IV for eight years) bemoans the ongoing mistreatment by her father-in-law to her best friend Lucina.
Lucina hated to see her friend in distress. “I think the signs were there even before you two were wed. I will never forget the day the old man insisted you come to Horsmonden, to ‘look you over’ before consenting to your marriage. You were frightened and asked me to accompany you.”
“I remember,” she said softly.
* * *
It had been a sultry August day. After admitting them to Grovehurst, Mr. Austen’s housekeeper ushered them into his study, where they were kept waiting for a quarter of an hour. The two thirsty ladies were not even offered a cold drink. Finally, the old man appeared. They stood and curtsied to him. Lucina was ignored, as he glared at Eliza.
“So, Miss Weller, you are betrothed to my son,” he stated without smiling.
“Yes, sir. John and I are deeply in love, and alike in our desire to be wed as soon as possible.”
“Hmph! He replied, scanning her from head to toe.
Eliza looked perplexed, although Lucina surmised that he was searching for signs of a swollen belly.
“Have you a substantial dowry?” he demanded of Eliza.
“As much as my father can afford, having several daughters.”
“I’ve made inquiries. To be sure, it is not a vast sum. At least I am able to provide a marital abode for my son. It is close by.”
“John told me you were indeed fortunate to inherit not one, but two spacious houses from a childless uncle,” said Eliza brightly. “Grovehurst and Broadford, both former clothmaster halls.”
He leaned forward in his chair and pointed his finger at her. “Aha. So, you already know the Austen fortune arose from weaving of Kentish broadcloth.”
“Yes, sire. One of my Weller ancestors was also a clothier.”
He smirked. “Not nearly as successful as the Austen Greycoats, who wisely invested their profits in rental properties and farmland when the manufacture of cloth began to wane.” His sharp eyes bored into her again. “Stand up,” he suddenly barked, waving his right hand at her in a circular manner. “Turn around so I can have a better look at you.”
Lucina tried to stop her friend from submitting to inspection. “Don’t,” she whispered in Eliza’s ear. “You are not a mare for sale.” But Eliza complied, trying to win his favour. She was no great beauty, but her overall appearance was not unsatisfactory. Turning around gracefully, she allowed him to gaze on her before smoothing her skirt and returning to her seat.
“As you well understand, Miss Weller, my son is sole heir to the Austen fortune,” said Mr. Austen. “He must have a male heir. A legitimate one, born on the right side of the sheets.”
“Sir—” began Eliza, bewildered by his insinuation.
He spoke very directly. “Missy, I need to know. Have you already enticed my son into your bed?”
He sat forward and wagged his finger at her. “Are you intact?”
Lucina stood up and said, “Eliza, let us leave now. You need not sit here and be showered with further insults.” But Eliza pulled her friend back down onto the settee.
“I assure you, sir, that I respect your desire to protect your son and the fortune your family has amassed,” she said with an air of defiance. “My reputation as the daughter of a gentleman is unblemished.”
“Humph, I know your father. Together, we shall have to arrange the terms of the marriage settlement, albeit my input shall take precedence. My son turned down a golden opportunity to . . . well, that is water under the bridge. He has apparently fallen under your spell and there is not much I can do to stop him. John acts on his desires without forethought.” With that, he arose to leave the room, then paused to add: “I do not wish you or your insolent friend well.”
Eliza had wept bitter tears during the ride back to Tunbridge. Nonetheless, she had been determined not to break off her engagement. She would prove to Master Austen that she could be a good wife and mother. His assessment of her was unjust.
Chapter Six, Pages 54-57
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About Carole Penfield
I am a retired attorney, turned novelist. I live in Northern Arizona with my husband Perry Krowne and two overly friendly cats. The Midwife Chronicles series was released in December 2021; all three books are available on Amazon in paperback and eBook format. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1737807904
This trilogy follows the continuing saga of the Dupres midwives, who are forced to flee France for England in Book One, Midwife of Normandy. They are befriended by the Austens of Kent and find their lives intertwined in Book Two, Lucina’s Destiny. The close friendship between Lucina Dupres and Jane Austens’ remarkable, real-life great-grandmother Eliza Weller Austen which begins in Book Two, is more fully developed inBook Three, Austens of Broadford. Although each of these novels can be read as “standalones,” reading the series in order is highly recommended. To learn more, please visit my website https://www.carolepenfield.com Customer reviews on Amazon or Goodreads are greatly appreciated!