Tuesday 20 March 2018

Pride, prejudice and an Irish connection that Austen could never have imagined

Star role: Lorna Quinn as Elizabeth Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. PAT REDMOND
Star role: Lorna Quinn as Elizabeth Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. PAT REDMOND

Maggie Armstrong

It would be such fun to go to Pride and Prejudice in the Gate with Jane Austen. The book is 200 years old this year and you would get to ask her about posthumous celebrity. You would get to ask her what she meant by having Mr Darcy describe the Irish as "savages". And you'd get to ask her what she thought of three of her favourite nieces ending up in Ireland.

Mr Darcy's slight gives us insight into Jane Austen's own prejudices. When Elizabeth first shirks Mr Darcy at a local dance, in an intrepid demonstration of "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen", Darcy is encouraged to jig along to some Irish and Scottish airs. "Every savage can dance," he snaps. The comment from literature's worst-tempered hero shows Ireland was a colony Jane Austen knew little about and most definitely feared. Her brother Henry was sent here under General Cornwallis to deal with the 1798 Rebellion.

As a maiden aunt, Jane Austen dispensed advice to younger family members. When her niece Anna was working on a novel, she told her in a chary letter not to even write about Ireland, "as you know nothing of the Manners there". Had she not died at 41, Austen would surely have worried about her niece Cassandra marrying an Irishman, and what that meant for the family.

Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight were the youngest daughters of Austen's brother Charles Knight. Their stories of privilege and displacement to Ireland add to what little we know of Jane Austen's short life, and deepen our knowledge of the Famine and the Land Wars they lived through.

Dr Sophia Hillan, who discovered their tombstones on a hilltop in Donegal, describes their life here as their "long years of exile". Her book May, Lou & Cass: Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland is interesting for Austen fans and a sturdy read for anyone curious about the 19th Century.

The girls grew up in a Palladian mansion very different to Jane Austen's rectory in Hampshire. They called her "poor Aunt Jane". While Maiden Aunt Jane's role in the family was to read to them and supervise their needlework, we know from her letters that she also would have been a great fun house guest. On one visit, she planned to "eat ice & drink French wine". Marianne remembers how she wrote.

"Aunt Jane would sit quietly working beside the fire in the Library, saying nothing for a good while and then would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across to a table to write something down and then come back to the fire, and go on quietly working as before." By working, she means darning. Aspiring writers (men too) might try that out.

In 1837, Cassandra Knight, the Jane Bennet of the sisters, married the dashing Lord George Hill, a young Irish nobleman stationed in Dublin Castle as Comptroller of the Household of the Lord Lieutenant. The match took her to Dublin and then the depths of Donegal when he bought a property near the sea.

Lord George was a Gaelic scholar and reformist, and chairman of the Relief Commission in Donegal during the Famine. He built the Gweedore Hotel, which still stands.

After Cassandra's death in childbirth (the daughter, little Cassandra, would become a Gaelic speaker and social reformer), Louisa married Lord George. Described as "nun-like" by one novelist, she moved to Gweedore in 1847 at the height of the Famine and became involved with relief works.

The niece to have most absorbed Jane Austen's spirit, or its avatar the boisterous Lizzie Bennet, was Marianne, her god-daughter and a witty, free-spirited gal.

Austen took her to the theatre aged 12, and left her a gold chain in her will.

She moved here after Lord George's death aged 83, undertaking a storm-tossed journey from Kent to Donegal to care for Louisa. The two grew old together, and Marianne lived with niece Cassandra until aged 95.

Sophia Hillan found the graves of these characters clambering with nettles and wild flowers. Theirs is a story of how the landowning class came to regard their exile as their home. And they give us just a little bit of ownership over their minder Jane Austen's genius.


Irish Independent

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