Ninth in the series We Want More Austen! about the less-known works of Jane Austen.
There are many great opening lines in literature, from “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .” to “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .” But right up there near the top for me is the first sentence of a short story Jane Austen wrote in her teens, “Henry and Eliza”:
As Sir George and Lady Harcourt were superintending the Labours
of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of
approbation, & punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel,
they perceived lying closely concealed beneath the thick foliage
of a Haycock, a beautifull little Girl not not more than 3 months old.
Scarcely have we stopped guffawing over the cudgel than we are sucked right into the gothic mystery of an abandoned infant!
The child, named Eliza, immediately marks herself a romantic heroine by returning “infantine tho’ sprightly answers” (at age 3 months??) to Sir George and Lady Harcourt’s questions, so they decide on the spot to adopt her and raise her as their own. What happens next is best told in Jane Austen’s own words:
Beloved by Lady Harcourt, adored by Sir George & admired
by all the World, she lived in a continued course of uninterrupted
Happiness, till she had attained her eighteenth year, when
happening one day to be detected in stealing a banknote of
50£, she was turned out of doors by her inhuman Benefactors.
She is hired as a companion to the Duchess of F., whose daughter is engaged to be married to a Mr. Henry Cecil—uh oh. In no time, the manipulative Eliza has seduced away Henry’s affections, and they are married clandestinely by the duchess’s chaplain, who is also in love
The enraged duchess sends out an army of men to track them down; they flee to France, where they have two sons, but after three years Henry dies. Upon Eliza’s return, destitute, to England, the duchess promptly imprisons her; but soon Eliza escapes with her boys. She sells her clothes to buy toys for her children and a gold watch for herself.
But scarcely was she provided with the above-mentioned
necessaries, than she began to find herself rather hungry,
& had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers,
that her Children were much in the same situation.
Not the sort of sentence one expects to read from Jane Austen’s pen! Eliza struggles to make her way back to Sir George and Lady Harcourt; and when they meet again, Lady Harcourt suddenly recollects that Eliza was in fact her biological child! Lady Harcourt explains that she had abandoned her infant because she thought Sir George would be disappointed about not having a boy—and then she had forgotten all about the incident till this very moment. The family is happily reunited and the story ends.
In a story marked not only by young Jane’s typical satire of romance novel conventions but also by a tone of sociopathic savagery, what strikes me most forcibly is the names of the couple, Henry and Eliza. Jane Austen’s favorite brother was named Henry, and she had a cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, who had married a French count and borne him a son before her husband was guillotined. When Jane was a girl, the widowed Eliza came back to England, and the much younger Henry Austen (as well as Jane Austen’s clerical brother, James) fell in love with her. Eliza toyed with Henry for years before ultimately marrying him.
Could this youthful story of vice, displacement, and cruelty be a teenage girl’s way of lashing out at the Cousin Eliza who was making her adored brother’s life a misery? It seems impossible not to make connections between the fictional Eliza and Eliza de Feuillide’s life and character. By contrast to Eliza’s scheming, immoral role in the story, Henry (the character) is an almost invisible victim, seduced away to his death.
If Jane Austen’s motive for writing this tale was as transparent to Jane’s relatives as it appears to a modern reader, why didn’t they suppress it after her death? Instead it was preserved in the first notebook of Jane Austen’s childhood works. We can only speculate about how “Henry and Eliza” was received within the Austen family—and wonder at the respect in which Jane’s writing must have been held, even in its most juvenile forms. Jane must have held a privileged position indeed to have gotten away with this offensive piece of slander. Who says her fiction is all prim propriety?