Reviewed by Anne Henderson
Jane & D’Arcy – Volume I – Folly is not always folly
Jane & D’Arcy – Volume II – Such talent & such success
By Wal Walker
- Publisher: Arcana Trust 2017
- ISBN: 9786460903996
- RRP: (each volume) $37 (pb)
It is not surprising that one of the first authorities Wal Walker quotes in his forensically researched and comprehensively recorded two volumes on D’Arcy Wentworth and Jane Austen is none other than Virginia Woolf. To Ms Woolf, the formidable woman of letters, Jane Austen never came across as the tame spinster her family wished the world to see. “I prefer to present her,” wrote Woolf, “not in the modest pose which her family determined for her but, rather, as she most frequently presented herself, as rebellious, satirical and wild.”
For Jane Austen fans and academic authorities, Wal Walker’s two volumes, Jane & D’Arcy, now pose quite a few questions. Starting not from the known history and documents left by Jane Austen and her family, but from a long spoken of whisper among the distinguished Australian Wentworth family, Wal Walker begins an investigation equal to a modern day detective hunt to discover why his family long believed there was once a romantic connection between his notorious but significant colonial ancestor D’Arcy Wentworth and the respectable spinster and author Jane Austen of Steventon parish, in Regency England.
Historians love new information. They also hate gaps in the historical trail or documents that have been lost or destroyed. The gaps in Jane Austen’s letters and documents are significant. Her letters before 1796 were destroyed by her family. All of which – for two centuries – has begged the question, why? What scandal around Jane Austen was her family trying to suppress? And, later, why did her sister Cassandra cut out from Jane’s letters many lines of her words? Again – why go to such lengths? What had Jane said or done?
The cover up fuels Wal Walker’s search. In an age where family scandal meant social death – an issue richly woven into Jane Austen’s novels – there is only one conclusion. Jane Austen had a secret life in her early years. All that remains to find out is what exactly was her scandal. As Wal Walker notes from a close reading of her early writing:
The Juvenilia stories brim over with the excitement of sexual attraction and experience, with Jane’s observations, serious and comic, of passion – of men, old and young, in the throes of love and lust.
This is not the experience of a closeted spinster or a protected young woman, nor of the writer who has only known cheap romantic novels, as her family tried to suggest when queried, after her death, about Jane’s early life.
The search into Jane Austen’s past is engrossing. Walker has traced flaws in her family’s explanation that she had little or no experience of London especially in her teenage years. In fact, he shows that the knowledge of London Austen exhibits could only have come from first hand experience, especially for Sense and Sensibility begun as Elinor and Marianne around 1795 when she was 19. More than this, Walker demonstrates how the plots and characters to be found in Austen’s Juvenilia – short stories and satires written in her earliest teenage years and not published till more than a century after her death – are evidence of a young woman not just with an adventurous mind but also one who has known an adventurous life among her social contacts.
As Kathryn Sutherland has written for the British Library’s Discovering Literature; Romantics and Victorians, “Jane Austen’s earliest writings appear to have little in common with the restrained and realistic society portrayed in her adult novels. By contrast, they are exuberantly expressionistic tales of sexual misdemeanour, of female drunkenness and violence.”
This, taken together with the fact that students of Austen accept, as critic Reginald Farrer did in Quarterly Review as far back as 1917, her “preoccupation [was] with truth, and her selection of material only from observed facts tested by personal experience” can only suggest Ms Austen seems to have had a much more racy, if not rebellious, few years as a teenager. Austen’s writing is, as Walker says, “about real people, real episodes, events, conflicts, that she disguised as fiction”.
This seemingly inexperienced spinster, surprisingly, wrote vividly about men and their masculine habits, human passion, grief, emotional and mental breakdown, anxiety, love, heartbreak, family scandal and tragedy, even of selling second hand jewellery, and with such realistic and photographic accuracy that it is impossible to conceive Miss Austen had no first hand knowledge of the human psychology behind her people and events. Pride and Prejudice is commonly called the world’s first psychological novel, its phrases and conversation so real script writers have no need to invent characters’ lines – they leap from the page as if already prepared for the acted script.
From Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and The Juvenilia, Walker quotes lines again and again that are so detailed in their intricate capture of human intimacy and emotion it is impossible to believe Jane Austen herself did not experience them. That she knew great love and passion – gained and lost at an early age when her recklessness and sense of life and young appetite for excitement took her by stealth. The only question is, with whom and where and when. Walker makes a good case around his ancestor D’Arcy Wentworth.
Enter D’Arcy Wentworth, distant cousin of William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam or 4th Earl Fitzwilliam who, after inheriting his uncle Lord Rockingham’s South Yorkshire estates and mines centred on the magnificent Wentworth House (the largest mansion in the UK) in 1782, became one of the greatest landowners in England.
D’Arcy Wentworth was born in February 1762 in Ireland’s Portadown. His family was a distinguished Irish branch of the Wentworth family, albeit one which had lost the bulk of its fortune. D’Arcy’s father, however, made a comfortable living in the linen trade and in commodities. His bright son D’Arcy had been educated from the age of 16 as an apprentice to a local surgeon. But, in order to improve his recognised qualifications before seeking a post in India, D’Arcy needed to further his medical studies in London, which he set out to do in May 1785. In England, he was befriended by his cousin the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, who by then was a leading Whig at Westminster. Through the Fitzwilliam/Wentworth connection D’Arcy made his way into London society.
Building on the understanding that Jane Austen’s strength as a writer is her ability to capture realistically the minutia of society, Walker draws on Austen’s writing for fictional descriptions of events and human activity that suggest D’Arcy and Jane Austen were known to each other, had a relationship and may well have run off to Scotland to be married in 1789. Jane was 14 and D’Arcy 28.
Certainly, as quoted from her writing, Austen had knowledge beyond her closeted family life and experience. The question is – if supported by the possibilities – was Jane Austen the fictional Lydia Bennet of Pride and Prejudice or the fictional Georgiana Darcy, sister of Fitzwilliam Darcy in the same novel? Miss Georgina was rescued from her seduction by Wickham; Lydia, on the other hand, became his wife at 15 while the Bennet family was only saved from scandal and ruin with the intervention of Mr Darcy.
Jane and D’Arcy were linked by family – Jane Austen’s mother was distantly related to the Wentworth/Fitzwilliams. Jane’s older brothers mixed in the wider upper middle class and aristocratic circles D’Arcy had joined by coming to England. The names Darcy, Fitzwilliam, and Wickham of Pride and Prejudice match real names in the Austens’ circle of social contacts. And real life William Wickham lived near a town called Bingley. It is believed that Wentworth Woodhouse was the grand estate and mansion that became Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s detailed description of the fictional Pemberley indicates a familiarity with Wentworth Woodhouse. In Persuasion, the last of the Austen novels, her heroine Anne Elliott, aged 27, gets a second chance at love with Captain Wentworth after losing him seven years before.
Over his half decade in London, D’Arcy Wentworth took to gambling to help pay his way as a student surgeon. He often found those who lost to him at cards did not pay their debts. He was tried three times for highway robbery and accused, as were other young gentlemen who took to the highway with their pistols, of robbing those who owed him money at gambling, taking cash and jewellery to be sold – often by a female accomplice. D’Arcy was never found guilty but at his last trial in late 1789 was only acquitted on grounds of lack of evidence, in tandem with his promise to join the Second Fleet for Australia, which became a self imposed exile.
As the ship taking D’Arcy Wentworth left for Sydney Cove at the end of 1789, Walker notes that two weeks later Jane Austen’s brother Henry published a piece in the Oxford magazine The Loiterer where he praised the world for getting “rid of its superfluous inhabitants, both Poets & Pickpockets Prudes & Prostitutes, in short all those who have too much cunning or too little money … shipped off with the very first cargo of Convicts to Botany Bay”.
Sometime in 1790, Jane Austen opened her father’s registry at Steventon and made three extraordinary entries in her own hand. She wrote:
The Banns of Marriage between Henry Frederick Howard Fitzwilliam of London and Jane Austen of Steventon.
Edmund Arthur William Mortimer of Liverpool and Jane Austen of Steventon were married in this church.
This marriage was solemnised between us Jack Smith & Jane Smith late Austen, in the presence of Jack Smith, Jane Smith.
It is the last entry, which grabs Walker’s attention. Referring to a line in Sense and Sensibility (“Publishing the Banns of marriage between John Smith & Mary Brown”) he writes, “Here she named herself and D’Arcy as Jane and Jack Smith … D’Arcy sometimes used the name John Smith [reference to Whitehall Evening Post, 12 November 1789], perhaps he used it for their Scottish marriage, and Jane gave her name as Mary Brown.”
The twists and turns of Walker’s sleuthing are a fascinating read. How much reality is in them is up to the reader. The idea of marriage for Jane and D’Arcy is a long bow. Yet, as Walker notes, writing to her sister Cassandra years later, there is a reference in one of Jane’s letters to a rough carriage journey which, “put me in mind of my own Coach between Edinburgh and Sterling”. Her family denied Jane had ever set foot in Scotland, a comment obviously contradicted by Jane Austen’s own words. What exactly were they hiding?
D’Arcy Wentworth was known for his womanising. Immediately on board the Neptune, in the last weeks of 1789 as the Fleet prepared to leave for Australia, he took his assigned convict woman Catherine Crowley as his mistress. She gave birth to D’Arcy’s eldest child, William Wentworth, in mid August that year as they arrived at Norfolk Island. D’Arcy never married after he left England and was believed to have left a wife behind him there. All of which begs another question, might he have indeed married Jane? Or did he try to make off with her to Scotland in the hope of a respectable marriage only to have his attempt cut dead by her outraged family who then kept Jane out of “danger” for the rest of her life?
In Volume II – Such talent & such success, Walker draws on letters and colonial history to personalise the early years of Australia’s European settlement. D’Arcy Wentworth never returned to England but he was assisted in his rise to become possibly the wealthiest colonist in New South Wales by the time of his death in 1827, helped not least by his connection to Fitzwilliam. He rose to the positions of Principal Surgeon and Police Magistrate, built the original Sydney Hospital and prospered in business, even horse breeding.
His rise was not without its setbacks but D’Arcy seems to have kept his head low and eventually navigated the rough and smooth of those early Rum Corps years, in spite of falling out with governors. He was particularly helped by his friendship with Governor Macquarie, survived the Bigge Inquiry and, sometime after the death of Catherine Crowley, produced a tribe of seven children with his second de facto Mary Ann Lawes. All reports are that they were a happy family at Home Bush. There is little evidence D’Arcy Wentworth held any torch for such romance as he may have left behind in England but he did try to have the authorities in London grant him permission to return. He never received it.
Jane & D’Arcy is a detailed and exhaustively researched saga. It often fictionalises events, meetings and letters that cannot be proven to have happened. It makes leaps of faith about the romance between Jane Austen and D’Arcy Wentworth. That can be jarring for the professional historian. Perhaps, like David Lodge in his book Author, Author – on the friendship between Henry James and George Du Maurier – Walker could have added that parts of his work are “A Novel”.
Yet, Walker’s personalising of the world which Jane Austen and D’Arcy Wentworth belonged to is strangely absorbing. Regency England and Colonial Australia could not have been more different. Yet, as many of the figures from London whom D’Arcy Wentworth knew or was involved with turn up to spend time in New South Wales and beyond, connections among the ruling classes and professionals around Britain’s naval and army command are shown to be quite narrow.
Perhaps, after all, Wal Walker has put his finger fairly close to the secret of Jane Austen’s lost years.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History