Jane Austen and the Highwayman

Jane & D’Arcy: Jane Austen & D’Arcy Wentworth, Volume I: Folly Is Not Always Folly
by Wal Walker
Arcana Gallery, 2017, 432 pages, $36.95

D’Arcy Wentworth deserves to be remembered as more than a womanising highwayman. So said Dame Marie Bashir, launching Wal Walker’s book Jane & D’Arcy.

There is every reason to remember D’Arcy Wentworth (1762–1827), one of Australia’s pioneer doctors and a founder of Sydney Hospital, better known in its day as the Rum Hospital. A handsome Irishman, Wentworth impressed people as friendly, intelligent and fair-minded. He held the office of police magistrate simultaneously with his role of medical officer, acquired land, and grew rich while staying aloof from the colony’s exclusivist elite.

But what is his connection with Jane Austen (1775–1817)?

Many Australian readers of Austen’s novels must have noticed her fondness for names connected with the Wentworth family. The hero of Pride and Prejudice, so memorably played by Colin Firth, is Fitzwilliam Darcy. D’Arcy Wentworth’s cousin and supporter, head of the Wentworth clan based at Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, was Earl Fitzwilliam. The heroine of Emma has the surname Woodhouse. Anne Elliott, in Persuasion, yearns for the love of her youth, Captain Wentworth.

Wal Walker, a direct descendant of D’Arcy Wentworth, was bequeathed the family secret, or legend, of a link between the two by his uncle, Liberal Member of Parliament Bill Wentworth (1907–2003). The hints in Austen’s fiction, Bill Wentworth maintained, went well beyond coincidence. Jane Austen was obsessed with D’Arcy Wentworth: there was even a love story to be discovered.

Wal Walker has taken this kernel of family lore and expanded it into a detailed study of D’Arcy Wentworth’s life in parallel with Austen’s fiction and biography. His remarkable book will infuriate some readers as much as it will enthrall others. His account of Wentworth’s life is lively and scrupulously researched; but for too many of his assertions about Jane Austen he relies on a far from impartial reading of her fiction.

D’Arcy Wentworth had a fascinating life.  Brought up in Ireland in a large Anglo-Irish family whose fortune had long vanished, he went to London as a medical student. Training required him to “walk the wards” of a series of hospitals, under the supervision of senior surgeons. He aimed to secure a surgeon’s post with the East India Company. Living expenses were a problem, and he was soon tempted into gambling at cafes such as the Dog & Duck. Like several other medical students, he became something of a cardsharp, memorising the fall of the cards. The young sharpers found, to their cost, that rich merchants and lawyers often failed to pay their gambling debts. Wentworth resorted to holding up carriages in which he knew his debtors were travelling. Before long, he was arrested on a capital charge.

In court, the highwayman provided great copy for the news-sheets. Young, educated, handsome and related to a great family, he became a celebrity. Several times the evidence against him petered out, the victims retrieving their watches but declining to press charges and face publicity. After D’Arcy’s acquittal, his cousin Fitzwilliam, no doubt anxious to avoid further slurs on the family name, urged him to sail to New South Wales with the First Fleet. D’Arcy met with the surgeons of the First Fleet at the Isle of Wight and spent several days working alongside them, but his qualifications, intended for India, were not suitable for service in the Navy. He returned to London for further study and in mid-1787 qualified as an assistant naval surgeon. Ironically enough, while he was in the forecourt of the Old Bailey waiting to collect his certificate, he ran into a former robbery victim. Amid much shouting and confusion, he was arrested once more. This time a news-sheet referred to him as “the celebrated Mr Wentworth”.

Walker writes that the trial drew a great crowd, including the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland, the latter in an eye-catching hat of beaver trimmed with pink satin ribbons. Reporters noted a lot of genial repartee and an undercurrent “as if everybody had considered just how far it was safe to go to achieve a planned result without endangering Mr Wentworth”. Amazingly enough, the prosecutor was the one to announce to the court that the accused was about to take a passage to Botany Bay. The jury found Wentworth not guilty. On the same day, nine prisoners were condemned to death.

So, to return to Dame Marie Bashir’s remark, quoted earlier. Highwayman? Yes, but with provocation. Womaniser? That is more difficult.

At the time of the Old Bailey trial, Wentworth was living with a young woman who gave her name variously as Taylor, Weaver and Mrs Wilson. I am not convinced that these aliases were a screen for Jane Austen, who was then not quite fifteen. On the long voyage to Sydney on the Neptune, Wentworth formed a partnership with Catherine Crowley, a convict. Soon after their arrival in the colony, the pair were sent to Norfolk Island where D’Arcy was to work as a surgeon. William Charles Wentworth was famously born aboard the Surprize, during a storm off Norfolk Island.

The Norfolk Island years were a peaceful interval for the growing Wentworth family, who later returned to Sydney. D’Arcy won respect as a surgeon, but because of the unconventional way he had left England, as a paying passenger rather than a naval officer, it was years before he was paid properly for his work. Catherine died in Parramatta in 1800 after being bitten by a redback spider. D’Arcy Wentworth never married, but fathered ten children, the first three with Catherine. By twenty-first-century standards, and eighteenth-century standards for that matter, he ranks as a serial monogamist, not a womaniser.

Jane Austen was not the meek, Christian saint memorialised in the plaque over her coffin in Winchester Cathedral. Nor was she the dutiful, quiet spinster that later Austens liked to portray. She flirted; she mimicked people; she questioned authority. Like all great wits, she could be cruel, once admitting that she could be “a Beast”. However, she lived in a society where women’s lives were circumscribed by propriety. There was no escape from gossip. The quotations from the novels may sit well with Walker’s thesis, but they don’t prove a lasting relationship between Jane and D’Arcy. Walker’s account of the pair meeting at an inn when she was a schoolgirl in Reading is plausible enough. They would certainly have shared an interest in history, and the life of the Earl of Strafford. The evidence for a continuing relationship is shaky.

Sexually active teenagers abounded in London in the 1780s, but I find it impossible to believe that Jane Austen was one of them. Her feelings went into her fiction but she was free to invent experiences. Even in her juvenilia, she wove sensational scandals—imaginary ones. She could write about Lydia Bennet’s elopement without having that experience herself.

In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood’s broken heart and emotional collapse are feelingly depicted. Jane Austen certainly knew the pain of rejection by a man she loved. In Becoming Jane Austen, Jon Spence dwells on the brief romance that began at Christmas 1795. Tom Lefroy, a law student, was the nephew of Jane’s good friend and neighbour Anne Lefroy. Witty, well-read and clearly attracted to Jane, he danced with her at local balls. The couple scandalised the neighbours by sitting together and talking. Unlike more sheltered young women, Jane was happy to discuss Tom Jones, her admirer’s favourite novel. The spark of young love was soon doused by the Lefroy family, who sent Tom back to London before he could commit himself to a penniless parson’s daughter. He finished his degree, married an heiress and became, in time, Chief Justice of Ireland. He was not as heartless as this thumbnail sketch of his career might suggest: as the only male among many sisters, he had to think of supporting his family.

Spence points out that Austen took several of her characters’ names from Tom Jones. He traces the origin of many other names in Austen’s fiction to a history of the Leighs, her mother’s family. One Leigh cousin fell in love with a soldier named Thomas Wentworth, and married him in secret. In time the Leighs became reconciled to the match: the soldier rose to the rank of lieutenant-general. Was this family connection sufficient to make Jane Austen fasten on to the name Wentworth and peruse the family lineage in the baronetcy lists? If so, press coverage of D’Arcy Wentworth’s court appearances would have fed into an existing interest.

After Jane Austen’s death, her sister Cassandra burnt some of her letters and diaries, so their contents remain open to conjecture. Nevertheless, the D’Arcy-and-Jane theory is weakened by the lack of a clinching document.

Despite my reservations about the love story, I found Walker’s book very engaging. The prose flows swiftly under bold-type headings, and his account of D’Arcy Wentworth’s life goes beyond anything else currently available. The years on Norfolk Island, the friendships and fallings out among the officers and doctors of the colony and the endless lobbying of London dignitaries all come to life. The career of D’Arcy’s cousin Fitzwilliam is also fascinating. It includes a foiled attempt to reconcile Catholics and Protestants in Ireland during his brief term as Lord Lieutenant. Fitzwilliam was a friend of the Prince Regent, later George IV, and once he spent six thousand pounds, a vast fortune, entertaining him with a retinue of 200 at Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.

I will look forward to Volume II of this work. Wal Walker may draw a long bow, but what great television his story would make.

Penelope Nelson is a Sydney writer and poet.

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