There will be no Mr. Darcy under the tree. Nor will he be a Hanukkah gift this holiday season.  Despite the wish of some single young women searching for love, there may be no Mr. Darcy presence at all. 

Jane Austen, the 18th century writer who created Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, would know better than anyone how difficult finding a Mr. Darcy could be. In her time, single women of little money would be hard-pressed to find a husband at all. Austen had few illusions about marriage, and none at all about being a single female without means.

“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor,” she wrote to a favorite niece.

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In the UK and throughout the world, Jane Austen is a well-known and beloved author. Many who haven’t read her novels, at least know the movies based on her books. These films are filled with beautiful scenes and romantic aspirations, and all ends well — every single time. 

So it’s often a surprise for viewers to learn that Jane Austen was more of a realistic than a romantic writer. Behind that one shining love match in each novel are countless references to poor, single women and unhappy marriages. As the beyond-her-bloom Charlotte Lucas says cynically in Pride and Prejudice, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” And certainly, her unfortunate marriage to the buffoon Mr. Collins proved her right.

Jane Austen herself never married. How did she understand the struggle to achieve a decent, even successful and good, marriage?

Austen learned much from the experiences of members of her own family. She was the niece of Philadelphia Austen, a poor, though pretty, young woman who made a match for herself with a man possessed of a good reputation and an even better bank account. We might start to wonder if Austen’s heroines owe their courage and spirit in some part to Aunt Philadelphia. 

An aunt named Philadelphia is only one of Austen’s connections with Philadelphia. 

As Pride and Prejudice makes good use of how chance plays a part in moving the plot along, chance played a part in Austen family lives. When Philadelphia Austen was about 3, her mother died. Four years later, her father died, leaving his children, Philadelphia, George (Austen’s father), and baby Leonora to the kindness of relatives, as their stepmother refused to care for them. Francis Austen took charge of his nephew George. Lenora was sent to live with Austen relatives, and Philadelphia was given to relatives of her mother, the Hampsons.  

An aunt named Philadelphia is only one of Austen’s connections with Philadelphia. 

It’s unlikely the Hampsons did their duty to Philadelphia. At 15, she was apprenticed to a milliner. Details of Philadelphia’s apprenticeship are not well-known, but we have a first look at Philadelphia’s bravery in setting out on her own. In 1752, she sailed on “the fishing fleet,” a ship bound for India that carried future brides to men employed by the East India Company. In the early days of the fleet, women were given a small allowance and not charged for their voyage. When the fleet’s success grew, the women were charged for passage. If Philadelphia had been required to pay, it’s likely that wealthy Uncle Francis stepped in to help. 

Within months of arriving in India, Philadelphia married Tysoe Hancock, about 20 years her senior. Hancock was an acquaintance of her Uncle Francis and friend to Warren Hastings, who would eventually become the governor-general of India.

It was a solid match for Philadelphia. Thanks to Hancock’s wealth, they lived well in India, and their social connections, in particular their friendship with Hastings, allowed for a comfortable life. Elizabeth Hancock, Austen’s favorite cousin, was born in 1761. Warren Hastings was named her godfather and settled on her a great sum, marking her for a fortunate life. The Hancocks returned to England for a while, but financial problems caused Hancock to return to India, where he died in 1775. 

Thanks to powerful connections, the widow and her daughter settled in France. Philadelphia spent her time seeking and negotiating a good marriage for her daughter Eliza, and managed to find a Frenchman with noble pretensions albeit a doomed future, thanks to Madame la Guillotine. Philadelphia made the choice for Eliza, as best as she could see it — not romantic, but practical, the choice she had once made for herself.

Perhaps with her aunt’s story in mind, Austen wrote endings for young women of little fortune but great courage. In every one of her novels, she presents us with the “… happiest, wisest, most reasonable end …” 

And why not? That’s what comedies are for. The endings are never a matter of chance; they are perfectly crafted by the reveries of the author’s mind. 

So, perhaps there will be a Mr. Darcy knocking at the cottage door this year, unexpectedly, but at just the right moment. If Austen had her way, he would be there, contributing to the laughter and happiness of the season of goodwill in the City of Brotherly Love.

Elizabeth Steele has served as vice president of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), as local president of JASNA-Eastern Pennsylvania, and as “the voice of JASNA,” answering calls and emails directed to JASNA from all over the world. She served as coordinator of the most recent (2009) Philadelphia-hosted Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. The AGM’s theme was “Jane Austen’s Brother and Sisters in the City of Brotherly Love.”

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