Did a Syd­ney sur­geon steal Austen’s heart?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Did Jane Austen (1775-1817) have an Aus­tralian con­nec­tion? In Jane & D’Arcy, Aus­tralian au­thor Wal Walker makes the ground­break­ing claim that colo­nial sur­geon D’Arcy Went­worth (1762-1827) was the love of her life.

Austen read­ers have long de­tected the com­plex emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence re­vealed in her writ­ing is at odds with the por­trait cre­ated by rel­a­tives of an un­worldly, with­drawn, ut­terly re­spectable spin­ster aunt.

Their protes­ta­tions that there was noth­ing to tell have al­ways prompted the ques­tion: What are you hid­ing? But the iden­tity of who she did love, and whether it was one man or just flirta- tions, as the fam­ily claimed, has never been sat­is­fac­to­rily established.

By jux­ta­pos­ing ex­ten­sive re­search into Went­worth’s life with the emo­tions, char­ac­ters and events in Austen’s writ­ing, Walker makes a very cred­itable case for the Ir­ish-born Syd­ney colo­nial doc­tor as the ob­ject of her pas­sion­ate love.

‘‘She was in­ti­mately ac­quainted too with his Fam­ily who were her re­la­tion,’’ Austen wrote in her un­fin­ished early novel Kitty, or the Bower. In­deed she and Went­worth were re­lated. Both were de­scended from Thomas Went­worth, 1st earl of Straf­ford: he through a male line in Ire­land, she through her mother, who was Straf­ford’s grand­daugh­ter.

Austen’s History of Eng­land re­counted the tragic story of Straf­ford, heir to the great es­tate of Went­worth Wood­house. She was proud her fam­ily was recog­nised by the Went­worths as a con­nec­tion, and D’Arcy felt the same. The young sur­geon was close to the head of the fam­ily, Earl Fitzwilliam Went­worth, who played an im­por­tant role in his life in Eng­land as well as in Australia.

Al­lu­sions to the Went­worths per­me­ate Austen’s work, be­yond the choice of Darcy and Went­worth as names. Lord Fitzwilliam’s name is com­bined with the char­ac­ter of his brother Ge­orge: ‘‘in per­son and ad­dress most truly the gen­tle­man … there was a soft­ness in Colonel Fitzwilliam’s man­ners”. Other fam­ily as­so­ci­a­tions in­clude names such as Wat­son, Wood­house, Fer­rers, Ber­tram and Mus­grave, whose con­text has been un­known un­til now. A fur­ther link is D’Arcy’s friend Wil­liam Wick­ham, a young lawyer whose home was near a vil­lage named Bin­g­ley.

Walker be­lieves “Jane had a great de­sire to hear and to say D’Arcy’s name aloud. By mak­ing Darcy a sur­name, she gave her char­ac­ters the free­dom to speak it with­out re­serve. By this means she en­sured his name and her great love for him have re­sounded across the years.’’

He demon­strates how the tim­ing of the ro­mance fits with Austen’s recorded movements and with the highs and lows of Went­worth’s sit­u­a­tion be­fore he self-trans­ported to Botany Bay af­ter one too many ac­quit­tals for high­way rob­bery.

Their re­la­tion­ship peaked over two years when Went­worth was hang­ing around in Eng­land, wait­ing for con­fir­ma­tion of his ap­point­ment as a ship’s sur­geon. He was com­plet­ing his med­i­cal train­ing by ‘‘walk­ing the wards’’ (un­paid) of a Lon­don hos­pi­tal and run­ning out of money to the ex­tent that in 1788 he worked for an apothe­cary in Al­ton near Austen’s home.

Through a close read­ing of Austen and a deep knowl­edge of Went­worth’s life, Walker demon­strates where and when they might have met, and what brought them to­gether. Austen’s writ­ing re­veals knowl­edge of sig­nif­i­cant as­pects of his life. She un­der­stood the at­trac­tion of Lon­don cof­fee­houses, for ex­am­ple. ‘‘They met for the sake of eat­ing, drink­ing and laugh­ing to­gether, play­ing at cards’’ ( Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity). She recog­nised how cards ex­panded to gam­bling as a means of fund­ing Went­worth’s medi-

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