Did a Sydney surgeon steal Austen’s heart?
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complex emotional experience revealed in her writing is at odds with the portrait created by relatives of an unworldly, withdrawn, utterly respectable spinster aunt.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-