The Real Persuasion: Portrait of a Real-Life Jane Austen Heroine by Peter James Bowman
I first read the typescript diary of Katherine Bisshopp (1791-1871) many years ago in the hope of finding references to the subject of a book I was then working on. I found nothing, but the forthright, colourful, often humorous tone of Katherine’s writing made me want to find out more about her. This proved easy: the kind couple in Worthing who had let me see the diary and the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester had so much material on the Bisshopp family in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the only problem was getting through it all. Gradually it dawned on me that Katherine’s life resembled that of Anne Elliot, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, to an astonishing degree. And yet Jane Austen did not know Katherine, while the only Austen novel Katherine seems to have read was Mansfield Park. My biography contains splinter chapters that set out the correspondences between fact and fiction, and in the conclusion I reflect on the different but complementary ways in which social history and literature illuminate the way people lived in the past.
In telling the story of Katherine Bisshopp’s life I have interwoven my own narrative with letters and diary extracts that reflect the way she and other members of her family thought, felt and wrote. After Katherine the most important characters are George Pechell, the dashing, self-confident man she marries many years after her family rejected him, and only after he returns from a long naval service with a fortune in prize money – like Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion; and her sister Harriet, who weds Robert Curzon, a kind but rather limited country squire, has two sons who turn out disobedient, and becomes an invalid whose mysterious ailments come and go without explanation – like Mary Musgrove in the same novel.
Katherine and George marry in 1826, when she is thirty-five and he thirty-seven. At this point the parallels with Anne Elliot cease since we take our leave of her, as of all Jane Austen heroines, at the point of her marriage. But if we imagine these heroines as real people they would probably have lived on well into the Victorian era. So would Jane Austen herself had she not died aged forty-one exactly two centuries ago in 1817. The continuing stories of Katherine and Harriet therefore allow us to imagine futures for Anne Elliot and Mary Musgrove, for several other characters in Persuasion, and even for other inhabitants of Jane Austen’s Regency world.
The Pechells’ union is a happy one and produces three children. George becomes an equerry to Queen Adelaide, an MP for Brighton, and later a vice-admiral, and he and his wife relish family life at Castle Goring, their home near Worthing. However, not long after Katherine’s marriage she falls out with Harriet over the partition of their father’s estate and the payment of his debts, and although they patch up the relationship their subsequent letters never regain the warmth of their early exchanges.
Both women endure severe trials as mothers: Harriet’s elder son Robert, a distinguished Orientalist, grows frosty towards his parents, and her favourite Edward elopes and scandalises the whole family; and Katherine is devastated by her son William’s death in the Crimean War but consoled by her close bond with her two daughters and their husbands. As the years pass the contrasting characters of the two couples change their relative fortunes, with the energetic and resolute Pechells gaining greater status and wealth while the initially far richer but feckless Curzons descend into financial difficulty and discord.
I hope that the documentary style of my book will allow the reader to feel at home in the world it depicts and closely acquainted with the two sisters and their families.
Peter James Bowman's new book The Real Persuasion: Portrait of a Real-Life Jane Austen Heroine is available for purchase now.