By Mitch Owens, Member of the Board of Trustees of Hyde Hall
“Mrs. Tilson’s remembrance gratifies me, & I will use her [dress or cap] patterns if I can; but poor Woman! how can she be honestly breeding again?” So the celebrated English novelist Jane Austen wrote in 1808 about Frances “Fanny” Tilson, an infernally fertile first cousin of George Clarke, builder of New York’s Hyde Hall.
Described by Austen as “affectionate and pleasing” and by a relative as “an exemplary wife and mother, and a kind and faithful friend,” Fanny (1777-1823) produced at least 11 children between 1798 and 1813; the infant born in 1808 was her eighth. Her father was William Sanford, a well-connected gentleman from an old Somerset family based at Nynehead Court, a maternal grandson of Sir John Chichester, 4th baronet, and a brother-in-law of the politician Sir James Langham, 7th baronet. It is Fanny’s mother, though, who provides her connection to Hyde Hall: Mary Clarke, an illegitimate daughter of Major Edward Clarke, the British naval officer and Jamaica planter who was George Clarke’s paternal grandfather and whose youthful red-coated portrait hangs in Hyde Hall’s heroic dining room. Major Clarke’s 1773 will (proved 1777) acknowledged several “natural and reputed” offspring, among them Mary, who was born around 1758, brought up by her uncle George Clarke at Hyde Hall, Cheshire, and married Sanford in 1776 at St. Mary’s Church in nearby Stockport.
Mary, though, is the only child whose mother is not identified in the major’s otherwise detailed last will and testament. It is quite possible that, like her three named younger half-siblings—Anne, Penelope, and Edward George Clarke—Mary was of mixed race, born to one of Clarke’s Jamaican lovers whom christening records label as “mulatto” or “free quadroon.” Further raising that possibility is the amount of money that she inherited from her father: “one thousand five hundred pounds Sterling Money,” approximately $200,000 in buying power today. Major Clarke left identical legacies to Anne and Penelope, his much younger daughters by the mixed-race Mary Bonny (aka Mary Christian), which either suggests he regarded the girls equally or, arguably, that he was conforming to a punitive 1761 Jamaica law that he openly opposed and which blocked white fathers from leaving their mixed-race children more than 2,000 pounds. That Mary was greatly beloved by her guardian uncle George Clarke is clear. When he died a year after his brother, the major, his will left “my dear niece” 2,000 pounds in trust (“for her own sole and separate use not subject to debts and control of her said husband”) as well as “all my Plate, China, Glasses, and household Linnen [sic] with all and singular the Furniture of my House [Hyde Hall], including the Pictures, our Offices and Cellars with Liberty to remove from the Barn Yard, Folds, [Shippons?], Stables, Gardens, and Brewhouse whatever she or her Husband may choose for their own Use …”
The birth details of Mary Clarke remain obscure but it does not seem unlikely that she had been born in Jamaica and raised in England, a trajectory that her father also intended for Anne, Penelope, and Edward Robert. Clarke’s will directed that “as soon as they are able to undergo the voyage be sent to England there to be decently brought up and Educated under the protection and governance of my Brother George Clarke aforesaid Esquire and my worthy friend Robert Cooper [Lee] of the city of London Esquire and my friend William Innes Esquire of the city of London Merchant three of their Guardians hereinafter named and appointed.” Clarke’s decision to choose his “worthy friend” as one of the trustees to oversee his Jamaica children’s entrée into English life was a thoughtful one: Lee, the rich self-made man, attorney, statesman, and slave-owner who is the subject of Anne M. Powers’ book A Parcel of Ribbons: Letters of the 18th-century Lee Family in London and Jamaica, had a mixed-race wife and children, so he would have been an admirable executor. Another sympathetic executor and guardian of Clarke’s Jamaica offspring was Malcolm Laing, a planter with several children by his mulatto housekeeper. As for William Innes, he was a Scots-born Jamaica merchant, Member of the House of Commons, and the son-in-law of Sir William Chambers, architect of the famous Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens.
In 1797, Mary’s daughter Fanny Sanford, aged 19, wed James Tilson (1773-1838) at fashionable St. George’s, Hanover Square, in London. An Oxfordshire Regiment of Militia officer turned merchant banker and hailed as ”remarkably handsome,” (so Jane Austen wrote a year after the marriage), the Anglo-Irish Tilson grew up at Watlington Park, an elegant Palladian country house in Oxfordshire that had been built by his father, John, a close friend of King George II, while his uncle Sir Stephen Lushington thrice served as chairman of the powerful East India Company. That James was also a first cousin of the scandalous Gertrude Mahon, a blue-blooded Irish courtesan known as the Bird of Paradise because of her brilliantly colored wardrobe, surely went unmentioned by all.
Young Tilson was also the bosom friend and business partner of Austen’s beloved brother Henry, with whom he had served in the Oxfordshire Regiment. Frances and James and Henry and his first wife, Eliza, occupied neighboring houses in London’s Hans Place and frequently dined together, traveled together, and had tea together, sometimes in the company of Jane or her sister Cassandra. The Austens also crossed paths with the Clarkes of Hyde Hall at the spa town of Bath, England, where they and George Clarke’s music-loving Irish mother, Katherine Clarke (née Hussey), moved in overlapping social and church circles. In addition, James Tilson’s mother was a friend of the Katherine Clarke’s aunt the Dowager Countess of Macclesfield, born Dorothy Nesbitt, whose family owned the powerful London merchant house Nesbitt & Co. and whose investments brought more West Indies sugar and rum estates into the Clarke orbit, namely Dukinfield Hall, Monteagle, and Orange in Jamaica, Mount Nesbitt in Grenada, and others in Tobago and Barbados.
Though little more is known about Fanny Tilson than her fecundity, her fashion sense was distinctive enough to have caught Jane Austen’s admiring eye. In one 1814 letter the novelist recorded that Fanny wore evening dresses with long sleeves, a sartorial development recently taken up, somewhat uncertainly, by Jane, though Frances “assured me that they are worn in the evening by many. I was glad to hear this.” Her friend’s millinery was fine, too, notably, Jane wrote, “a straw hat, of the riding hat shape” that she desired for herself. Furthermore, in 1811, Austen mentions borrowing an artificial flower from Fanny to ornament a “Bugle band” headdress.
The Austens and the Clarkes also ended up connected by marriage, when the Tilsons’ daughter Charlotte Sophia married the Reverend John Thomas Austen, the novelist’s second cousin. There is a literary link as well, since it has been argued that Fanny may have been an inspiration for Mrs. Tilney in Northanger Abbey. One also wonders, given Austen’s intimate knowledge of the Tilsons, if she had been inspired by Fanny’s likely mixed ancestry when she was writing her unfinished last novel, Sanditon (1817), in which a character known as Miss Lambe, a rich “West-injine” teenager that Austen describes as “half mulatto,” arrives in a fictional English seaside resort and, for a time, is considered a catch for a cash-strapped baronet. Fanny’s opinion of the novel and of her possible fictionalization are forever unknown since Sanditon remained unpublished until 1925. What we do know is that when it came to reading Austen’s books, Jane observed that Fanny—an ardent Evangelical, as Henry Austen himself later would become—preferred the moralizing Mansfield Place to the lighthearted Pride and Prejudice.