Did Jane Austen ever base her characters on real people?

I’m not sure she ever did.

And she certainly told her friend, Mrs Ann Barrett of Alton that her creations were all her own:

On one occasion soon after the inimitable Mr Collins had made his appearance in literature and old friend attacked her(Jane Austen-jfw) on the score of having pourtrayed (sic)an individual: in recurring to the subject after wards she expressed a very great dread of what she called an “invasion of social proprieties.” She said she thought it fair to note peculiarities, weaknesses and even special phrases but it was her desire to create not to reproduce and at the same time said “I am too proud of my own gentlemen ever to admit they were merely Mr A or Mr B…..

(See Deirdre le Faye Jane Austen : A Family Record page 233.)

However, recent research by Deirdre le Faye, published in Bath History, Volume VII  seems to suggest that Lady Russell, Anne  Elliot’s sometimes exasperating mother-substitute in Persuasion, may have been based  on the facts surrounding a member of Jane Austen’s acquaintance in Bath.

We have had Mrs. Lillingstone and the Chamberlaynes to call on us. My mother was very much struck with the odd looks of the two latter; I have only seen her. Mrs. Busby drinks tea and plays at cribbage here to-morrow; and on Friday, I believe, we go to the Chamberlaynes’. Last night we walked by the Canal.

( See: Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 5th May 1801)


We met not a creature at Mrs. Lillingstone’s, and yet were not so very stupid, as I expected, which I attribute to my wearing my new bonnet and being in good looks.

(See: Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 12th May, 1801)


Were to have a tiny party here tonight; I hate tiny parties-they force one into constant exertion-Miss Edwards and her father, Mrs Busby and her nephew, Mr Maitland and Mrs Lillingstone are to be the whole

(See: Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 21st May 1801)

My evening visit was by no mean disagreeable. Mrs Lillingstone came to engage Mrs Holder’s conversation and Miss Holder and I  adjourned after tea to the inner drawing room to  look over Prints and talk pathetically.

(See : Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 26th May 1801)

There are not many mentions of Mrs Lillingston in Jane Austen’s letters from Bath: these quoted above- reflecting a little flurry of activity  concerning her slightly  – are all that survive. But she does merit our attention…..

She was a member of the Leigh Perrots’ circle of friends, and her story is an interesting one, so If you will allow it I will tell you it and of her relationship with Jane Austen.

When Jane Austen met her in 1801 she was 60 years old and was a widow, living at 10 Rivers Street in Bath where she lived alone save for her little dog, Malore and her staff. She was attended by her faithful maid, Molly Stowe , her man servant, Francis Varley and a seeming endless succession of cooks.

I think both Jane Austen and Cassandra must have met Mrs Lillingston before the dates of these letters quoted above _ probably on a previous visit to Bath?-because Jane Austen does not mention her or describe her to Cassandra as a new acquaintance.

We do not know exactly how Mrs Lillingston became part of the Leigh –Perrots’s circle of friends. But Mrs Lillington was born Wilhelmina Johanna Dottin in 1741 in Barbados. This may have been the link between her and the Leigh Perrots, for Mrs Leigh-Perrot was born Jane Cholmeley also in Barbardos. At the time of writing her  letter’s, quoted above,  Jane Austen was living with the Leigh Perrot’s at their home at Number 1, the Paragon,

which as you can see was not far from Rivers Street.

Poor Mrs Lillington’s nearest relations seem to have made her the subject of much litigation, and much legal dispute seems to have taken place regarding her late husband’s will ; there may have been legal disputes arising from marriage settlements made in favour of her daughter and her husband.

The exact nature of these claims is not known, but there still exists a letter from Mrs Lillington’s London lawyer, a Mr Coulthurst of Bedford Row who was very happy to inform her that the Lord Chancellor had thrown out the case in Chancery against her and her late husband’s estate:

…your Cause was heard yesterday & I am happy to add that the Chancellor has dismissed so much of the Bill as seeks to set aside the Release saying there was not the least Pretence for it, and that the Bill was filed from Spleen and ill Humour, but he thought that as you had executed the deed of August 1797 which from the Purport of it might be so construed as to induce a Belief in the Husband that no debt was due from the daughter to you, the Chancellor thought that you was not from the Words of the Deed intitled to call upon the plaintiffs for any money due at the time of the marriage- the Chancellor and everyone present were perfectly satisfied with the purity of your Conduct and the general opinion was that the Bill was a most unjust and unnatural one.

After all the trials her own family put her to, when she made her will on the 11th July 1804 she, quite understandably, cut out her family completely. She appointed Mr Leigh Perrot to be her chief executor and residuary legatee : and in the will also made provision for her servants: Molly Stowe was to have £90, a wide selection of the lesser valuable household effects and to take care of

my favourite Little dog Malore ,a faithful Companion though all my suffering. Francis Varley was to have £220 plus all his bedroom furnishings plus Mrs Lillingston’s old black mare “Sissy”

requesting that she shall never be Road worked or Shod but enjoy the same indulgences she has done the last eight years of her life.

Mrs Lillington’s library was a treasured possession and she had taken care to label each volume with a direction confirming the name of its final recipient under her will.

Now, here we come to the interesting part of the story.

She must have taken a shine to Jane and Cassandra, for in her will she left them the then rather large sum of £50 each. Mrs Lillington died on the 30th January 1806.

(Remember you can enlarge all these illustrations merely by clicking on them)

This is the balance sheet drawn up by Mr Leigh Perrot, made when he was settling all Mrs Lillingston’s estate.

This is the  an extract from it detailing the legacies paid to Jane and Cassandra Austen

Mr Leigh Perrot organised her funeral ( the undertaker’s account of which makes for fascinating reading) and then set about disposing of her estate according to the instructions in the will.

Her house at 10 River Street in the fashionable upper town in Bath was sold privately to …..a Mr Russell. Hmmmmm….doesn’t that set you thinking?

So- what did Jane Austen  do with this welcome and very large lump sum of £50 which she received in late 1806 ? Remember that unlike Cassandra who had a little annual income from the £1000 capital left to her by her fiancé Tom Fowle (who sadly died prematurely while on service in the West Indies as the chaplain to Lord Craven  in San Domingo in 1797)  at this time in her life Jane Austen had absolutely no independent income. She relied at this time  totally on income from gifts from relations or friends. Her father had died in 1805, and so the female side of the Austen family were finding it particularly difficult to live in their somewhat straightened financial circumstances.

Well, in this case we do know what happened for, luckily and almost unbelievably for us, there is still in existence Jane Austen’s account of her expenditure for the year 1807 from her pocket book and the Jane Austen Society published it (See the article Jane Austen’s Piano by Patrick Piggot ,Jane Austen Society’s Report 1981)

This page is now in the possession of the Pierpoint Morgan Library of New York.

One item that   is of  note is that the legacy  enabled Jane Austen to hire a PianoForte in 1807 at a cost of £2 13 shillings and 6 pence. Her piano at Steventon had been sold along with most of the other Austen articles of furniture and library at Steventon when they  left to live in Bath in 1801. We know that playing the piano was important to Jane and so it appears that Mrs Lillingston’s legacy enabled her to indulge her interest by hiring a piano while she lived in Southampton.(The Austen ladies left Bath in 1806 and from the autumn of that year lived in Southampton until 1809 when they removed to Chawton).

So I do wonder if  Lady Russell, sometimes of River Street, Bath an intellectual and ,IMHO, mostly kindly widow sometime subject to the indifference of youth was based on this kind benefactress of Jane Austen and her sister? We shall never know for sure,but it is fun to speculate upon it.