"I Have Frequently ... Regretted the Manner of Her Life": Patrick O'Brian's Diana Villiers and Jane Austen's Cousin, Eliza De Feuillide
Simmons, James R., Jr., Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
PATRICK O'BRIAN, the late-twentieth century novelist best known for the twenty works in the Master and Commander series, has frequently been compared to Jane Austen in terms of his writing style. Comments such as "Jane Austen [is] clearly one of his chief literary inspirations.... [His] versatile, extremely effective style and some of his characters echo ... her" (Clausen 22), and "Austen inspired O'Brian's artfully simple writing" (Messenger 28) are just two of literally dozens of references linking the work of the two writers. These statements are now so common that Messenger goes on to say that it is now "almost a cliche to compare O'Brian and Austen" (28). Given O'Brian's reverence for Austen and her work--Norton editor Starling Lawrence notes that Austen was "for [O'Brian] the greatest writer in the language," and O'Brian's stepson Nikolai Tolstoy said, "my stepfather was completely absorbed in Jane Austen's works"--perhaps it is not surprising that O'Brian often subtly referenced Austen in his own novels. Yet despite the fact that his works show the heavy influence of Austen (Simmons, "Did Willoughby" and "'Don't tell me'"), it may be that O'Brian's most interesting referential nod to Austen is that he based his most iconoclastic female character, Diana Villiers, on the individual who was obviously the most enigmatic and "outlandish" member of the Austen family and the woman who was to become Jane Austen's sister-in-law, Eliza de Feuillide.
O'Brian's readers first encounter Diana Villiers when we see her astride a horse, boldly jumping a fence during a fox hunt in Post Captain. We learn that she is a young widow whose husband, Charles, was an Army officer killed in India. Diana had in fact lived in India with her father (who was killed in the same military action as her husband), and after the death of her husband and father (her mother having predeceased them all), Diana comes to live with her aunt Mrs. Williams and her daughters at Mapes Court. The beautiful Diana, however, understands that "other women ... regard her as a menace," even though she is penniless, and so she at first attempts to act "meek, cautious, and retiring" (25). Yet Diana never, throughout the course of the twenty-novel Aubreyiad, becomes a predictable or typical woman by the standards of the early nineteenth century. She is at once the most scandalous and interesting character in the series. Even though Stephen Maturin loves her, she flees to India with Richard Canning where they have an illicit relationship, and based on this affair and others, Diana is always considered to be a bit too free living, pleasure seeking, and risque. This behavior brings her in for a great deal of criticism, as other women scorn and judge her. Diana has several lovers before she eventually marries Stephen, and even after their marriage their lives are never marked by regularity At one point Diana goes back to live in France, where she had also lived for a while as a child. While there, one of Diana's hobbies is hot-air ballooning (much to Stephen's mortification), and while away from Stephen she appears to live an impoverished life.
Diana and Stephen reconcile, and though Diana has several miscarriages, she eventually gives birth to a child who seems to have a mental affliction or learning disability. It may be at this point that some readers, the ones who typically don't like Diana by the series' end, begin to disdain her. Although up to this stage in her life any of her more iconoclastic actions have been due to a wild and independent spirit, her actions at the time of and following her child's birth can only be seen as cold-hearted and selfish. Diana writes to Stephen that her child "seems rather stupid" (Clarissa Oakes 63), and Jack's wife Sophie writes in her letter to her husband that the baby is "perhaps a little strange" (64). Later, in The Commodore, the reader is told that the child is "an idiot" (43) and "not like ordinary people" (53), and after he has returned from sea, on first seeing his child, Stephen is alarmed at its inability to communicate. …