PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.21, NO.2 (Summer 2000)

The Source for Emma’s William Larkins

Clive Caplan


Clive Caplan is a family physician, and a life member of JASNA.  He is interested in researching into the historical background of Jane Austen’s life, and in discovering ways in which this is reflected in her work.


Dean Cantrell has suggested that James Bond, the Rev. George Austen’s bailiff at Steventon (339-44), may have been the source for the fictional William Larkins, Mr. Knightley’s bailiff in Jane Austen’s novel Emma.  However, there is another candidate who may well be more likely to have served as the real life inspiration for this trusted steward, and his name is none other than—William Larkins!


Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal, was an active patron of the Austen family, and godfather of Eliza de Feuillide, who was Jane Austen’s cousin and her brother Henry’s wife.  On Hastings’s return from India he was impeached by the Whig opposition in Parliament and from 1788 endured a trial which dragged on for the next seven years.  In 1794 the long awaited conclusion of the trial was delayed for the purpose of hearing the evidence of two gentlemen newly arrived from India:  the Marquis Cornwallis, returning home after serving as Hastings’s successor as governor-general; and William Larkins, the East India Company’s accountant-general at Calcutta, who had full knowledge of all of Hastings’s financial dealings.  Cornwallis testified first, and without hesitation defended his predecessor.  The last desperate hope of the prosecution was the testimony of William Larkins, but he too supported Warren Hastings in every respect, and remained unshaken even under a lengthy cross examination conducted by Edmund Burke, the chief prosecutor.


Hence, on 23 April 1795, Hastings was acquitted on all counts, although the strain on his constitution had been severe, and his finances were in ruin. Henry Austen wrote to him on 26 April, from Oxford, as “an humble, and hitherto a silent spectator of national concerns . . . permit me to offer you the warm and respectful congratulations of a heart deeply impressed with a sense of all that you have done and suffered” (Papers 153-54).  No doubt other members of the Austen family joined in the joy over his exoneration.


Jane Austen, in writing her novel Emma, needed to look no further for the name of a man needed to represent a faithful and trustworthy servant than that which had already impressed itself upon her—that of William Larkins.  Alone of any thanks or recompense he may have received, Jane Austen’s tribute to his name will endure as long as her novel Emma finds readers.



Works Cited


Austen-Leigh, R. A., ed.  Austen Papers 1704-1856.  London: Spottiswoode, 1942.

Cantrell, Dean.  “John Bond: A Source for William Larkins?”  Collected Reports of the Jane Austen Society, 1976-85: 339-44.

Davies, A. Mervyn.  Strange Destiny: a Biography of Warren Hastings.  New York: Putnam, 1935.

Trotter, L. J.  Rulers of India: Warren Hastings.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1890.


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