MANY people love author Jane Austen. She's a feminist icon who has inspired or influenced whole generations at one time or another. Not bad for a Regency romance novelist (1775-1817) whose six major books have never really been out of print.
It's even more surprising because her first four books of love, life and satirical observations were published anonymously.
Jane would also triumph as the first female author to appear on a British 10-pound note (in late 2017) marking the 200th anniversary of the writer's early death, aged 41.
At first glance, Jane might be wrongly dismissed as a demure spinster, the sheltered daughter of a penniless English parson who happened to become a phenomenal success long after her death.
In truth, she was a clever, talented, rebellious daughter who liked to flirt, but was bound by the era's inflexible attitudes of a man's world. Back then, women's opinions weren't sought, and any whiff of family scandal meant being condemned as social pariahs.
My favourite title covering Jane Austen's era is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was made into a 2016 film. What a bodice ripper! Elizabeth Bennet turns badass? Jane Austen would be turning in her grave.
What next? Maybe, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters?
Sorry, but that's another genuine modern book title.
But seriously folks, that's how deep the Jane Austen brand has embedded itself into popular culture today, especially after copyright on her famous characters expired.
Jane Austen's fans are legion and the appetite for related stories is seemingly insatiable.
There have been at least six movies and mini-series about her best-known creation, Pride and Prejudice. The BBC's lavish 1995 production (pictured) starred Jennifer Ehle as the heroine Elizabeth and Colin Firth as the brooding hero Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy proved immensely popular.
So, what's new today to write about the famous British author after 200 years? Nothing much it seems, or is there?
Enter author Wal Walker, from Australia, with a startling yarn about Jane Austen's lost early years. Walker claims there's a long-hidden teenage romance between Jane Austen and our own colonial pioneer D'Arcy Wentworth.
Not only that, but they then eloped, went to Scotland to be secretly married. But they were soon parted and were never reunited.
According to Walker, the romance endured with the couple writing letters to each other long after the Irish surgeon came to Australia in the second fleet in 1790 as the nation's first paying passenger. She even sent him her books.
D'Arcy Wentworth (1762-1827) went on to become famous in colonial Australia, with an even more famous son William Charles.
About 80 places in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are today named after the father/son duo.
Meanwhile, Jane took up her pen and completed her manuscripts for publication ... and waited for her lover.
In Persuasion, Jane's last book and published after her death, Jane imagined D'Arcy's return after an agonising wait. She even named the hero Captain Wentworth, but D'Arcy never returned.
Author Walker's two epic volumes on the subject, titled Jane and D'Arcy, have been forensically researched and are strangely compelling, although I'd be happier with more hard "evidence".
Walker assembles a strong circumstantial case for his beliefs, although the Jane Austen Society are tactfully dismissive, saying his story has no factual basis.
Other initial sceptics though have called the claims credible and revealing. Opinions are clearly divided.
Walker's incredible story has been around for a while, but it was only presented to Merewether Historical Society a few months ago. Until then, I was unaware of the Jane and D'Arcy claims, as I suspect a lot of people probably still are.
Author Walker labelled his Hunter talk, "Jane Austen and D'Arcy Wentworth - The Big Lie". He said he started researching and writing after being encouraged by a Wentworth relative to tell the family's story of the real-life, secret involvement of the pair.
"I am one of the sixth generation of Australian Wentworths. D'Arcy Wentworth was my three times great grandfather," Walker told his Merewether audience.
"My talk is about an ill-conceived lie that the Austen family maintained to cover up the scandalous youthful folly of their daughter, Jane."
Back in 2012, Walker visited Hampshire, London, Bath and all the places mentioned by Jane Austen in her writings, as well as the mansion Wentworth Woodhouse, the model he believes for the legendary, if fictional, Pemberley.
Walker said much of his information though came from the personal information Jane revealed of her own life in her novels and also from her less well-known Juvenilia stories.
These were contained in three notebooks "that remained unseen for over 100 years after her death, the last notebook not published until 1952".
More information survived in the letters kept by her sister Cassandra, but there are gaps. The Austen family destroyed many of Jane's letters (only 161 of 3000 survive) and scissors were used to snip out "any incriminating or unwanted revelations".
"The Austens kept no letters from the time of the romance, of the time they shared together and then for a period of six years after D'Arcy left for NSW ... it had been easy to keep their secret," he said.
Walker writes that D'Arcy was a distant cousin and protege of Earl Fitzwilliam. Earlier, he and Jane were invited to a party at Wentworth Woodhouse to welcome the Prince of Wales.
From there, Jane and D'Arcy went to Gretna Green in Scotland to be married under Scottish law that allowed a girl under 21 years to marry without her father's consent.
In Jane's novel, Pride and Prejudice, her fictional sister Lydia was married there. It was a popular option. In real life, two of Jane's nephews married at Gretna Green.
Jane and D'Arcy returned to her home at Steventon to ask her father Reverend Austen to formally marry them under English law. He agreed at first, according to Walker.
Then came news that D'Arcy had been arraigned three times in court as a highwayman. It was a hanging offence. Reverend Austen withdrew his permission.
"Jane was persuaded that the marriage would ruin her family's good name and damage her brothers' prospects," Walker said.
"She obeyed her father's decree that her marriage was never to be mentioned again. Jane Austen, now only 14 years, had lost her future. She remained within the confines of her family."
Neither Jane nor the charismatic D'Arcy ever remarried, although in Australia Wentworth went on to father 10 children to two women. He tried to return to England, but his life in Sydney was subject to the whims of successive governors.
The charges against him of highway robbery were never legally proven. It was said he was recovering debts from fellow gamblers who had refused to repay him. Ironically, Dr D'Arcy went on to become wealthy and was chief of police, a prominent magistrate, and helped build the original Sydney 'Rum' Hospital.
"Jane never talked of the great tragedy of her life . . . (but) how did she write so powerfully about the feelings of love and loss without experiencing them?" Walker asks.
Others, however, would say it's the power of imagination.
Then there's the three strange wedding entries in Jane's father's registry at Steventon, believed to denote Jane's marriage.
"There is (also) a painting of Jane Austen wearing a wedding ring. We can only surmise someone close to her must have inadvertently told the painter," Walker said.
(Maybe, maybe not. Weekender believes this 1873 colour portrait is based on a pencil sketch from 1810 with Jane not wearing a ring.) What do you think?
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.