Why Jane Austen Loves a Sailor

[To leave a comment or reply go to box at the end of the page]

This month saw the paperback launch of ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’ by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The book is a fascinating and spirited account of life ashore in Kydd’s day.
I had the pleasure of meeting the Adkins in person last year and was delighted when they agreed to pen a Guest Blog for me on Jane Austen and the Navy. It seems particularly appropriate to run it this month, to mark the 200th anniversary of the launch of ‘Mansfield Park’.

Over to Roy and Lesley…


A First Edition of ‘Mansfield Park’

A First Edition of Mansfield Park

Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, and for two-thirds of her lifetime Britain was at war, though that barely features in her writing. Instead, she followed the maxim of ‘write what you know about’ by devising contemporary novels, full of humour and populated by the gentry and upper classes. Her readers were of the same class and needed no reminder of the wars.

Austen’s novels describe the dilemma of marrying for love or money, young women seeking husbands, elopement, divorce, duty and status. Two of her titles, MANSFIELD PARK and PERSUASION, contain her most appealing characters – naval officers – revealing her love affair with the Royal Navy. By the time her books were published, the nation was also in love with the navy, because of its victories under Nelson at the Nile, at Copenhagen and at Trafalgar.

Mansfield Park’s plot concerns Fanny Price, whose parents in Portsmouth are too poor to cope with all their children. Although from a respectable family, her mother had married a mere lieutenant of marines (which Jane Austen intends as a joke, knowing how marines were regarded by seamen). Fanny goes to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle at Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire, while her favourite brother, William, joins the navy as a midshipman. It is William who stands out as the most congenial and unpretentious character.

The only rogue naval man is Admiral Crawford, who is living openly with his mistress since the death of his ill-treated wife. This is surely a comment on Nelson, who deserted his wife Frances for his mistress Emma Hamilton. Just as the public adored Nelson, we can’t help warming to Admiral Crawford when he helps William Price obtain promotion.

In the summer of 1815, Jane Austen began writing PERSUASION, which has even more of a naval theme and is set just after Napoleon’s overthrow in 1814. The snobbish Sir Walter is so much in debt that he moves to Bath and lets his mansion to the likeable Admiral Croft, whose brother-in-law, Frederick Wentworth, was once engaged to Sir Walter’s daughter Anne.

She was persuaded to cancel the engagement as Wentworth was deemed too lowly a naval officer. He has now returned from the wars as a captain with a fortune in prize-money. Although not brought up in a naval household, Jane Austen has an authentic voice. Her knowledge came mainly from her brothers Frank and Charles. They were naval officers, and she took a keen interest in their careers. They in turn introduced her to their naval friends, and numerous letters were written whenever they were away. She herself travelled a great deal, visiting friends and relatives and no doubt meeting other naval officers at dances and dinners.

For over two years, from 1806, Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra and their mother lived with Frank and his wife at what was then the small seafaring town of Southampton. From here Jane could have visited Portsmouth and its dockyard, providing the background for scenes in Mansfield Park. Her familiarity with the navy even extended to seeing warships being built, as in a letter of November 1808:

I and my two nephews went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the 74, and walked home

This visit was to the nearby Northam yard to view the 74-gun Conquestador being built. The warship was launched almost two years later, after the Austens had moved to north Hampshire.

A large cottage (now a museum) in the village of Chawton became their new home, situated alongside a busy road to Gosport and Portsmouth. Close by lived the Prowtings, and the Austens came to know them well. In October 1811 their daughter Ann-Mary married Captain Benjamin Clement, and the couple settled in Chawton. According to Cassandra, Mansfield Park was begun earlier that year, though much of it was probably written after the Clements became neighbours. It is tempting to think that Jane was partly inspired by tales related by Captain Clement, who was a Trafalgar hero.

At Trafalgar Clement was a lieutenant on board HMS Tonnant. During the height of the battle, Tonnant encountered the damaged Spanish ship San Juan Nepomuceno, which surrendered after a short exchange of fire. Clement told his father what happened:

I came aft and informed the first lieutenant. When he ordered me to board her, we had no boat but what was shot, but he told me I must try; so I went away in the jolly boat with two men, and had not got above a quarter of the way, when the boat swampt.

Like many seamen, Clement could not swim:

the two men that were with me could, one a black man, the other a quarter-master: He was the last man in her, when a shot struck her and knocked her quarter off, and she was turned bottom up. Macnamara, the black man, staid by me on one side, and Maclay the quarter-master on the other, until I got hold of the jolly boat’s fall that was hanging overboard.

Clement feared he would die, but Macnamara swam to bring him a rope, and he was hauled to safety.

Captain Clement, his wife and sister-in-law are referred to in perhaps the last letter written by Jane Austen before she died at Winchester. Only fragments of it are known, published by her brother Henry, who omitted names:

You will find Captain — a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner, his wife and sister all good humour and obligingness, and I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year.

The comment ‘without much manner’ is possibly criticism, and Jane was certainly lukewarm in an earlier letter:

In consequence of a civil note that morning from Mrs Clement, I went with her and her husband in their tax cart. Civility on both sides. I would rather have walked, and, no doubt, they must have wished I had.

It may have been difficult for Jane to live close to a Trafalgar hero, knowing that Francis had narrowly missed the battle. A year older than Jane, he had entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth in 1786 and two years later joined his first ship. He gradually worked his way up the ranks to become flag-captain of HMS Canopus, an 80-gun warship. He actually wanted to be a frigate captain, desperate for more independence and prize-money. Instead, in October 1805, he was off Cadiz blockading the port. Just when the French and Spanish ships were expected to leave Cadiz and engage in battle, Nelson ordered Canopus to sail to Gibraltar for supplies. Frank missed the battle, the glory and the prize-money.

Jane Austen knew all about the difficulties of gaining prize-money and promotion, themes that occur in these naval novels. Frank did rise through the ranks, eventually becoming Admiral of the Fleet, but could never claim the coveted distinction of being a Trafalgar hero.

Canopus was immortalised in Mansfield Park, because when William Price returns to Portsmouth, his mother says that his ship, HMS Thrush, is ready to sail. William fears he will be left behind:

I had better go off at once, and there is no help for it. Whereabouts does the Thrush lay at Spithead? Near the
Canopus?

While writing Mansfield Park, Jane wrote to Frank, then captain of Elephant:

Shall you object to my mentioning the Elephant in it, and two or three other of your old ships?

In the novel, William’s father says:

Captain Walsh thinks you will certainly have a cruise to the westward, with the Elephant.
He next tells William that Thrush lays close to the Endymion , between her and the Cleopatra , just to the eastward of the sheer hulk

Cleopatra and Endymion were ships of Jane’s younger brother Charles. He had entered the Naval Academy in 1791 and joined his first ship three years later. From 1804, he served for years on the North American station, eventually taking command of the 32-gun Cleopatra, which he sailed back to England in the summer of 1811.

A decade earlier Charles was patrolling the Mediterranean in the frigate Endymion:

The Endymion came into frequent contact with the enemy’s gunboats off Algesiras, and assisted in making prizes of several privateers. On the occasion, particularly, of the capture of the Scipio, of 18 guns and 140 men, which surrendered during a violent gale, Charles Austen very intrepidly put off in a boat with only four men, and, having boarded the vessel, succeeded in retaining possession of her.

Many months later, as a reward for capturing this and other vessels, Charles received prize- money, from which he purchased jewellery for his sisters, as Jane told Cassandra in May 1801:

He has received £30 for his share of the privateer & expects £10 more, but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his sisters. He has been buying gold chains & topaze crosses for us.

The treasured topaz crosses are today displayed in the Chawton museum. The incident is echoed in Mansfield Park when William Price buys a cross for Fanny:

a very pretty amber cross … William had wanted to buy her a gold chain too, but the purchase had been beyond his means

He later shares with Fanny his

speculations upon prize-money, which was to be generously distributed at home, with only the reservation of enough to make the little cottage comfortable, in which he and Fanny were to pass all their middle and latter life together

Such were the dreams of seamen – to earn sufficient prize-money to buy a cottage or public house. Less charitably, William admits that the first lieutenant needs to be ‘out of the way’ so that he can fulfil his dreams, which is the same sentiment as the officers’ toast: ‘A bloody war and a sickly season’, hoping for events that will kill off those above them and lead to promotion.


Thomas Kydd meets Jane’s brother Francis in INVASION. For a chance to win one of three paperbacks of ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’ email julian@julianstockwin.com with the name of the naval militia with which Francis was associated. Please include your full postal address.
Deadline: May 21

Copyright notices
Book image: By Jane Austen (1775-1817) (Lilly Library, Indiana University) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

2 Comments on “Why Jane Austen Loves a Sailor

  1. Another book on this subject is What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool (1993). It has an excellent glossary (some 135 pages), and extensive Bibliography, but only a couple of pages devoted specifically to the Royal Navy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: