Sunday, June 5, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Persuasion and war

The Battle of Trafalgar (detail), Auguste Mayer, 1836
During Jane Austen's lifetime Great Britain was almost continually at war. The year of her birth, 1775, was the year of Lexington and Concord, the battle that inaugurated the War of American Independence. And for more than two decades beginning in 1793, Britain and its European allies engaged in a long-running conflict against Revolutionary and (after Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804) Imperial France.

Rumors of war touch several of Austen's novels. In Pride and Prejudice, the militia regiment quartered at Meryton and Brighton in southeast England is there to defend against a French invasion (its other purpose is to violently suppress demonstrations by agricultural or industrial workers). And in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price's brother William is serving as a midshipman on a British Navy vessel patrolling the Mediterranean to intercept French ships.

But the novel which is most profoundly affected by war is Persuasion. Austen could presume that her readers would know the significance of the timing of the action of the novel and the military engagements she mentions. But as Jocelyn Harris writes in A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion, "Nearly two hundred years later, explanations are essential." [1] What follows is a brief discussion of the military context of the major events in the novel.

The false peace. As the novel opens the financially embarrassed Sir Walter Elliot has grudgingly decided to rent his estate, Kellynch Hall, and as a cost-saving measure move with his still-unmarried daughters Elizabeth, 29, and Anne, 27, to the resort town of Bath.

Sir Walter's resolution is made in the summer of 1814, just two months after Napoleon had been defeated, forced to abdicate, and exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba (between Corsica and Italy). With peace at hand, apparently, demobilization has begun, and naval officers granted extended leave from active duty are returning home. Into the neighborhood of Kellynch seeking a place to live have come a naval couple, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, along with Mrs. Croft's brother, Captain Frederick Wentworth.

Admiral Croft, war hero: The Trafalgar action. Admiral Croft, "rear admiral of the white...was in the Trafalgar action." [2] In October 1805 at Cape Trafalgar, near the Straits of Gibraltar, the British fleet under Lord Nelson defeated a larger combined fleet of French and Spanish ships. The British fleet was divided into three squadrons (Red, White and Blue), with each squadron having two sections commanded, respectively, by a vice admiral and a rear admiral. The fictional Admiral Croft's command would have been the rear section of Nelson's second squadron.

Trafalgar was the most decisive and most celebrated British naval victory of the Napoleonic Wars, so Sir Walter's new tenant is a war hero. Sir Walter's churlish attitude towards navy men in general and Admiral Croft in particular is thus an especially telling indictment of his character. It is also especially painful to Anne, who, when Sir Walter begins to muse about restricting the use of the estate by his tenants, notes that "The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give." [3] As someone who knew Jane Austen said, "Anne Elliot was herself; her enthusiasm for the Navy, and her perfect unselfishness, reflect her completely." [4]

 The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the mizen starboard shrouds of the Victory (detail), J.M.W. Turner, 1806-8.
The mortally wounded Nelson is visible at the base of the Victory's mainmast.
The human cost of war. Naval warfare was brutal. Long-range fire from pitching and rolling ships was generally ineffectual, so ships maneuvered to be able to fire concentrated broadsides at ranges so close that sometimes the opposing vessels were actually touching. At Trafalgar, the HMS Victory and the French ship Redoubtable were in such close contact that their rigging became entangled. Decks were blasted with cannon and raked with musket fire at point-blank range. So that men could keep their footing, sand had to be spread on planking slippery with blood. Be forewarned: some of the eyewitness testimony quoted below is fairly graphic.

An officer on the huge 130-gun Spanish warship Santisima Trinidad at Trafalgar later wrote:
The scene on board the Santisima Trinidad was simply infernal. All attempts at working the ship had to be abandoned. She could not move...The English shot had torn our sails to tatters. It was as if huge invisible talons had been dragging at them. Fragments of spars, splinters of wood, thick hempen cables cut up as corn is cut by the sickle, fallen blocks, shreds of canvas, bits of iron, and hundreds of other things that had been wrenched away by the enemy's fire, were piled along the deck, where it was scarcely possible to move about. . . . Blood ran in streams about the deck, and in spite of the sand, the rolling of the ship carried it hither and thither until it made strange patterns on the planks. The enemy's shot, fired as they were from very short range, caused horrible mutilations. . . . The ship creaked and groaned as she rolled, and through a thousand holes and crevices in her hull the sea spurted in and began to flood the hold. There was hardly a man to be seen who did not bear marks, more or less severe, of the enemy's iron and lead.
Another Spanish officer wrote that the dismasted Trinidad had surrendered, "not being able any longer to work her guns, owing to the mass of wreck which covered her decks and hung over her sides, and the heaps of dead which choked up her batteries." A midshipman from one of the British ships that took possession of the Trinidad after the battle wrote that "she had between three and four hundred killed and wounded ; her beams were covered with Blood, Brains and peices of Flesh and the after part of her Decks with wounded, some without legs and some without an Arm." The hundreds of dead were heaved overboard.

An American tourist visiting the coast near Cadiz a few days after the battle reported that "as far as the eye could reach, the sandy side of the isthmus bordering on the Atlantic was covered with masts and yards, the wrecks of ships, and here and there the bodies of the dead." [5]

The human cost of war is represented in Persuasion by Captain Harville, who "had never been in good health since a severe wound which he received two years before." [6] "Two years before" the action of the novel in the summer and fall of 1814 would place Captain Harville's wounding in the second half of 1812. Austen here might be subtly reminding her readers, through the person of the wounded Harville, of the string of British disasters in the early naval battles in the recent war with the United States: in August 1812, HMS Guerrière was forced to surrender to the USS Constitution; in October, the Macedonian was "shot to pieces" and captured by the USS United States; and in December, the Java was defeated and captured by the USS Constitution. [7]

Destruction of the French squadron of Admiral Leissègues at Santo-Domingo (detail), Nicholas Pocock, 1808
Lieutenant Wentworth's promotion: The battle of St. Domingo. In February 1806, a few months after Trafalgar, then-Lieutenant Frederick Wentworth is "made commander in consequence of the action off St. Domingo." [8] While the Battle of St. Domingo has been overshadowed by Trafalgar, it took place in a crucial theater of war and, on a smaller scale, was nearly as decisive.

Santo Domingo was a large port city on the French-controlled island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean; that island, like the nearby British West Indies, was devoted to sugar cultivation on huge plantations that depended on labor of and the trade in slaves. The British and French fleets fought there as a consequence of each side's attempting to disrupt the other's trade.

As Jocelyn Harris points out, the West Indies were "Britain's most important colony, providing most of the nation's wealth," while St. Domingo "was the richest single colony in all the European empires, its foreign trade bigger than that of the United States." [9] The islands of the Caribbean were the economic engines of both Britain and France, and both nations attacked each other's convoys; the naval conflict over the Caribbean and Atlantic trade routes is one reason that Mrs. Croft has "crossed the Atlantic four times." [10]

Officers generally received promotion only when positions became vacant, or when a new ship was commissioned. For Wentworth to receive a promotion immediately after a battle implies that a superior officer had been wounded or killed (or, possibly, had himself been promoted to take the place of a superior officer who had been wounded or killed).

Promotions were rapid in wartime due to the expansion of the navy and the frequent need to replace officers. With the coming of peace and demobilization in 1814, however, promotions could take years—or might never come at all. Early in the novel, Admiral Croft says, only partly ironically, that he hopes "we have the good luck to live to another war." [11] Later, in Bath, Admiral Croft recognizes a young sailor as the relative of an acquaintance and says that "the peace has come too soon for that younker"; a minute or two later he says of Captain Wentworth's friend, Captain Benwick, "these are bad times for getting on." [12] Promotion is important because the captain of a ship received the greatest share of the prize money when an enemy ship was captured; it is prize money that will enable Captain Wentworth to seek a wife.

Next post in the series: Persuasion and Jane Austen's sailor brothers
Previous post in the series: Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

  1. Jocelyn Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion, University of Delaware Press, 2007, p. 74. 
  2. Austen, Persuasion, I. iii.; 3.
  3. Persuasion, I. iii.; 3.
  4. "Mrs. Barrett," quoted by an anonymous correspondent to Austen's nephew James Austen-Leigh in R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems, Oxford University Press, 1948, p. 98. 
  5. All eyewitness testimony from Edmund Fraser, The enemy at Trafalgar: An account of the battle from eye-witnesses' narratives and letters and despatches from the French and Spanish fleets, Hodder and Stoughton, 1905, pp. 268-272 and p. 335.
  6. Persuasion, I. xi.; 11.
  7. Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, Hambledon and London, 2000, pp. 259-260.
  8. Persuasion, I. iv.; 4.
  9. Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression, p. 79.
  10. Persuasion, I. viii.; 8
  11. Persuasion, I. viii.; 8.
  12. Persuasion, I. xviii.; 18 and later in the same chapter.

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