Thursday, June 9, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Persuasion and Austen's sailor brothers

The frigate HMS Unicorn captures the French frigate La Tribune
 A continuation of the post "Persuasion and war."

"How fast I made money in her": The prize-money system. In Chapter 8 of Persuasion, Captain Wentworth regales his listeners (the Musgroves, the Crofts, and Anne) with stories of the ships he has commanded. His second command was the frigate Laconia: "Ah! those were pleasant days when I had the Laconia!  How fast I made money in her." [1]

It may seem odd for a military officer to speak of war as a money-making opportunity, but victors in naval battles were usually awarded prize-money and other honors (titles, pensions, valuable commemorative swords, gold medals, "freedom boxes," and other trophies). The sources of these honors were both official and private. After Trafalgar, for example, Parliament awarded £320,000 in prize-money to the officers and men of Nelson's fleet; every captain who saw action received over £3300—more than eight times his yearly wage—"with lesser sums to the lower ranks." Another source of honors was Lloyd's Patriotic Fund, created by the insurers of ship-owners and merchants, whose profits depended on the naval defense of trade routes; the honors and prize-money the fund offered (primarily to officers) were "material inducements to stick to the meritorious but otherwise unprofitable task of protecting trade."
That a Captain...was after prize-money was not a cynical assessment, but a truism accepted throughout the Navy...It was regarded as the fairest and most straightforward way of rewarding success and for ensuring that sailors at sea, both officers and crew, gained some recompense for putting their lives at risk. [2] 
Wentworth was particularly concerned with earning money because while home in England on leave after the Battle of St. Domingo in 1806 (see "Persuasion and war"), he had met and proposed to a young woman. However, while she had accepted him, her family and friends were unalterably opposed to the match due to his lack of fortune. Her father "thought it a very degrading alliance"; her closest friend "a most unfortunate one...[she had] of anything approaching to imprudence a horror.  She deprecated the connexion in every light." Captain (then Commander) Wentworth "had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in the profession." Under pressure, the young woman withdrew her consent, and the lovers were separated. [3]

The woman Wentworth proposed to in 1806 was, of course, Anne Elliot. Now, eight years later, Captain Wentworth has, "by successive captures," accumulated a fortune in prize-money of "five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and [has attained a position] as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him." [4]

HMS Peterel vs. La Ligurienne (detail), Antoine Roux
Battle between a British sloop and a French brig
"A ship not fit to be employed": Wentworth's first command. Merit and activity, indeed: Wentworth's disregard for his personal safety was, at least in the early years of his captaincy, almost suicidally courageous. We learn that his first ship was the sloop Asp, "a ship not fit to be employed," of which he took command shortly after Anne was persuaded to break off their engagement. "It was a great object with me at that time to be at sea," he tells the group, but meaning, of course, for his words to be heard primarily by Anne, "a very great object—I wanted to be doing something." [5]

A sloop was "a ship of between ten and eighteen guns, the humblest of vessels." [6] Wentworth tells his audience offhandedly that "I had the good luck in my passage home the next autumn, to fall in with the very French frigate I wanted."  A frigate was a substantially larger ship than a sloop, and carried between 30 and 40 guns. For a sloop to attempt to capture a frigate that might outgun it three to one was daring in the extreme; however, Wentworth says with an understatement that conceals what must have been a desperate encounter, "I brought her into Plymouth." And, of course, the prize money for frigates was greater than for smaller vessels. [7]

Wentworth has proved that he is worthy of Anne by earning his fortune through bravery and skill. Now Anne must prove that she is worthy of him by showing a "character of decision and firmness" by defying the disapproval of her family and (especially) of Lady Russell. Although she considers Lady Russell to occupy "the place of a parent" in her regard, Anne is no longer nineteen, and "it was now some years since Anne had begun to learn that she and her excellent friend could sometimes think differently." Anne, at 27, is now willing to overcome Lady Russell's disapprobation by resolutely advocating for her own desires. "Anne knew that Lady Russell must...be making some struggles to become truly acquainted with, and do justice to Captain Wentworth. This however was what Lady Russell had now to do." [8]

The novel closes in February 1815. Jo Modert has written that "the chronologies within [Jane Austen's] novels merit far more attention than has been given them thus far," and this is especially true of Persuasion. Following Modert's suggestion, Ellen Moody has identified the very day that Captain Wentworth and Anne renew their engagement after eight years of separation: it is Saturday, February 25, a date freighted with significance. [9]

The end of the false peace. The date can be no coincidence. On Sunday, February 26, 1815, after remaining in exile for a little more than nine months, Napoleon escaped Elba. Two days later he landed in France, and on March 20 he entered Paris to popular acclaim. The false peace was over and the Hundred Days had begun. In mid-June 200,000 men would clash to decide the fate of Europe near a small Belgian town named Waterloo.

After Waterloo and his disastrous retreat through France, Napoleon finally surrendered—to the British Navy. He turned himself over to Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon, one of the ships blockading Rochefort, on July 15.* He was transported to England, and sent to exile on the island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean on August 7.

The very next day, August 8, 1815, Jane Austen began writing Persuasion, in which Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth participate in the British Navy's greatest victories in the war against Napoleon's France. And the date of Anne and Wentworth's éclaircissement is a suggestion that even in times of apparent peace, vigilance is necessary. Despite Anne's newfound felicity, she cannot be free from "the dread of a future war." [10]

The Destruction of L'Orient at the Battle of the Nile (detail), George Arnald, 1827
The French ship Franklin, after capture to become HMS Canopus, at far left
Jane Austen's sailor brothers. By ending Persuasion on such a significant date, Austen was making an argument against demobilization of the Navy on behalf of her brothers Francis and Charles, both naval captains. Francis left active service in May 1814, as Navy demobilization began after Napoleon's first exile, while Charles left active service in the summer of 1816, as Jane was finishing Persuasion. (Between 1814 and 1820, "the number of ships in commission dropped from 713 to 134..., and the number of seamen from 140,000 to 23,000." [11]) As is the case for the novel's wounded Captain Harville, officers not on active duty received half pay: £200 a year, more or less, depending on seniority. [12] Such a sum was barely adequate to sustain a middle-class family; Lady Russell's skepticism of Captain Wentworth's suitability as a husband for Anne eight years before is perhaps understandable.

Many of the details of Admiral Croft's and Captain Wentworth's naval careers were drawn from the experiences of Jane Austen's sailor brothers:
  • Trafalgar: Admiral Croft was "rear admiral of the white" at Trafalgar; Francis commanded a ship in Nelson's fleet, the 80-gun HMS Canopus, but was sent on convoy duty with five other ships of the line two weeks before the battle. Jane gave to the sympathetic Admiral Croft the participation in the Navy's most glorious victory that was denied to Francis.
  • Battle of St. Domingo: A few months after missing Trafalgar, Francis' ship took part in the destruction of a French squadron at the Battle of St. Domingo, the battle after which the Lieutenant Wentworth is promoted to commander. In the summer of 1806 Francis married his fianc√©e Mary Gibson; it's in the summer of 1806 that the newly-promoted Wentworth first proposes to Anne.
  • Sloop as first command: Wentworth's first command is the unseaworthy sloop Asp; the first commands of Francis (the 16-gun Peterel) and Charles (the Indian) were also sloops.
  • Prizes taken: In 1800 the Peterel encountered three French ships off Marseilles. Even though he was missing a quarter of his crew (they were manning other captured vessels) and the Peterel was within range of shore batteries, Francis ordered an attack on the three ships. The Peterel drove two aground and captured the third, the 16-gun brig La Ligurienne. Shades of the Asp's "touch with the Great Nation" when, against the odds, Wentworth's sloop attacks and captures a French frigate. [13]

Captain Francis Austen, ca. 1806 (left); Captain Charles Austen, ca. 1810 (right)

Domestic virtues and national importance. Francis may also have been a model for Captain Harville—at least, Francis thought that "some of his domestic habits, tastes and occupations bear a strong resemblance to mine." [14] At the home of the Harvilles, Anne notes the "ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville...a mind of usefulness and ingenuity seemed to furnish him with constant employment within.  He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children; he fashioned new netting-needles and pins with improvements; and if everything else was done, sat down to his large fishing-net at one corner of the room." [15] Jane would have had the opportunity to observe Francis' "domestic habits" after staying with him and his wife Mary at Southampton on and off for several years beginning in the fall of 1806. Harville and Wentworth, modelled at least in part on Jane's brothers, exemplify "that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues, than in its national importance." [16]

It is these domestic and social qualities that inspire Louisa Musgrove to "burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy; their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved." [17]

It is hard not to hear in this speech the views of a loyal and loving sister of two sailor brothers. And it is difficult to imagine that these sentiments do not also reflect those of the most gentle, wise and steadfast heroine in all of her novels, Anne Elliot.

Next post in the series: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts
Previous post in the series: Persuasion and war

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



* Jane Austen's brother Charles would later serve as the captain of the Bellerophon.
  1. Persuasion, I. iv.; 4.
  2. Quotes from Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, Hambledon and London, 2000, Ch. 6: "Rewards of success: Prize money, honours, promotion."
  3. Persuasion, I. iv.; 4.
  4. Persuasion, II. xii.; 24.
  5. Persuasion, I. iv.; 4, and later in the same chapter.
  6. Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, p. 197.
  7. Persuasion, I, iv.; 4.
  8. Persuasion, I. x.; 10, II. xi.; 23, I. xvi.; 16, and II. xii.; 24.
  9. Jo Modert, "Chronology within the novels," in J. David Grey, ed., The Jane Austen Companion, Macmillan, 1986, p. 58; Ellen Moody, "A Calendar for Persuasion," http://www.jimandellen.org/austen/persuasion.calendar.html
  10. Persuasion, II. xii.; 24.
  11. Jocelyn Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion, University of Delaware Press, 2007, p. 75. Much of the information in this section of the post is taken from the books of Harris and of Brian Southam, who themselves drew extensively on John and Edith Hubback, Jane Austen's sailor brothers, Lane, 1906.
  12. Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, p. 285. 
  13. Persuasion, I. viii.; 8
  14. Quoted in Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, p. 308. 
  15. Persuasion, I. xi.; 11.
  16. Persuasion, II. xii.; 24.
  17. Persuasion, I. xi.; 11.

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