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Monday, 12 May 2014

Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

This year we remember the outbreak of the First World War, and the sacrifices made by previous generations.  But to Jane Austen’s contemporaries, the 'great war' was the seemingly endless conflict with France (punctuated by battles with America).  The country’s defence brought opportunities for patriotic young men; the navy was a popular career for younger sons of the middle classes. 

Lads began training either at sea as an apprentice under a captain’s patronage, or at the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth.  Jane Austen’s sailor brothers Francis (1774–1865) and Charles (1779–1852) trained at Portsmouth.  Jane and her sister Cassandra wrote to their sailor brothers while they were away at sea, and swapped news of their whereabouts and engagements with the enemy. Like Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, they had to 'pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession’.

Frank was bitterly disappointed when he and his ship Canopus missed the thrilling battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and he wrote to his sweetheart Mary Gibson (27 October): ‘To lose all share in the glory of a day which surpasses all that ever went before is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience’. But the following year, the Canopus took part in Sir John Duckworth’s victory over the French at St Domingo - some consolation for Frank.
You can find out more about Jane Austen's 'great war' in my latest feature for the May/June issue of Jane Austen's Regency World.
Above, left: Gymnastics: The Climbing Stand. Used to help train boys for the navy. Mirror of Literature, Amusement, And Instruction, 20 May 1826. Author’s collection.

Defeat of the French fleet (above, right) by Sir John Duckworth off St Domingo. Frank Austen took part in the action.  Cassell’s Illustrated History of England Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter and Galpin, c.1864). Author’s collection.
HMS Victory at Portsmouth (left). Heroes of the British Navy, Frederick Warne & Co., c. 1900. Nigel Wilkes Collection.


Thursday, 1 May 2014

Happy Birthday Mansfield Park!

Jane Austen's third novel, Mansfield Park, was published by Thomas Egerton in May 1814. Mansfield Park is in some ways a reworking of the Cinderella story; its heroine Fanny Price is transplanted from her crowded Portsmouth home to be brought up with her cousins Maria and Julia, Tom and Edmund Bertram. Fanny fetches and carries for her aunts Lady Bertram and Mrs Norris.

As Fanny grows up, she falls in love with her cousin Edmund; but he only has eyes for pretty, witty Mary Crawford. At first Mary, who is on the look-out for a rich husband, sets her sights on Tom. She ‘had felt an early presentiment that she should like the eldest best. She knew it was her way’.
But when she turns her attention to Edmund, she is surprised and alarmed because he plans to earn his living as a clergyman: ‘There is generally an uncle or a grandfather to leave a fortune to the second son’.
Meanwhile, Fanny is growing up. Her first ball at Mansfield Park was: ‘the thought only of the afternoon, built on the late acquisition of a violin player in the servants’ hall, and the possibility of raising five couple’. It was, however, ‘a very happy one’ for Fanny as she danced four times with her cousin Edmund.

Mansfield Park is the most obviously Johnsonian of Jane Austen’s works. Dr Johnson’s uncompromising moral outlook and Fanny Price’s are strikingly similar at times, although the timid heroine, unlike Johnson, usually shrinks from making her true feelings clear. Moralising has acquired ‘priggish,’ dull overtones for many modern readers, who find Fanny difficult to empathise with.  
But in the more religious age that Austen lived in, thinking and talking about people’s moral values was far more common, and Jane received some favourable comments on Fanny's character from friends and family. Near the end of the novel, Edmund Bertram comments: ‘Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout, who has been consistent’.
Will the worldly Mary Crawford marry Edmund? Will her handsome brother Henry seduce Fanny’s affections from Edmund? You’ll have to read the novel to find out...

Illustration: A young man proposes marriage. Pocket Magazine, 1820.