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Jane Austen and the British Navy

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Jane Austen and the Navy by Michele Larrow

In Persuasion and to a lesser extent in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen incorporates details about naval life that are very realistic and also connect to the themes of her works.  At our meeting on Sunday July 29, 2018 at the Coeur d’Alene public library, we will explore how Jane Austen portrays the British Navy and naval characters and how these characters contrast with the other characters in the novel, mainly focusing on Persuasion.  Below we present a couple of the themes that are discussed in the two optional readings we have posted on our website under events  https://jasnaewanid.org/events/ .  You do not need to read these articles before the meeting, but if you have time to do so, they are quite informative!

Women and the Navy

“I Hate to Hear of Women on Board”: Women aboard War Ships by Rowland McMaster, Persuasions On-Line, 36, 2015.

This excellent article discusses what it might be like to be a woman on board a ship if one were married to the captain, or married to a petty officer, or a sex worker.  Mrs. Croft’s experiences reflect being a woman on board when her husband is a captain. When Mrs. Croft and her brother, Captain Wentworth, discuss ladies being on board ship, Captain Wentworth declares: “ I hate to hear of women on board, or to see them on board; and no ship, under my command, shall ever convey a family of ladies anywhere, if I can help it”.  (69)  Mrs. Croft brings in her own experience and speaks the memorable lines:

“Oh Frederick!—But I cannot believe it of you.—All idle refinement!—Women may be as comfortable on board, as in the best house in England.  I believe I have lived as much on board as most women, and I know nothing superior to the accommodations of a man of war. . . . My dear Frederick, you are talking quite idly.  Pray, what would become of us poor sailors’ wives, who often want to be conveyed to one port or another, after our husbands, if every body had your feelings? . . . But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth waters all our days.’” (69-70)

Mrs. Croft argues that women are rational, just like men.  She is portrayed as a woman of good sense, who is described by the lawyer Mr. Shepard as “more conversant with business” (22) than the admiral was when they discussed renting Kellynch.  In another scene, Anne reflects that the way she manages the admiral’s driving so they don’t turn over is a similar to the way she manages him and their marriage.  We might think of Mrs. Croft as a role model for Anne of how to be a naval wife and to have an equal marriage.

Some questions we will discuss:  How does being affiliated with the navy through marriage to a naval officer allow a woman greater freedom of travel and activity?  Are the naval marriages that are portrayed (the Crofts and the Harvilles) more egalitarian than those of the Musgroves (older and younger)?  What kind of married life do we imagine Anne will have when she is connected with the navy?  How does Mrs. Croft compare and contrast to Lady Russell and Mrs. Musgrove?

The Connections between Jane Austen’s Family and Naval Characters

“The Influence of Naval Captain Charles Austen’s North American Experiences on Persuasion and Mansfield Park” by Sheila Johnson Kindred Persuasions, 31, 115-129, 2009

Sheila Johnson Kindred focuses mainly on Jane Austen’s younger brother Charles and his wife Fanny in finding connections between their lives and friends in Halifax and Bermuda and characters and events in Persuasion. Kindred concludes that Austen took the information she had from Charles and applied it in a complex was in her novels.  “Through her communication with her brother Charles she had access to a personal narrative about the world of a naval station.  For more than six years, Charles related his own accomplishments; he reported the enterprises of his fellow officers and recorded the lives of his own young family.  This rich database gave Jane Austen an intriguing catalogue of sentiments, feelings, attitudes, and personality traits that animated naval life.  We can appreciate the quality of Jane’s fiction by the way she imaginatively selected items from this catalogue and reworked them to her own purposes in the construction of the unique range of character traits, opinions, and actions which brings to life her naval characters” (Kindred 126).

Some questions we will discuss:  What is the portrayal of a father’s feelings for his children shown in Charles Musgrove compared to Captain Harville?   A few of the naval characters as shown to have good hearts, but not the best social manners.  Which trait is more valued in Persuasion?  Sir Walter’s criticisms of the navy are humorous, but the contrast between him and Admiral Croft show his moral failures as a landowner.  Is Austen using the contrast between the navy and the landed gentry to make predictions about the future of England?

The Ending of Persuasion

The ending of Persuasion specifically includes a connection with the navy for Anne’s happiness and the uncertainty of the future:

Anne was tenderness itself;–and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth’s affection. His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that Tenderness less; the dread of a future War, all that could dim her Sunshine.—She gloried in being a Sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm, for belonging to that Profession which is—if possible—more distinguished in it’s Domestic Virtues, than in it’s National Importance.—Finis July 18.—1816” (p. 273, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization from the draft of the final chapters)

Kindred and other authors suggest that by incorporating the Navy, Austen is bringing the larger world of current events and war into her novels, which readers of her day would have known.  Persuasion start the story in 1814 when there is peace with France and finishes in spring of 1815.  The Battle of Waterloo happened in June 1815 after Napoleon left exile and peace was shattered.  Readers of the day (1817 or 1818) would have known that the peace in Persuasion would soon be gone.  Any thoughts about how that would inform their understanding of the end of the novel?  Thinking about the “tax” of being a wife of a naval officer, what might Austen be saying about life in general?

 

Pages are from:  Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  London: Oxford UP, 1966.

Bring other questions for discussion.  If you have read the letters or know something about the lives of her two naval brothers, Charles and Francis, bring that for discussion.  We hope to see you on July 29!