Questions for Discussing Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister

Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister-cover.jpg

I have been hearing from many readers of Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister with their comments, including the suggestion that I provide some ideas for reflection. So here’s a group of questions about Fanny and Jane Austen for further discussion:

Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister - Discussion Guide

Cheers to the Reading Groups at JASNA Greater Sacramento Region and at JASNA SW San Gabriel, who plan to discuss Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister later in 2019. Thanks for your interest.

I would be delighted to hear from readers and groups with your suggestions.

Discovering the Young Jane Austen in West Kent, England

Kent is a county in the south east of England. It reaches from the outskirts of London to the White Cliffs of Dover. West Kent is my husband, Hugh’s, land of origin, so it has become familiar territory to me too. I already knew that Jane Austen had family connections to the Sevenoaks area of West Kent; I have recently enjoyed the opportunity to explore these links on the ground. Join me in following in Jane’s footsteps during the summer of 1788 when she spent time in the town of Sevenoaks and the neighbouring village of Seal. Who did she meet and what might have been the lasting effects of her first visit to this part of England?

Fig. 1: Map of West Kent showing Sevenoaks, Seal and Chevening, c. 1800

Fig. 1: Map of West Kent showing Sevenoaks, Seal and Chevening, c. 1800

In July 1788, Jane Austen, age 12½, was introduced to her great uncle, the rich 90-year-old Francis Austen II who lived in Sevenoaks. She travelled there with her parents and sister, Cassandra. In Jane’s immediate family, Uncle Francis was held in esteem and gratitude as he had paid for her father, George Austen, to attend the nearby Tonbridge Grammar School and, later St John’s College, Oxford. Jane’s parents presumably thought their daughters should meet their father’s benefactor and Uncle Francis was happy to receive them at his residence, the Red House. Francis held a large family luncheon, which included the Walter family and probably his son, Francis Motley Austen, and grandchildren.

How might Jane have reacted to meeting her great uncle at his fine red brick town house, which is still prominently situated on the High Street of Sevenoaks. [1]

Fig. 2: The Red House today


Fig. 2: The Red House today

One of Francis’s aunts who visited the Red House in 1751 was very impressed. In her view, “the house and garden were very delightful; [my Nephew] shew’d me all the Offices where Brewing and Baking, Washing etc. [are done], Coach House, Grainery, where to dry Hopps etc. & lastly his Cellars, well stored with the best wines & other good liquor.”[2]

Fig. 3: The Red House when Owned by Dr Fuller (1688-1734), showing Knole in the background

Fig. 3: The Red House when Owned by Dr Fuller (1688-1734), showing Knole in the background

Jane must have noticed that this property was a far cry from the humble rectory and its surrounds that she currently inhabited in rural Hampshire.

Uncle Francis had achieved personal, professional and material success. Presumably Jane knew that his late wife, Jane Austen née Chadwick (1758-1782), had been her godmother, and she had most likely heard family stories about his professional acumen. He had practised law at Clifford’s Inn, London and in Sevenoaks, served as a Clerk of the Peace for Kent, acted as parliamentary agent for the Lionel Sackville, first Duke of Dorset and as agent for the Duke’s huge estate, Knole, at Sevenoaks.[3] Francis was also a rich landowner. As for his physical appearance, Ozias Humphry’s fine portrait, titled “Francis Austen Esq. of Sevenoaks” (1780) provides clues to how her great uncle would have appeared to Jane.

According to her brother, Henry, who saw the portrait on a visit to the Red House, about 1780, Francis was depicted wearing “a wig like a Bishop, & a suit of light grey, ditto coat, vest and hose … He retained a perfect identity of colour, texture and make to his life’s end.”[4] Certainly, in the painting, Francis’s expression and style of dress are suggestive of authority accompanied by wealth.

Fig. 4: Copy of a portrait of Francis Austen (1698-1791) by Ozias Humphry.

Fig. 4: Copy of a portrait of Francis Austen (1698-1791) by Ozias Humphry.

It is likely that Jane’s encounter with her Uncle Francis in Sevenoaks made a lasting impression on her as she came to appreciate the diversity of her family’s past accomplishments, not to mention her uncle’s links with the aristocracy. Given Francis’s long term associations with the Dukes of Dorset, presumably Jane knew about the Sackville family’s reputation and great wealth. As the Red House was located close to Knole, she most likely had at least a glimpse of the grandeur of the huge mansion of 365 rooms, which is still surrounded by a magnificent Deer Park.[5]

Jane Austen showed an early interest in the aristocratic world, whose members she delighted in satirizing in her juvenile writings. Perhaps it was observations made while in the home territory of the Sackville family that inspired her imagination when she wrote a short story for her brother Charles, titled “Sir William Mountague.”[6] It was created only a month or so after the family’s visit to Sevenoaks [7] In it, Jane included details which seem to reflect the Sackville family and their property.

Her story begins by poking fun at the intricate patterns of inheritance among the aristocracy. She lists the convoluted line of descent within the Mountague family, where sons and a nephew sequentially lay claim to the family’s title, and other remoter ancestors are cited. Compare the relationships in the Sackville family of Knole: the first Duke of Dorset was succeeded by his eldest son, the second Duke by a son, the third Duke, by his nephew. Additionally, Austen’s young hero, Sir William Mountague, inherits “a handsome fortune, an ancient house and a Park well stocked with deer.” This description fits Knole remarkably well, as the estate had been the Sackville family seat since 1603, the mansion house dating from the mid 15th century and the 300-year-old deer park had medieval origins. As well, the fictional Mr Stanhope, who is shot by Sir William, bears the name of another aristocratic family associated with Sevenoaks, the Stanhopes of Chevening.

Fig.5: Knole

Fig.5: Knole

Deirdre Le Faye thinks that the George Austen family visit to Sevenoaks and area could have lasted from mid July to the end of the month.[8] If so, there was time to appreciate not only the significance of Knole and its park but also a chance to explore an even earlier family connection with Sevenoaks. This entailed showing Jane the Sevenoaks Grammar School, which is located on the High Street near to the Red House. Founded in 1432 by William Sevenoke, a foundling and later Lord Mayor of London, the school had since its inception offered a comprehensive classical education. It is still in operation, now as a well regarded private school.

From 1708 onward Uncle Francis’s mother, the genteel Elizabeth Austen née Weller, had been the housekeeper for the Master of the Sevenoaks School and responsible for its resident pupils.

Fig. 6: Old School, Sevenoaks.

Fig. 6: Old School, Sevenoaks.

Her story was one of courage and determination. Left widowed at an early age, with five sons to educate and minimal resources after paying off the debts of her husband (John Austen IV), she had taken the post at the school with the understanding that her sons would be educated almost free of charge. In her view, she “could not do a better thing for my children’s good, their education being my greatest care, for I always tho’t that if they had learning they might ye better shift in ye world.”[9] Here was a role model for a young girl like Jane Austen to take seriously. As Jane grew older, she displayed the focus, dedication and determination necessary for a writer. Elizabeth was a woman with a goal and the resolve to achieve it. Jane Austen resembled her ancestress in this characteristic.  

Fig. 7: Plaque to Elizabeth Weller Austen, Sevenoaks School

Fig. 7: Plaque to Elizabeth Weller Austen, Sevenoaks School

While Jane was absorbing details of a new place and new people, someone else was observing her. Twenty-six-year-old Phylly Walter, daughter of William Walter, the half brother of Jane’s father, was at the family lunch at the Red House. She subsequently wrote to her brother on 23 July 1788: “The Youngest (Jane) is very like her brother Henry, not at all pretty & very prim, unlike a girl of twelve; but it is “hasty judgement which you will scold me for.” But after the George Austen party spent a day at the Walter home, the Grey House, in the nearby village of Seal, Phylly added that “Jane is whimsical and affected.”[10]

Fig. 8: The Grey House, Seal

Fig. 8: The Grey House, Seal

This is the only description on record of Jane Austen just before her teenage years. What might be made of Phylly’s assessment? It appears there was little bonding between Jane and Phylly during their tine in each other’s company. This may have been because Phylly was particularly impressed by Cassandra (age 15½), who she declared was like herself in “features, complexion and manners,” and who “keeps up conversation in a very sensible and pleasing manner.” Jane, in Phylly’s view, simply did not pass muster. The serious minded Phylly may not have appreciated, or even understood her younger cousin’s range of remarks and sense of humour. In consequence, Jane is dubbed as “whimsical” and “affected.” There is no evidence that others in the family party shared Phylly’s opinion of Jane; it would be interesting to know what Jane thought of Phylly!

Fig. 9: Approaching Seal.

Fig. 9: Approaching Seal.

I have been fascinated to explore connections to Jane Austen in Sevenoaks and Seal.  Her ancestors Elizabeth Weller Austen and Francis Austen II showed a determined sense of purpose in life, which Jane grew up to exhibit as well. Moreover, it is intriguing to consider what was happening in Jane’s life at the time she was beginning to write her first fiction. From her perspective, there had been plenty to see and think about during her visit to Sevenoaks. She had stayed in an elegant town house, the Red House; she had met a venerable and valuable family benefactor. It is highly likely that she was briefed about her courageous ancestress, Elizabeth Austen, and was also exposed to the history of the prestigious Sackville family and saw something of their impressive estate. The young Jane’s social behaviour apparently did not impress her older cousin Phylly Walter, but that opinion need not be considered definitive in the absence of other evidence. Jane Austen’s summer sojourn in Sevenoaks and Seal was full of interest for her and, in a different way, for us, her later readers.   

[1] The Red House can be found at 50 High Street, Sevenoaks, looking much as it did in Jane Austen’s day. It was built in 1686 and owned by Francis Austen from 1743-1791. According to John Newman, in West Kent and the Weald, (Penguin, 1969), 515, it is “the finest house on the street… it represents the late 17th century ideal.”

[2] Quoted in Sevenoaks An Historical Dictionary, compiled and edited by David Killingray and Elizabeth Purves, (Phillimore, 2012), 151.  

[3] According to Brian Southam, John Sackville, the Third Duke of Dorset, “valued Francis as highly as had his grandfather and relied on him for a host of official and personal services.” See Southam, “Old Francis Austen The Rich Lawyer of Sevenoaks,” Jane Austen Society Report, 2006, 38.

[4] Henry also recalled: “I think he (Francis) was born in Anne’s reign, and was of course a smart man of George the First’s. It is a sort of privilege to have seen and conversed with such a model of a hundred years since.” See Brian Southam, “Old Francis Austen,” 38. Perhaps Jane reflected on their great uncle similarly. Given her growing interest in history, (she would soon be writing a tongue in cheek piece “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1 st.”) to have met someone whose life had spanned so many decades and different reigns must have seemed impressive.

[5] Knole is now looked after by The National Trust.

[6] See Catherine and Other Writings, ed. Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray, (OUP. 1993), 38-39.

[7] Deirdre Le Faye thinks this dating is plausible. See A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family (CUP, 2006), 118.  

[8] See Deirdre Le Faye, Chronology, 116.

[9] Quoted in “Elijah Fenton: The Man Who Employed Mrs Austen, by Claire Graham in Austentations, vol. 9, Spring 2009, 50.

[10] See Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen A Family Record, (Cambridge, 2004), 64.

Charles Austen’s Colleague, Captain John Shortland: His Naval Service in Australia and North America

Captain John Shortland

Captain John Shortland

Charles Austen began his career as a ship’s captain in North American waters in 1805. In the six years that followed he served with a variety of other young men hoping to succeed in their naval careers. While I was researching my biography of Fanny Palmer Austen, Charles’s wife, I became curious about his fellow officers. What were their backgrounds? What had been their successes and failure? This quest led me to Captain John Shortland (1769-1810), who worked quite closely with Charles Austen on the North American Station of the Royal Navy during 1808-1809. While recently in Australia, I learned much more about Shortland’s earlier career there. These new details contribute to a profile of a courageous but ill-fated officer. Here is his story.   

Hunter’s sketch of a wombat

Hunter’s sketch of a wombat

 John Shortland went out to New South Wales from England on the First Fleet,[1] initially on the Friendship as 2nd mate, but transferred to the Sirius, Captain John Hunter, where he was promoted to master’s mate just before the vessel arrived in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. Shortland found himself in a land very different from England. Human contact was limited to the company of other naval personnel, British administrators and increasing numbers of arriving convicts. An impression of the exotic fauna of the place is provided by Captain John Hunter’s contemporary sketch book, which included images of a wombat[2] and a platypus along with drawings of birds, flowers and fish encountered in the environs of Port Jackson and Norfolk Island.[3] Shortland was free to explore this remarkable new land between his naval assignments on board the Sirius.

In January 1789, the Sirius was despatched to the Cape of Good Hope, where the crew   loaded foodstuffs and supplies at Table Bay and transported them back to New South Wales for the relief of the needy, fledgling colony at Port Jackson.  In 1790, still aboard the Sirius, he sailed to Norfolk Island as part of an exploratory group sent to determine the Island’s suitability for settlement. Soon after the party landed, the unlucky Sirius was thrown upon a reef of rocks and sank. Shortland was thus stranded on Norfolk Island for the next eleven months.

He returned to England in 1791 but went back to Australia again in 1795 as first Lieutenant on the Reliance. He accepted the posting at the invitation of his friend, John Hunter, who had just been appointed Governor of New South Wales. According to the “Memoir of the Public Services of Captain John Shortland” in the Naval Chronicle, 1810, he undertook his transfer into the Reliance with “utmost reluctance and regrets and afterwards he considered his removal  as the most unfortunate era of his life; as an event that banished him from the active scene which was opened by the [war with France].”[4] It seems that the challenges of exploration and colonization of Australia held less attraction than the chance to accrue prize money while the French war with Britain continued.  Nevertheless, he stayed with the Reliance for the next five years, making voyages to the Cape of Good Hope and New Zealand as well as one journey which has earned him a place in Australian history.

In a letter to his father, Captain John Shortland Sr. he described an “expedition on the Governor’s whaleboat about as far as Port Stephens, which lies 100 miles northward of this place [Port Jackson]. In my passage down I discovered a very fine coal river, [on 10 September 1797] which I named after Governor Hunter. … Vessels from 80 to 250 tons may load here with great ease, I dare say [the river] will be a great acquisition to this settlement.”[5] Shortland enclosed an eye sketch of the estuary of the river and what is now known as Newcastle harbour, which he made in “the little time I was there.”

Shortland's map of Hunter's River from the  Naval Chronicle of 1810

Shortland's map of Hunter's River from the Naval Chronicle of 1810

Shortland’s drafting and observational skills are evident from his sketch, which is done to scale. He made some soundings, identified the height of the tide, the location of shoal waters and rocks, and the channels navigated by his boat through the harbour. He indicated where fresh water could be found and described a long sandy beach, “bending towards Port Stephens about 14-16 miles.” Shortland indicated the presence of “natives” at two locations, including one close to where his party slept at the base of what is now known as Signal Hill, but it is thought he had no contact with them.[6]

Newcastle harbour entrance with Noddy's Island

Newcastle harbour entrance with Noddy's Island

Shortland’s lucky find of both the coal deposits and the Hunter River occurred, by chance, when he was sent in pursuit of some convicts who had seized the government boat, Cumberland, which ordinarily carried supplies between Hawkesbury and Sydney. Apparently, Shortland failed to apprehend the convicts. Nonetheless an enthusiastic Governor Hunter received Shortland’s subsequent report and immediately informed officials in England of his discovery of both the river and “a considerable quantity of coal”[7] at the base of Signal Hill on the south shore near the water.

Returning to England in 1800, John Shortland received various commands, before being made post captain on 6 August 1805. He was subsequently appointed to the Squirrel (24 guns).  By 1808 we find him on the North American Station, where Admiral Sir John Warren posted him into the 40 gun Junon, a vessel recently captured from the French in February 1809. As Shortland was keen to have her ready for action as soon as possible, he is said to have put £1000-1500 of his own money into the Junon’s refurbishment at the Naval Yard in Halifax, Nova Scotia.[8] Amid the busyness of preparations, he found time to have his portrait painted by the accomplished British artist, Robert Field,[9] who happened to be working in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By mid September 1809, Shortland sailed from Halifax on a cruise, undermanned by about 100 sailors, but ready all the same for what prize captures he might make.

John Shortland was fortunate to get his first frigate, the Junon, but his luck did not hold. He had heard of a 20 gun French vessel, bound for Guadeloupe, and while in search of her in December 1809, the Junon was trapped by four French frigates off Antigua. They were the Renommée (40 gun), the Clorinde (40 guns), the Loire (20 guns) and the Seine (20 guns) and they showed no mercy. Shortland fought bravely until he was seriously wounded. After a gallant but hopeless action of 1¼ hours, the French broadsides smashed the Junon before her captors destroyed her by fire.[10] Captain Shortland was taken to Guadeloupe where he died of his wounds five weeks later.[11] 

 Shortland’s career in the Royal Navy had taken him world wide into new and uncharted southern waters. In his profession, he had been an ambitious and diligent naval officer, notable as an early explorer of coastal New South Wales, remembered as the first European to discover coal at Newcastle and to sketch her harbour. But sadly, while serving on the North American Station, he lost both his life and his ship.

Today a suburb of Newcastle bears his name. The motto of the local school is “Respect, Responsibility and Relationships.” This seems fitting for the commemoration of an individual of decisive action and faithful service to his country and his profession.

Shortland public school

Shortland public school


[1] The First Fleet refers to the eleven ships that sailed from Portsmouth, England, 13 May 1787, in order to establish a penal colony, which became the first European settlement in Australia. 

[2] Governor Hunter was given the gift of a live wombat captured on Preservation Island in the Bass Strait. When the wombat died, it was preserved in spirits and sent to Joseph Banks to be forwarded to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. When a platypus was discovered in 1798, Hunter sent both a pelt and a sketch of it back to England.

[3] For information about Hunter’s sketches, see Linda Groom, The Steady Hand: Governor Hunter and His First Fleet Sketch Book, National Library of Australia, 2012.

[4] Naval Chronicle for 1810, July to December, vol. 24, 11.

[5] See John Shortland to his father, John Shortland Sr., 10 September 1797, Historical Records of New South Wales, vol.3, 481.

[6] The first published edition of the map in 1810 in the Naval Chronicle does not show the locations of native settlement. For a detailed reconstruction of his explorations, see “Lieutenant Shortland’s Survey of Newcastle on 9th September 1797” by H.W.W. Huntington, in hunterlivinghistories.com.

[7] See Governor Hunter to the Duke of Portland, 10 January 1798, transcribed from Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. 3, 727.  

[8] Naval Chronicle, vol 24,.

[9] See the impressive miniature of Shortland, set in a gold locket. It is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England. The link is collections-rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/42038.html

[10] For an account of the battle, see the Naval Chronicle for 1810, July to December, vol. 24, 12-14.

[11] For the touching story of Shortland’s faithful dog, Pandore who was with him when he was dying in Guadeloupe, see Sheila Johnson Kindred, Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister, MQUP, 2017, 64.

Sheila's Australian Book Tour

Jane among  the koalas

Jane among the koalas

Ready for the book tour

Ready for the book tour

Who could refuse an invitation to speak to Jane Austen Societies in Australia at a time of year when Nova Scotia is buffeted by icy gales and often buried in snow? Yet it was not a matter of weather that was the deciding factor. The Jane Austen Societies in Australia are known for their keen interest in all things Austen, their impressive scholarship and their welcoming spirit. Between the 8th and 23rd February, I was delighted to spend time with them. I spoke about my book, Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister, in Brisbane, the Southern Highlands (Bowral), Sydney, Newcastle and Melbourne. My husband, Hugh, accompanied me. 

Speaking in Sydney

Speaking in Sydney

Sydney was a focal point of the book tour, both as a transportation point and the largest gathering - 150 members of JASA. There I shared the stage with Susannah Fullerton, author of Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, A Dance with Jane Austen and Jane and I: A Tale of Austen Addiction, who conducted the AGM of JASA prior to my talk. It was Susannah who initially invited me to speak in Australia and she proved to be a wonderful host and helpful advisor on all aspects during the book tour. A delicious tea followed the talk, a pattern repeated with much panache in Brisbane and elsewhere. 

Mixing with the marsupials

Mixing with the marsupials

Brisbane provided a warm welcome (in 36 degree’s heat), dinner with the local Jane Austen committee and most hospitable accommodation with Barbara O’Rourke. A strong turnout of 90 members came to hear about Fanny Palmer Austen. While in Queensland Hugh and I made the acquaintance of koalas, kangaroos, wombats, echidnas, and cassowaries at the justly famous Australia Zoo and enjoyed exploring Brisbane on the Water Cat, a convenient form of transport on the river. 

The Bowral meeting took place in the beautiful and delightfully cooler area of the Southern Highlands, located between Sydney and Canberra. A small, but enthusiastic group showed a marked interest in Fanny Palmer Austen and the narrative of her transatlantic life at sea and on shore. We enjoyed several meals with the local committee members and two scenic drives to nearby villages. I saw my first poisonous snake, which fortunately showed no interest in me. 

Lunch with Janeites in the Southern Highlands

Lunch with Janeites in the Southern Highlands

Historic Morpeth, NSW

Historic Morpeth, NSW

In Newcastle the Hunter Region were great hosts and an attentive audience. Pamela Whalan made us very welcome in her home. I happily traded books with Pamela, who has adapted all six of Jane Austen’s novels for the stage. Pamela also took us on a very interesting day’s drive, exploring the Hunter River valley as far as Maitland and historic Morpeth 

The last stop was Melbourne. Here I was impressed by the range of ages and interests of JAS Melbourne. That college age students met to discuss Jane Austen with members as old as 93 proves Austen’s appeal to the young, the old and all in between. The Melbourne committee arranged a happy dinner after my talk at which there was lots of additional chat. Before leaving Melbourne, Hugh and I had a wonderful day out with Margaret Baulch (a direct descendent of Charles Austen) who took us to the Healsville Animal Sanctuary and the fascinating William Ricketts Sculpture Garden at Mount Dandenong. 

As we departed for home, I learned that JASA is planning a study day on “Jane Austen & Art,” on 29 June, and news that JASA hopes to host Adrian Lukis, the actor who played George Wickham in the 1995 film version of Pride and Prejudice, for a programme in Sydney titled “Being Mr Wickham.” These are only two events of what looks like a vibrant year for the Jane Austen Societies of Australia. Would that they were not over 16,000 km away from my home base in Halifax, Nova Scotia! I close in gratitude for the new friendships and many enjoyments which enriched my book tour. My heartfelt thanks go to all those who hosted and assisted me and my husband along the way. 

Louisa, Fanny, and Sophy: Lives of Naval Wives

Lady Louisa Hardy

Lady Louisa Hardy

Naval officers’ wives during the Napoleonic Wars have long fascinated me—both the real-life ones and those found in fiction, such as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. While researching the life of Fanny Palmer Austen, I came upon the story of Louisa Berkeley, who married a naval officer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the same year Fanny Palmer married Charles, Jane’s younger naval brother, in Bermuda. Comparing Louisa’s actions as a naval wife with Fanny’s gave me insights into the significance of Fanny’s relationship with Charles within the naval world they shared. In the process, I discovered how aspects of Fanny’s married life found echos in Austen’s imagining of Sophy, wife of Admiral Croft, in Persuasion. Here are profiles of the diverging and diverting sea going lives of Louisa and Fanny that afforded me a greater understanding of the character of Sophy Croft in Persuasion.

Louisa Berkeley was the eldest daughter of Admiral Sir George Cranfield Berkeley, Charles Austen’s commander-in-chief on the North American Station of the navy, 1806-08. Fanny may even have met the vivacious Louisa, and her sisters, for Sir George brought his family out with him to the North American Station. After a whirlwind courtship in Halifax, Louisa married Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy in St. Paul’s Church on 16 November 1807. Hardy had been Admiral Nelson’s close friend, and captain of his flag ship, HMS Victory, at the Battle of Trafalgar, and had recently been made a baronet, accomplishments which presumably contributed to his attractiveness as a suitor. One wonders if Louisa had any clear idea of what life as a naval wife might entail. She was soon to find out.

After the wedding, Sir Thomas was immediately sent to the Chesapeake Bay area, off the coast of Virginia, where the British navy was determined to contain French war ships already shut up in the Bay. According to a disgruntled Louisa, writing from aboard Hardy’s warship, the 74 gun Triumph, “we spent from December 1807 to April 1808 in the gloomy, desolate [Chesapeake] Bay not allowed to land as the Americans were in such an exasperated state that they might have been disagreeable” (quoted in Nelson’s Hardy and his Wife 1769-1877, by John Gore [1935]). During the whole winter the ship was kept perpetually ready for action and no fires were allowed. In these frigid and far from romantic circumstances, Louisa became pregnant with her first of three daughters. She had no regrets when “at last we were released and I returned to Bermuda where my family were, and soon after . . . [on the Triumph], we returned to England.”

It must have become very soon apparent to Louisa that sharing a naval life with Hardy would have limited attractions for her. They were mismatched in matters of personality and interests. He was a serious, unromantic and uncharismatic 38-year-old, wedded to his career in the navy, whereas she was nineteen, socially ambitious, and fun loving. She scarcely knew Hardy when she married him and their first months together on the Triumph, as she describes them, must have reduced any feelings of “fine naval fervour” that she might have originally felt. She found that she hated to be at sea and very early decided she was uninterested in her husband’s career. In subsequent years she often lived abroad with their three daughters, cultivated the friendship of foreign aristocrats and pursued a life of amusement and entertainment, unconcerned that Hardy was regularly posted on assignments at sea taking him far from England. Louisa was essentially a naval wife in name only.

Fanny held very different views and attitudes about her role as a naval wife. She had the advantage of getting well acquainted with Charles during the two years before they married. She knew him to be kind, caring, charming, entertaining, and very handsome. Beginning with their earliest days together, Fanny saw herself as Charles’s helpmate and supporter. As she lived in Bermuda, the southern base of the North American Station, she understood what the career of a serving naval officer entailed, and she willingly became a participant in naval life. She travelled with Charles on board his vessel the eighteen gun Indian between Bermuda and Halifax on a number of occasions. She experienced at least one horrific storm at sea, but this did not discourage her from sailing with him, including undertaking a North Atlantic crossing to England in 1811. She was attuned to the social role which she was expected to fulfill as flag captain’s wife in Halifax in the summer of 1810 and again during 1812-14 in England, when Charles was flag captain on the 74 gun HMS Namur, which was stationed at the Nore. During this later period, Fanny courageously accepted the challenge of making a home for their family of three daughters on board the Namur.

Some of Fanny’s naval experiences would have been known within the Austen family, and especially by Jane and Cassandra. Fanny had originally been introduced through correspondence within the Austen family and once she was in England, she and Charles paid regular visits to Chawton Cottage, where Jane and Cassandra periodically cared for their children. On one occasion when Fanny and Jane were both guests at Godmersham Park, the estate of Charles’s brother, Edward, Jane wrote to Cassandra, speaking of Fanny in familiar terms. She refers to her as “Mrs Fanny, “Fanny Senior,” “[Cassy’s] Mama”, and part of “the Charleses” (15 and 26 October 1813). She notes that Fanny appears “just like [her] own nice self,” words which suggest Jane had a warm and affectionate attitude towards Fanny. Contacts such as these allowed Jane Austen to learn about Fanny’s unique and diverse involvement as an officer’s wife in a naval world. Crucially, Fanny was able to articulate the complexities of naval life from a female point of view.

Jane’s evident sensitivities to Fanny’s life as a naval wife likely influenced her creation of Sophy Croft in Persuasion. Certainly, there are some key differences between Fanny and Sophy in terms of age and appearance, perceptions of what counts as “comfortable” living on a war ship, and the absence of children to care for and nurture. However, there are striking similarities between the two women in terms of behaviour, attitudes and practical common sense.

Both woman made voyages with their husbands. Fanny sailed with Charles between the bases on the North American station and she travelled to England with him on his frigate Cleopatra in 1811. Sophy crossed the Atlantic four times and accompanied Admiral Croft on many other voyages as well. Additionally, Sophy was familiar with Bermuda, a clue that she has been with Admiral Croft on the North American Station, just as Fanny had been with Charles. Fanny periodically lived on four of Charles’s vessels; Sophy made her home on five of her husband’s ships. Both women staved off periods of sea sickness when under sail.

Both Fanny Austen and Sophy Croft were most content when sharing their husband’s lives. Fanny’s letters speak of her very great pleasure in being in Charles’s company. She frankly admits that she is “never happy but when she is with her husband” (4 October 1813). According to Sophy, “the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship. While we were together . . . there was nothing to be feared. Thank God!” Likewise, Jane Austen depicts the Crofts as a “particularly attached and happy” couple. Jane Austen’s appreciation of Fanny’s strong desire to support Charles, to find a community of friends, and to be his constant and affectionate companion, may have influenced her ascription of those traits to Sophy Croft.

In his biography of Jane Austen, Park Honan suggests that she drew on some aspects of Fanny for Mrs Croft and that she admired Fanny’s “unfussiness and gallant good sense” (Jane Austen: Her Life [1997]). My research into Fanny’s articulate and candid letters written from the Namur, together with records and accounts in her pocket diary, supports this observation. They show her organizing domestic arrangements, acquiring food and necessities for her family at bargain prices and identifying books for the education of her five-year-old daughter, Cassy. In a similar vein, within her domestic sphere, Mrs. Croft proves to be practical and business-like in the matter of arranging for the tenancy of Kellynch Hall and effecting practical alterations once they are resident there.

The three naval wives in question, Louisa, Fanny, and Sophy, make up a diverse trio. Louisa proved to be largely absent from Thomas Hardy’s naval life, but Fanny supported Charles in his naval career with courage, spirit, and dedication. It is fortunate that Jane had a “sister” of Fanny’s ilk, whose richness of experience as a naval wife could contribute to Austen’s creativity when she came to draw the very likable and competent Sophy Croft in Persuasion.

Quotations are from the Penguin Classics edition of Persuasion, edited by D.W. Harding (1965), and the Oxford edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (4th edition, 2011).

It is likely that Jane’s sensitivities to Fanny’s naval experiences also influenced some aspects of Anne Elliot and Mrs. Harville. For a full discussion of the other naval wives and more about the resonances between Fanny and Sophy Croft, see Chapter 9 in Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister: The Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen, by Sheila Johnson Kindred (2017).

First posted on http://sarahemsley.com