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

Growing up as a Reader: Some Literary Likes

I cannot imagine life without the magic of novels. At age four, I entered the world of Peter Rabbit. I loved the first line of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, with its initial caution that “the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific.” “Soporific” sounded so compelling, so strongly suggestive of a state of affairs not to be taken lightly. And the word was fun to say, to repeat for the sheer pleasure of the sounds. I found myself drawn into tales of adventurous about naughty rabbits and I was motivated to learn to read these tales for myself. The Peter Rabbit stories, with their charming illustrations, remain among the most loved books of my childhood.

Pride.jpg.png

As a teenager I discovered Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I immediately bonded with Lizzy Bennet, the witty, intelligent and empathetic heroine, who in the course of the novel achieves a nice balance of self awareness and insight into human behaviour. She had the courage to admit when her own opinions were ill judged which I realized was an important lesson for me to take on board. I followed her love life with fascination and rejoiced when she and Mr. Darcy are promised a happy future together. From the prospective of a teenage reader, I had discovered a compelling romance with an absorbing plot, and attractive and amusing characters. This was a book to reread and savour and it was for some time my favourite Austen novel.

Persuasion.jpg

My allegiance to Jane Austen remains but Persuasion has replaced Pride and Prejudice as my favourite. Persuasion bears the marks of her mature genius and introduces a sensitive, introspective yet engaging heroine, Anne Elliot, who greatly regrets breaking off her engagement to the enterprising, self assured naval captain, Frederick Wentworth, eight years earlier. I became fascinated with the subtle intricacies of Anne’s self examination of her own disappointment and her efforts to be open to the needs of others, even in the face of her own unhappiness. I was caught up in the suspense of the plot, as Austen describes Anne’s initially fragile but increasingly strengthening hope that she may yet find happiness with Captain Wentworth. I admired and continue to admire Austen’s remarkable ability to capture her characters personalities through their distinctive idiolects, their ways of speaking. This is also a book with a special place in my life: in times of trouble, of worry or uncertainty, it absorbs, it distracts and comforts me.                                                                  

Along with my fascination with Austen, I have enjoyed the rich narratives of Dickens, marvelled at the raw power of the Bröntes, and admired the clever plots and convincing characters of Penelope Lively and Maggie O’Farrell. Among other writers, Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), author of Booker prize winner, Offshore (1979) and nine other novels, stands out for me. I first read Fitzgerald in the early nineteen eighties and immediately became a fan. The pleasure in reading her novels derives from her captivating and mesmerizing style of writing, highly original plots and characters, vivid and compelling settings, endings which are sometimes surprising and unexpected.

Offshore.jpg
PenelopeBio.jpg

Like Austen, Fitzgerald is scrupulous about the accuracy and appropriateness of small contextual details that illuminate her narrative. One such detail surprised and delighted me. In Offshore, the Canadian heroine, Nenna, is caught off guard by an unexpected telephone call from her sister Louise. She tries to defuse the uncomfortable tone of their exchange by a seemingly innocent question about the availability of lobster sandwiches at Harris’s, a restaurant apparently well known to them both. According to Hermione Lee’s biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013), Fitzgerald, on her one visit to Nova Scotia must have passed through Yarmouth on her way to Halifax from where she sailed back to England. I surmise that Fitzgerald visited the real Harris’s restaurant and chowed down their signature sandwich. She tucked away her memory of it, only to use it effectively twenty-five years later in the sisterly dialogue in Offshore. As I know both Harris’s and their justly famous sandwich from personal experience, I appreciate Fitzgerald’s genius in enhancing the authenticity of her character with the inclusion of this tiny but telling contextual detail. I like to think I have had a brief glimpse into Fitzgerald’s creative process and thus made a connection with the author herself.

In my own experiences as a writer, there has been a circle back to Austen and Persuasion. Persuasion is a novel with naval theme and characters, both of which are handled with authenticity by Austen. It has been said that Jane Austen got the naval details correct in her novels because of her close connections with her two officer brothers, Captains Francis and Charles. But there is more to the story. Some years ago, I became interested in the North American phase of Charles Austen’s naval career (1805-1811), when I discovered he had spent considerable time in my home city, the port town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Finding out about Charles eventually led me to intriguing details about his Bermuda-born young wife, Fanny Palmer Austen. Here was a story waiting to be told, a narrative about a spirited and resilient young woman who made a home for Charles and their daughters aboard a working naval vessel and developed a supportive relationship with Jane Austen. I have been excited by the discovery of this connection to explore the extent to which Fanny was a source of information and inspiration for the novelist when she created the female naval characters in Persuasion. Little did I expect, when I first came to love Persuasion that I would much later return to it with a different interest and perspective, that was in the course of writing my own book Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister: The Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen.

First posted on https://bookscombined.com

Sheila introduces “Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister”

Fanny Palmer Austen by Robert Field

Fanny Palmer Austen by Robert Field

Just over two hundred years ago a young naval wife spent an anxious summer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the later years of the Napoleonic Wars. Her husband had been suddenly called away on a mission to transport troops to a war zone off the coast of Portugal. During the months that followed, she waited for his return with growing trepidation until she finally welcomed back to port her “beloved Charles.” The genteel young woman was the beautiful, Bermuda-born Fanny Palmer Austen; her husband was Captain Charles John Austen, a naval officer, then serving on the North American Station of the British navy, and the youngest brother of the novelist Jane Austen.

This vignette, derived from Fanny Austen’s own letters in 1810, has turned out to be an inspiration for me. Since 2005 I had been writing extensively about Charles Austen’s career in North American waters, about the excitement of his first command and his pursuit of naval prize. More recently I became intrigued by the evidence that his young wife, Fanny Palmer, had spent parts of two years in the place which I call home – Halifax, Nova Scotia. I wanted to find out about her personality and character, as well as about the kind of life she led in Halifax and elsewhere. There was much to explore, beginning with her formative years in St George’s, Bermuda, through her naval travels with Charles in North America to her later years in England when she came to know the rest of his family. This biography presents what I have learned about Fanny Palmer Austen in all the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of her short life during exciting times.

My investigations began with Fanny’s letters, which have proved to be a treasure trove of personal narrative and contemporary detail. By further research, I have been able to present the letters in the social and cultural context of Fanny’s life. The picture of a lively, resourceful, and articulate young woman has emerged. I discovered a wife intimately involved with her husband’s naval career and a new and significant member of the Austen family.

Charles John Austen by Robert Field

Charles John Austen by Robert Field

The narrative of Fanny’s life describes what it was like to be a young woman living at sea with her husband and small children in early nineteenth-century wartime. Little has been written about wives who had immediate experience of their husbands’ professional careers and naval society. Fanny Austen’s letters, along with the story which surrounds them, affords a unique insight into female life in the theatres of naval warfare on both sides of the Atlantic during this tumultuous time.

Through her marriage to Charles, Fanny became closely connected with other members of his family. In particular, Fanny developed a relationship with Jane Austen that excited my attention. Their sisterly association led me to enquire whether Fanny’s experiences may have influenced Jane in the writing of her fiction. Evidence presented in the book supports a number of parallels between Fanny’s conduct and character and Austen’s portrayal of women with naval connections, such as Mrs Croft and Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Because Fanny was with Charles both on the North American station of the British navy (1807–11) and then with him and their children aboard HMS Namur stationed off Sheerness, Kent (1812–14), she had a truly transatlantic experience within his naval world that she could impart to Jane. Hence the title of the book, Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister.

HMS  Atalante , sister ship to Charles Austen's sloop of war, HMS  Indian  (18 guns).

HMS Atalante, sister ship to Charles Austen's sloop of war, HMS Indian (18 guns).

Before Fanny travelled to England with Charles and their children in 1811, she sailed with him on his sloop of war, HMS Indian (18 guns), between Bermuda and Halifax, Nova Scotia on a number of occasions. It was not always smooth sailing. The North Atlantic is frequently disturbed by gale force winds and heavy seas that can readily overpower a small wooden sailing ship. Fanny learned the hard way, as the following passage from the book reveals.

The Indian cleared the harbour on 29 November [1809] for a voyage that would be fraught with danger. Fanny and [her daughter, one year old] Cassy experienced their first major storm at sea and it was terrifying. Just out of Halifax the Indian met “strong gales with sleet and snow.” By the evening the “gale increased” and “the ship was labouring and shipping heavy seas.” For the next five days, the vessel lurched and rocked in the merciless gales. The Indian became separated from the flagship HMS Swiftsure (74 guns) and the three other vessels in convoy, HMS Aeolus (32 guns), HMS Thistle (10 guns), and HMS Bream (4 guns). On 3 December when the Indian signalled the Thistle with a blue light, which is ordinarily a sign of distress, she did not reply. It was not encouraging … that they were 495 nautical miles from a navigational point identified in the ship’s log as Wreck Hill, Bermuda.

The erratic rolling of the vessel and the bone-chilling wind must have greatly distressed and alarmed Fanny, now almost seven months’ pregnant. She needed to be brave and to try to hide her trepidation, especially as she had a terrified Cassy to calm and reassure. Finally, on 5 December the wind dropped to moderate breezes. The men surveyed the damage to the vessel and repairs began. According to the logbook, “people [were] employed repairing the rigging after the gale” and “fitting a new main sail.” By 10 December, the Indian’s deck was still awash with as much as two inches of water. Imagine Fanny’s relief when land was sighted and they “made all sail” for St David’s Head, Bermuda, arriving in St George’s on 12 December after a harrowing voyage of fifteen days, almost twice the time the journey usually took.

After reaching Bermuda, Fanny settled down on shore to await the birth of their second child, Harriet Jane, a namesake for her own sister Harriet and her sister-in-law, Jane Austen. She would experience many more adventures both at sea and on land; she would survive a potentially dangerous crossing of the North Atlantic; she would get to know Charles’s family in England, and she would develop a significant relationship with Jane Austen. All this and more was yet to come.

First posted on https://mqup.ca