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.

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