Naval Wives

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).

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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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