Dear friends and readers,
I’ve just finished a highly informative and discreetly insightful book by Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, whose readings were they to be taken seriously, could help correct some false emphases about Jane Austen’s political and familial allegiances as well as make the nautical matter in her letters, fiction, and verse too more precisely understood. The reviews I’ve read thus far have been lazily general so the important findings of his book (just about all persuasive, nothing exaggerated or unsubstantiated) have hardly begun to penetrate Austen studies. Southam’s book is not a rehash of John H. and Edith C. Hubback’s Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers, even though the general outline of Francis and Charles’s characters remains more or less the same in both books. Southam’s depiction of later 18th century naval life and battles as prompted by what he finds of fragments of it in Austen is invaluable. What he also brings out about Austen while presented discreetly fits what I’ve found in the first half of her letters carefully studied and her novels.
However deflected and even denied at the outset (deliberately, diplomatically), what generally emerges is how much of Jane Austen’s family members, people she knew, is mirrored directly in the characters and events and scenes of her novels. Further, how especially devoted was her love for her brother closest to her in age (though not in literary interest), Francis: Persuasion emerges as a kind of love song to Francis Austen through the depiction of both Wentworth and Harville; Southam goes so far as to say (in separate places) that there is a disturbing poignant personal loss actuating this book, a craving need seeking satisfaction through an idyllic dream and it is her attempt to “repair the [thwarted] career of Francis, compensating to him for all he did not have in life.
What I’ve found in the letters is that 1) obviously there were three packets of letters just to Frank, he held onto them past the day he died; a grand-niece destroyed them almost immediately. I suggest Jane loved Frank passionately, and he did at some level know it. It may have embarrassed him, but he reciprocated at least the love. As she preferred the niece who was not intellectual and was conventional (Fanny Austen Knight) to the niece genuinely gifted, like herself (Anna Austen Lefroy), so she preferred the unintellectual, more uncomplicated, straight-forward brother who was active, who did not like landscape (we see her try and try again to get him to appreciate it but he won’t), who does not lie, can’t lie (Austen just loathes lying, and her definition is as austere as any of Swift’s horses). He got that house strongly for her in Southampton; he worried intensely over the move to Chawton, going out of his way to try to intervene and stop it, but whatever he foresaw as hurting his sister did not in the end happen (whence her poem to re-assure him). His opinions of her books are set out first among the opinions.
Most of all all the books: a man with the letter “F” is the one Elinor had a necessarily hidden love for; the motive of the hidden love that must not be spoken which recurs throughout the books (even NA, Eleanor Tilney), from Jane Bennet through Fanny (who blushes crimson over Edmund who is a displaced Frank) and William to Jane [Fairfax] and Frank [Churchill’s] clandestine love and her intense emotional hurt; to Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth (F name). Frank marrying Martha late in life is a marrying of his memories of his sister, the one she originally wanted for him. Her two loves united.
What I’ve just said is supported by Southams’s detailed analyses of the brothers’ characters, careers, and Austen’s relationship to these as seen in the letters. She never wrote Charles the way she did Francis, or apparently Henry, certainly not James (most like her in literary gifts) nor Edward (the dullest of the group, most ordinary reflected in John Dashwood).
I look at her two poems to Frank as love poems transposed (one upon him coming to Godmersham married in the person of Fanny Knight; and one upon her coming to live in Chawton); her two poems to her niece, Anna (one on Anna’s depressions when young written inside a decently moralizing book by Ann Murray, and the other a self-alienated burlesque), are ambivalent intensities in comparison, and need to be contextualized with their playlet, Sir Charles Grandison, and now the two Sanditons, Jane’s unfinished and Anna’s continuation with the tale of their lives such as it was (cut off by Jane herself) in the extant 16 letters. For Frank we have but 2.
Now Southam situates Frank and Jane in the midst of a telling of the experiences as well as specific naval conditions of a career, how careers were formed and men got on, attitudes of mind toward the navy by the imperialist Tory class of landowners and place-holders (to which Jane belonged and to which she narrowly adhered) which explain so much in the books that readers might glide over without noticing they have not gotten a real specific meaning and experience or type person intended. How did Mr Price come to be a Marine on half-pay for so many years? what does that mean about what kind of person he is, how the contradictions he manifests are to be understood?
I will come back to these matters in separate blogs when I return to the letters and Austen’s biography.
Just as striking to the reader of Austen are her fiercely partisan ways of discussing books by others, other people, and all the many occasional unknown or passed over passages by Austen in prose (her letters) and verse which often offend people. What I want to spend the second half of this blog on her a series of verses which show her to have been willing to write as a dense partisan romantic reactionary. This is not the unknown Austen (read Marilyn Butler) so much as the Austen people don’t like to see. We must to understand her books’ and her limitations (in the area of literary criticism too).
So really worth calling attention to and explaining is a set of verses written in the style of Pope and/or Swift where she sneers at and dismisses a more than justifiable court martial of a man named Home Popham:
On Sir Home Popham’s Sentence
Of a Ministry pitiful, angry, mean,
A gallant commander the victim is seen.
For promptitude, vigour, success, does he stand
Condemn’d to receive a severe reprimand!
To his foes I could wish a resemblance in fate:
That they, too, may suffer themselves, soon or late,
The injustice they warrant. But vain is my spite
They cannot so suffer who never do right.
The gallant commander in question, the “victim” is a man court-martialed for disobeying an order to protect the colony at the Cape of Good Hope to go off on a military expedition in Buenos Aires whose purpose was to make large sums of money for himself and wrest power from the Spanish gov’t of Argentina, ostensibly to “liberate” the people, but really just to support a faction who would be favorable to increasing his personal political power.
Southam patiently explicates these lines phase by phase, performs an exemplary thorough close reading.
Jane Austen first of all hates the ministry in power at the time because to save money, Fox, Windham and Grenville tried to decrease the numbers of local militia in the English counties as basically useless in the war against Napoleon. Such groups were great for networking local gentry, their activities flattered all the people involved with vanities of outfits, training sessions, and made for festive occasions for those belonging to them, but as far as any practical effectiveness, they were nil. Now Austen’s male family members and their friends and further off clans were precisely those who personally profited from and enjoyed such volunteer activities. The ministry even wanted to allow Irish Catholics to join (if such groups were to carry on). “No Popery!” was a cry she would join in on here even if in her Juvenilia History of England a more fanatical Stuart cannot be found.
Second she is apparently quite take by the glamor, performative socializing and basically ruthless careerism of the man. He had precisely the qualities in say Mr William Elliot that Anne Elliot deplored: insincerity, but personal interest here trumped principle. (After all as she said Anne Elliot is just this picture of perfection and in another oft-quoted line, pictures of perfection made her sick.) Southam likens his behavior to Henry Austen as banker, who equally came to grief by loaning huge sums to people (Francis Rawdon Hastings Moira in particular) whose favor he was buying. This may be.
Southam also thinks that Francis and Charles would have sided with Popham; hard to say, but from the evidence he produces, it does seem here Jane was on her own, and (as in other cases) differed at least from Francis at least as he appears in his letters when he writes about actions and unprincipled behaviors like Popham’s. Long passages by Francis and all we know about his behavior shows man who believes one must obey the orders of one’s commander. When one is ordered to stay and protect a port, one must, even if it means foregoing pots of money and the enjoyment of exhilarating bloody combats. Francis always behaved this way and he missed Trafalgar (which he regretted all his life because it meant less money and less prestige and fewer connections he could pressure) because he obeyed an order.
One of Popham’s schemes and inventions were claptrap timed bombs called “catamarans;” water-tight containers packed with explosives that would be set off by clockwork timers. We could call these primitive torpedoes, or to bring this up to date, drones. You drop them on a ship, set off quickly and they blow the ship up, killing many people, setting the ship on fire, destroying it. Happily when he tried it, he failed — well, he managed to destroy four of his own ships and kill many many men on his own side indiscriminately so the method of murdering others with impunity was given up for a time. What did Francis think of this? it’s quoting from a long passage he wrote here:
This horrible mode of warfare seems scarcely justifiable in principle (amongst civilized nations) short of self-preservation and perhaps its entire want of success may have been a fortunate circumstance for England who could not have expected to be the only power to use such machines and whose shipping would be constantly liable to similar attacks with much greater facility from the exposed situations of the anchorages then used.
Francis foresees such barbarism could be used against England’s ships too and since they relied on their ships than anyone, they would be a prime target. He hoped this would not catch on.
Alas. In his journalism Samuel Johnson hoped people would never fly planes because (he said) the first thing many would do would be to kill other people from the sky. We’ve seen this from WW! on, no matter how often it’s been shown that bombing civilians does not bring an end to war because the people conducting are not the same people being killed. When people drop drones, we are often told a single “terrorist” is killed; not so; you cannot direct them that way; the drone drops the bombs on a house and destroys the house and anyone in it plus usually the whole street. Hundreds are killed and maimed and lives destroyed.
Jane Austen was taking precisely the opposite position from Francis. Throughout the books we see her usual mockery (Southam calls this joking) and often taken adverse positions to the family. One can see parallels with Henry’s banking and loan practices and who he was more than willing to be friendly with but all the evidence suggests Francis would have judged Popham fiercely and said he should be court-martialed.
Gallant commander. Right
Popham, Southam, shows was a highly controversial figure and not liked by a host of powerful people. This was not 2012 where say CEOs who sluice companies and fire workers are sustained as useful to the rest of the world as a matter of course. (When they are as Popham was one of those Thomas More labels the “pests” of the human race.) Even Nelson thought him a horror and not a desirable commander: Nelson, we have to give this to him, did not seek wealth personally except as it came as part of actions he thought genuinely for the good of the people and land of England. What he wanted to do at Trafalgar was destroy the French fleet. He broke with previous military strategies to do so.
People like to ignore or not talk about how Wentworth is presented as making money from his ships; we are not told what this actually means in reality. Bloodshed, huge numbers of wounded men, dead corpses, fire, stink.
During the 1810s Jane Austen was reading Charles Pasley’s Essay on Military Policy (you can download this as an ebook and I have) and we find in her letters one of these short phrases, but it is in full admiration. The man advocates the most ruthless of imperalist policies, the sort that leads to what Belgium did in the Congo. Southey reviewed it and said it was the most important political document of the era.
Persuasion and Mansfield Park are used as jump-off places to teach the reader a great deal about the patronage politics (all corrupt but at the time not admitted to be so, though no one advertised how anyone got ahead, and who had done what for whom) as well as real experiences at sea, which Austen only refers to in general terms: as when William Price tells his gory stories and Wentworth his fearful ones to rapt or put-off audiences (Lady Bertram decides the last place she’d want to be is at sea). Southam turns around readers’ suppositions For example, perhaps Captain Wentworth was right to tell his in-laws a ship (his ship) was no place for a woman. Southam makes the important point that it was not just one’s quarters that mattered. Brutal fighting, death, terrible wounds were the order of the day, flogging and all sorts of punitive measures continual.
Modern readers may not realize what is intended by Austen’s short but explicit statements about the navy. Maybe. Then they don’t imagine the US wars abroad either. Crabbe includes pictures of misery at sea; even Cowper shows graphic knowledge. Southey’s Life of Nelson sold widely then and very readable it is. Southam seems to assume Jane Austen expected her readers to know and that many did.
And now finally, consider Byron’s poem:
Wellington: The Best of Cut-Throats (1819)
Though Britain owes (and pays you too) so much,
Yet Europe doubtless owes you greatly more:
You have repaired Legitimacy’s crutch,
A prop not quite so certain as before:
The Spaniard, and the French, as well as Dutch,
Have seen, and felt, how strongly you restore:
And Waterloo has made the world your debtor
(I wish your bards would sing it rather better).
You are ‘the best of cut-throats’: – do not start;
The phrase is Shakespeare’s, and not misapplied;
War’s a brain-spattering, wind-pipe-slitting art,
Unless her cause by right be sanctified.
If you have acted once a generous part,
The world, not the world’s masters, will decide,
And I shall be delighted to learn who,
Save you and yours, have gained by Waterloo?
I’ve done. Now go and dine from off the plate
Presented by the Prince of the Brazils,
And send the sentinel before your gate
A slice or two from your luxurious meals:
He fought, but has not fed so well of late.
Some hunger, too, they say the people feels: –
There is no doubt that you deserve your ration,
But pray give back a little to the nation.
Never had mortal man had such opportunity
Except Napoleon, or abused it more:
You might have freed fallen Europe from the unity
Of tyrants, and been blest from shore to shore:
And now – what is your fame? Shall the Muse tune it ye?
Now – that the rabble’s first vain shouts are over?
Go! hear it in your famished country’s cries!
Behold the world! and curse your victories!
Here we gauge Austen’s distance from Byron whose poems (Giaour, Corsair, Bridge of Abydos) she alludes to in order to frame how we are to see Wentworth. It’s not clear but Popham could fit into a “best of cut-throats” pattern as long as we included non-violent politics too.
Yes the world is often filled with people who will defend atrocious behavior on the grounds this is the way to get rich but the world (and this includes Austen’s too) also includes people who draw lines, say there are things they will not do.
Southam though clearly conservative does call a spade a spade, and includes a long section on flogging and how one cause for Francis’s failure to move on up as quickly and fully as he expected was his flogging policies. He was apparently capable of great cruelties towards sailors who drank a lot. His rigid and impersonalizing way of getting through the world led to this. His evangelism was shared by Gambier, one of his few patrons and he too was not liked (and this didn’t help), though Southam does not say if he was particularly harsh as a flogger. I will spare my reader descriptions of the whips, with their exquisitely added torture knots, straps and the procedures by which men were forced to watch someone be whipped in one place and then another. And remember a percentage of these would be pressed man, in effect and truth, slaves (see pp. 282-83).
I hope to post again on Southam’s book. I was glad to see that on the important area of Austen’s literary contacts and understanding of what she was doing that Southam does agree with me that far from simply ridiculing the librarian Stanier Clarke, though Austen does that (as well as many other people and authors), she confided in him, respected him and he was a rare literary person (no matter how minor) who she actually talked. I think she was comfortable with him because he was minor, because he was no threat to her self-esteem or status. But that’s for another evening.
To conclude there is an Austen to be discovered, we might call her the unknown Austen only she’s been there in plain sight all along. We just haven’t wanted to look.
In Miss Austen Regrets Jason Watkins as Clark genuinely congratulates Austen, is really enthused, tells her that in comparison with her, the “gentlemen” (Byron and Scott) are unreadable