Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers

Chapter I


No one can read Jane Austen's novels, her life, or her letters, without feeling that to her the ties of family were stronger and more engrossing than any others.

Among the numbers of men and women who cheerfully sacrifice the claims of their family in order that they may be free to confer somewhat doubtful benefits on society, it is refreshing to find one who is the object of much love and gratitude from countless unknown readers, and who yet would have been the first to laugh at the notion that her writing was of more importance than her thought for her brothers and sister, or the various home duties which fell to her share. It is this sweetness and wholesomeness of thought, this clear conviction that her "mission" was to do her duty,that gives her books and letters their peculiar quality. Her theory of life is clear. Whatever troubles befall, people must go on doing their work and making the best of it; and we are not allowed to feel respect, or even overmuch sympathy, for the characters in the novels who cannot bear this test. There is a matter-of-courseness about this view which, combined with all that we know of the other members of the family, gives one the idea that the children at Steventon had a strict bringing up. This, in fact, was the case, and a very rich reward was the result. In a family of seven all turned Out well, two rose to the top of their profession, and one was—Jane Austen.

The fact of her intense devotion to her family could not but influence her writing. She loved them all so well that she could not help thinking of them even in the midst of her work; and the more we know of her surroundings, and the lives of those she loved, the more we understand of the small joyous touches in her books. She was far too good an artist, as well as too reticent in nature, to take whole characters from life; but small characteristics and failings, dwelt on with humorous partiality, can often be traced back to the natures of those she loved. Mary Crawford's brilliant letters to Fanny Price remind one of Cassandra, who was the "finest comic writer of the present age. Charles' impetuous disposition is exaggerated in Bingley, who says, "Whatever I do is done in a hurry," a remark which is severely reproved by Darcy (and not improbably by Francis Austen), as an "indirect boast." Francis himself comes in for his share of teasing on the opposite point of his extreme neatness, precision, and accuracy. "They are so neat and careful in all their ways," says Mrs. Clay, in "Persuasion," of the naval profession in general; and nothing could be more characteristic of Francis Austen and some of his descendants than the overpowering accuracy with which Edmund Bertram corrects Mary Crawford's hasty estimate of the distance in the wood.

"'I am really not tired, which I almost wonder at; for we must have waled at least a mile in this wood. Do you not think we have?'

"'Not half a mile,' was his sturdy answer; for he was not yet so much in love as to measure distance, or reckon time, with feminine lawlessness.

"'Oh, you do not consider how much we have wound about. We have taken such a very serpentine course, and the wood itself must be half a mile long in a straight line, for we have never seen the end of it yet since we left the first great path.'

"'But if you remember, before we left that first great path we saw directly to the end of it. We looked down the whole vista, and saw it closed by iron gates, and it could not have been more than a furlong in length.'

"'Oh, I know nothing of your furlongs, but I am sure it is a very long wood; and that we have been winding in and out ever since we came into it; and therefore when I say that we have walked a mile in it I must speak within compass.'

"'We have been exactly a quarter of an hour here,' said Edmund, taking out his watch. 'Do you think we are walking four miles an hour?'

"'Oh, do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.'

"A few steps farther brought them out at the bottom of the very walk they had been talking of.

"'Now, Miss Crawford, if you will look up the walk, you will convince yourself that it cannot be half a mile long, or half half a mile.'

"'It is an immense distance,' said she; 'I see that with a glance.'

"'He still reasoned with her, but in vain. She would not calculate, she would not compare. She would only smile and assert. The greatest degree of rational consistency could not have been more engaging, and they talked with mutual satisfaction.'"

It is in "Mansfield Park" and in "Persuasion" that the influence of her two sailor brothers, Francis and Charles, on Jane Austen's work can be most easily traced. Unlike the majority of writers of all time, from Shakespeare with his "Seacoast of Bohemia" down to the author of a penny dreadful, Jane Austen never touched, even lightly, on a subject unless she had a real knowledge of its details. Her pictures of the life of a country gentleman and of clergymen are accurate, if not always sympathetic. Perhaps it was all too near her own experience to have the charm of romance, but concerning sailors she is romantic. Their very faults are lovable in her eyes, and their lives packed with interest. When Admiral Croft, Captain Wentworth, or William Price appears on the scene, the other characters immediately take on a merely subsidiary interest, and this prominence is always that given by appreciation. The distinction awarded to Mr. Collins or Mrs. Elton, as the chief object of ridicule, is of a different nature. The only instance she cared to give us of a sailor who is not to be admired is Mary Crawford's uncle, the Admiral, and even he is allowed to earn our esteem by disinterested kindness to William Price.

No doubt some of this enthusiasm was due to the spirit of the times, when, as Edward Ferrars says, "The navy had fashion on its side"; but that sisterly partiality was a stronger element there can be no question. Her place in the family was between these two brothers, Francis just a year older, and Charles some four years younger. Much has been said about her fondness for "pairs of sisters" in her novels, but no less striking are the "brother and sister" friendships which are an important factor in four out of her six books. The love of Darcy for his sister Georgina perhaps suggests the intimacy between James Austen and Jane, where the difference in their ages of ten years, their common love of books, the advice and encouragement that the elder brother was able to give his sister over her reading, are all points of resemblance. The equal terms of the affection of Francis and Jane are of another type.

Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, Mrs. Croft and Frederick Wentworth, give us good instances of firm friendships. In the case of the Tilneys, confidences are exchanged with ease and freedom; but in "Persuasion," the feeling in this respect, as in all others, is more delicate, and only in the chapter which Jane Austen afterwards cancelled can we see the quickness of Mrs. Croft's perceptions where her brother was concerned. For so long as she supposes him to be on the brink of marrying Louisa Musgrove, sympathy is no doubt somewhat difficult to force, but "prompt welcome" is given to Anne as Captain Wentworth's chosen wife ; and with some knowledge of Mrs. Croft we know that the "particularly friendly manner" hid a warmth of feeling which would fully satisfy even Frederick's notions of the love which Anne deserved. But it is in "Mansfield Park" that "brothers and sisters" play the strongest part. No one can possibly doubt the very lively affection of Mary and Henry Crawford. Even when complaining of the shortness of his letters, she says that Henry is "exactly what a brother should be, loves me, consults me, confides in me, and will talk to me by the hour together" —and the scene later on, where he tells of his devotion to Fanny Price, is as pretty an account of such a confidence as can be well imagined, where the worldliness of each is almost lost in the happiness of disinterested love, which both are feeling.

When Jane Austen comes to describing Fanny's love for her brother William, her tenderness and her humour are in perfect accord. From the reality of the feelings over his arrival and promotion, to the quiet hit at the enthusiasm which his deserted chair and cold pork bones might be supposed to arouse in Fanny's heart after their early breakfast, when he was off to London, the picture of sisterly love is perfect. We are told, too, that there was "an affection on his side as warm as her own, and much less encumbered by refinement and self-distrust. She was the first object of his love, but it was a love which his stronger spirits and bolder temper made it as natural for him to express as to feel." So far this describes the love of William and Fanny, but a few lines further on comes a passage which has the ring of personal experience. In reading it, it is impossible not to picture a time which was always of great importance in the life at Steventon—the return on leave for a few weeks or a few months of one or other of the sailor brothers, and all the walks and talks which filled up the pleasant days. "On the morrow they were walking about together with true enjoyment, and every succeeding morrow renewed the tête-à-tête. Fanny had never known so much felicity in her life as in this unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend, who was opening all his heart to her, telling her all his hopes and fears, plans and solicitudes respecting that long thought of, dearly earned, and justly valued blessing of promotion—who was interested in all the comforts and all the little hardships of her home—and with whom (perhaps the dearest indulgence of the whole) all the evil and good of their earliest years could be gone over again, and every former united pain and pleasure retraced with the fondest recollection."

Some slight record of the childhood of the Steventon family has been left to us. Most of the known facts have already been told by admirers of Jane Austen, but some extracts from an account written by Catherine Austen in the lifetime of her father, Sir Francis Austen, will at least have the merit of accuracy, for he would certainly have been merciless to even the simplest "embroidery."

The father, Mr. George Austen, was the rector of Steventon. He was known in his young days, before his marriage, as "the handsome tutor," and he transmitted his good looks to at least three of his Sons; Henry, Francis, and Charles were all exceptionally handsome men. Indeed, neither wit nor good looks were deficient in the Steventon family. Probably much of Jane's simplicity about her writing arose from the fact that she saw nothing in it to be conceited about, being perfectly convinced that any of the others, with her leisure and inclination, could have done just as well. Her father had a gentleness of disposition combined with a firmness of principle which had great effect in forming the characters of his family. The mother's maiden name was Cassandra Leigh. She was very lively and active, and strict with her children. It is not difficult to see whence Francis derived his ideas of discipline, or Jane her unswerving devotion to duty.

The elder members of the family were born at Deane, which was Mr. Austen's first living, but in 1771 they moved to Steventon, where they lived for nearly thirty years.

The account of the house given by Catherine Austen shows the simplicity of the life.

"The parsonage consisted of three rooms in front on the ground floor, the best parlour, the common parlour, and the kitchen; behind there were Mr. Austen's study, the back kitchen and the stairs; above them were seven bedrooms and three attics. The rooms were low-pitched but not otherwise bad, and compared with the usual style of such buildings it might be considered a very good house." An eulogy follows on the plainness and quietness of the, family life—a characteristic specially due to the mother's influence.

"That she had no taste for expensive show or finery, may be inferred from the fact being on record that for two years she actually never had a gown to wear. It was a prevalent custom for ladies to wear cloth habits, and she having one of red cloth found any other dress unnecessary. Imagine a beneficed clergyman's wife in these days contenting herself with such a costume for two years! But the fact illustrates the retired style of living that contented her." Even when she did find it necessary to provide herself with some other costume, the riding-habit was made to serve another useful purpose, for it was cut up into a first cloth suit for little Francis.

The following account of their upbringing closes this slight record:

"There is nothing in which modern manners differ much more from those of a century back than in the system pursued with regard to children. They were kept in the nursery, out of the way not only of visitors but of their parents; they were trusted to hired attendants; they were allowed a deal of air and exercise, were kept on plain food, forced to give way to the comfort of others, accustomed to be overlooked, slightly regarded, considered of trifling importance. No well-stocked libraries of varied lore to cheat them into learning awaited them; no scientific toys, no philosophie amusements enlarged their minds and wearied their attention." One wonders what would have been the verdict of this writer of fifty years ago on education in 1905. She goes on to tell us of the particular system pursued with the boys in order to harden them for their future work in life. It was not considered either necessary or agreeable for a woman to be very strong. "Little Francis was at the age of ten months removed from the parsonage to a cottage in the village, and placed under the care of a worthy couple, whose simple style of living, homely dwelling, and out-of-door habits (for in the country the poor seldom close the door by day, except in bad weather), must have been very different from the heated nurseries and constrained existence of the clean, white-frocked little gentlemen who are now growing up around us. Across the brick floor of a cottage Francis learnt to walk, and perhaps it was here that he received the foundation of the excellent constitution which was so remarkable in after years. It must not, however, be supposed that he was neglected by his parents; he was constantly visited by them both, and often taken to the parsonage."

One cannot but admire the fortitude of parents who would forego the pleasure of seeing their children learn to walk and satisfy themselves with daily visits, for the sake of a plan of education of which the risks cannot have been otherwise than great.

The rough-and-tumble life which followed must have thoroughly suited the taste of any enterprising boy, and given him an independence of spirit, and a habit of making his own plans, which would be exactly what was wanted in the Navy of those days, when a man of twenty-five might be commander of a vessel manned by discontented, almost mutinous, sailors, with the chance of an enemy's ship appearing at any time on the horizon.

Riding about the country after the hounds began for Francis at the age of seven; and, from what we hear of Catherine Morland's childhood, we feel sure that Jane would not always have been contented to be left behind.

Catherine, at the age of ten, was "noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house." When she was fourteen, we are told that she "preferred cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, to books—or, at least, books of information—for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all!"

This, if not an accurate picture of the tastes of the children at Steventon, at least shows the sort of amusements which boys and girls brought up in a country parsonage had at their command.

Perhaps it was of some such recollections that Jane Austen was thinking when she praised that common tie of childish remembrances. "An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first association and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power which no subsequent connection can supply, and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connection can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. Too often, alas! it is so. Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing. But with William and Fanny Price it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness, wounded by no opposition of interest, cooled by no separate attachment, and feeling the influence of time and absence only in its increase." That it was never Jane's lot to feel the cooling of affection on the part of any member of her family is due not only to their appreciation of their sister, but to the serenity and adaptability of her own sweet disposition.