Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers



As Lieutenant, Francis Austen had very different experience and surroundings to those of his days as a midshipman. For three years and more he was in various ships on the home station, which meant a constant round of dull routine work, enlivened only by chances of getting home for a few days. While serving in the Lark sloop, he accompanied to Cuxhaven the squadron told off to bring to England Princess Caroline of Brunswick, soon to become Princess of Wales. The voyage out seems to have been arctic in its severity. This bad weather, combined with dense fogs, caused the Lark to get separated from the rest of the squadron, and from March 6 till the 11th nothing was seen or heard of the sloop. On March i8 the Princess came on board the Jupiter, the flagship of the squadron, and arrived in England on April 5 after a fair passage, but a voyage about as long as that to the Cape of Good Hope nowadays.

Francis notes in the log of the Glory, that while cruising, "the Rattler cutter joined company, and informed us she yesterday spoke H.M.S. Dædalus"—a matter of some interest to him, as Charles was then on board the Dædalus as midshipman, under Captain Thomas Williams. Captain Williams had married Jane Cooper, a cousin of Jane Austen, who was inclined to tease him about his having "no taste in names." The following extract from one of her letters to Cassandra touches on nearly all these facts:

"SUNDAY, January 10, 1796.

"By not returning till the 19th, you will exactly contrive to miss seeing the Coopers, which I suppose it is your wish to do. We have heard nothing from Charles for some time. One would suppose they must have sailed by this time, as the wind is so favourable. What a funny name Tom has got for his vessel! But he has no taste in names, as we well know, and I dare say he christened it himself."

Tom seems to have been a great favourite with his wife's cousins. Only a few days later Jane writes:

"How impertinent you are to write to me about Tom, as if I had not opportunities of hearing from him myself. The last letter I received from him was dated on Friday the 8th, and he told me that if the wind should be favourable on Sunday, which it proved to be, they were to sail from Falmouth on that day. By this time, therefore, they are at Barbadoes, I suppose."

Having the two brothers constantly backwards and forwards must have been very pleasant at Steventon. Almost every letter has some reference to one or the other.

"Edward and Frank are both gone forth to seek their fortunes; the latter is to return soon and help us to seek ours."

Later from Rowling, Edward Austen's home, she writes:

"If this scheme holds, I shall hardly be at Steventon before the middle of the month; but if you cannot do without me I could return, I suppose, with Frank, if he ever goes back. He enjoys himself here very much, for he has just learnt to turn, and is so delighted with the employment that he is at it all day long. . . . What a fine fellow Charles is, to deceive us into writing two letters to him at Cork! I admire his ingenuity extremely, especially as he is so great a gainer by it. . . . Frank has turned a very nice little butter-churn for Fanny. . . . We walked Frank last night to (church at) Crixhall Ruff, and he appeared much edified. So his Royal Highness Sir Thomas Williams has at length sailed; the papers say 'on a cruise.' But I hope they are gone to Cork, or I shall have written in vain. . . . Edward and Fly (short for Frank) went out yesterday very early in a couple of shooting-jackets, and came home like a couple of bad shots, for they killed nothing at all.

"They are out again to-day, and are not yet returned. Delightful sport! They are just come home—Edward with his two brace, Frank with his two and a half. What amiable young men!"

About the middle of September 1796 Frank was appointed to the Triton, which event is announced to Cassandra in these terms:

"This morning has been spent in doubt and deliberation, forming plans and removing difficulties, for it ushered in the day with an event which I had not intended should take place so soon by a week. Frank has received his appointment on board the Captain John Gore, commanded by the Triton, and will therefore be obliged to be in town on Wednesday; and though I have every disposition in the world to accompany him on that day, I cannot go on the uncertainty of the Pearsons being at home.

"The Triton is a new 32-frigate, just launched at Deptford. Frank is much pleased with the prospect of having Captain Gore under his command."

Francis stayed on board the Triton for about eighteen months. He then spent six months in the Seahorse before his appointment to the London off Cadiz, in February 1798. On April 30 following is recorded in the log of the London the arrival of H. M. S. Vanguard, carrying Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson's flag, and on May 3 the Vanguard proceeded to Gibraltar. On May 24 the "detached squadron" sailed as follows: Culloden (Captain Troubridge), Belleroplion, Defence, Theseus, Goliatli, Zealous, Minotaur, Majestic, and Swiftsure.

These three entries foreshadow the Battle of the Nile, on August 1. The account of this victory was read to the crew of the London on September 27, and on October 24 they "saw eleven sail in the south-west—the Orion and the French line of battleships, prizes to Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson's fleet."

Now and then the London went as far as Ceuta or Gibraltar, and the log notes, "Cape Trafalgar East 7 leagues."

It is curious to think that "Trafalgar" conveyed nothing remarkable to the writer. One wonders too what view would have been expressed as to the plan of making Gibraltar a naval command, obviously advantageous in twentieth-century conditions, but probably open to many objections in those days.

Charles, in December 1797, was promoted to a Lieutenant, serving in the Scorpion. There is something in the account of William Price's joy over his promotion which irresistibly calls up the picture of Charles in the same circumstances. Francis would always have carried his honours with decorum, but Charles' bubbling enthusiasm would have been more difficult to restrain.

"William had obtained a ten days' leave of absence, to be given to Northamptonshire, and was coming to show his happiness and describe his uniform. He came, and he would have been delighted to show his uniform there too, had not cruel custom prohibited its appearance except on duty. So the uniform remained at Portsmouth, and Edmund conjectured that before Fanny had any chance of seeing it, all its own freshness, and all the freshness of its wearer's feelings, must be worn away. It would be sunk into a badge of disgrace; for what can be more unbecoming or more worthless than the uniform of a lieutenant who has been a lieutenant a year or two, and sees others made commanders before him? So reasoned Edmund, till his father made him the confidant of a scheme which placed Fanny's chance of seeing the Second Lieutenant of H.M.S. Thrush in all his glory, in another light. This scheme was that she should accompany her brother back to Portsmouth, and spend a little time with her own family. William was almost as happy in the plan as his sister. It would be the greatest pleasure to him to have her there to the last moment before he sailed, and perhaps find her there still when he came in from his first cruise. And, besides, he wanted her so very much to see the Thrush before she went out of harbour (the Thrush was certainly the finest sloop in the service). And there were several improvements in the dockyard, too, which he quite longed to show her. . . . Of pleasant talk between the brother and sister there was no end. Everything supplied an amusement to the high glee of William's mind, and he was full of frolic and joke in the intervals of their high-toned subjects, all of which ended, if they did not begin, in praise of the Thrush—conjectures how she would be employed, schemes for an action with some superior force, which (supposing the first lieutenant out of the way—and William was not very merciful to the first lieutenant) was to give himself the next step as soon as possible, or speculations upon prize-money, which was to be generously distributed at home with only the reservation of enough to make the little cottage comfortable in which he and Fanny were to pass all their middle and later life together."

Charles's year in the Scorpion was spent under the command of Captain John Tremayne Rodd. The chief event was the capture of the Courier, a Dutch brig carrying six guns. Undoubtedly the life was dull on a small brig, and Charles as midshipman had not been used to be dull. He evidently soon began to be restless, and to agitate for removal, which he got just about the same time as that of Francis's promotion.

In December 1798 Francis was made Commander of the Peterel sloop, and Charles, still as Lieutenant, was moved from the Scorpion to the frigate Tamar, and eventually to the Endymion, commanded by his old friend and captain, Sir Thomas Williams.

Charles had evidently written to his sister Cassandra to complain of his hard lot. Cassandra was away at the time, staying with Edward Austen at Godmersham, but she sent the letter home, and on December 18 Jane writes in answer:

"I am sorry our dear Charles begins to feel the dignity of ill-usage. My father will write to Admiral Gambier" (who was then one of the Lords of the Admiralty). "He must have already received so much satisfaction from his acquaintance and patronage of Frank, that he will be delighted, I dare say, to have another of the family introduced to him. I think it would be very right in Charles to address Sir Thomas on the occasion, though I cannot approve of your scheme of writing to him (which you communicated to me a few nights ago) to request him to come home and convey you to Steventon. To do you justice, you had some doubts of the propriety of such a measure yourself. The letter to Gambier goes to-day."

This is followed, on December 24, by a letter which must have been as delightful to write as to receive.

"I have got some pleasant news for you which I am eager to communicate, and therefore begin my letter sooner, though I shall not send it sooner than usual. Admiral Gamhier, in reply to my father's application, writes as follows : 'As it is usual to keep young officers' (Charles was then only nineteen) 'in small vessels, it being most proper on account of their inexperience, and it being also a situation where they are more in the way of learning their duty, your son has been continued in the Scorpion; but I have mentioned to the Board of Admiralty his wish to be in a frigate, and when a proper opportunity offers, and it is judged that he has taken his turn in a small ship, I hope he will be removed. With regard to your son now in the London, I am glad I can give you the assurance that his promotion is likely to take place very soon, as Lord Spencer has been so good as to say he would include him in an arrangement that he proposes making in a short time relative to some promotions in that quarter.'

"There! I may now finish my letter and go and hang myself, for I am sure I can neither write nor do anything which will not appear insipid to you after this. Now I really think he will soon be made, and only wish we could communicate our foreknowledge of the event to him whom it principally concerns. My father has written to Daysh to desire that he will inform us, if he can, when the commission is sent. Your chief wish is now ready to be accomplished, and could Lord Spencer give happiness to Martha at the same time, what a joyful heart he would make of yours!"

It is quite clear from this, and many other of the letters of Jane to Cassandra, that both sisters were anxious to bring off a match between Frank and their great friend, Martha Lloyd, whose younger sister was the wife of James Austen. Martha Lloyd eventually became Frank's second wife nearly thirty years after the date of this letter.

Jane continues her letter by saying:

"I have sent the same extract of the sweets of Gambier to Charles, who, poor fellow! though he sinks into nothing but an humble attendant on the hero of the piece, will, I hope, be contented with the prospect held out to him. By what the Admiral says, it appears as if he had been designedly kept in the Scorpion. But I will not torment myself with conjectures and suppositions. Facts dhsll satisfy me. Frank had not heard from any of us for ten weeks, when he wrote to me on November 12, in consequence of Lord St. Vincent being removed to Gibraltar. When his commission is sent, however, it will not be so long on its road as our letters, because all the Government despatches are forwarded by land to his lordship from Lisbon with great regularity. The lords of the Admiralty will have enough of our applications at present, for I hear from Charles that he has written to Lord Spencer himself to be removed. I am afraid his Serene Highness will be in a passion, and order some of our heads to be cut off."

The next letter, of December 28, is the culminating-point:

"Frank is made. He was yesterday raised to the rank of Commander, and appointed to the Peterel sloop, now at Gibraltar. A letter from Daysh has just announced this, and as it is confirmed by a very friendly one from Mr. Matthew to the same effect, transcribing one from Admiral Gambier to the General, we have no reason to suspect the truth of it.

"As soon as you have cried a little for joy, you may go on, and learn farther that the India House have taken Captain Austen's petition into consideration—this comes from Daysh—and likewise that Lieutenant Charles John Austen is removed to the Tamar frigate—this comes from the Admiral. We cannot find out where the Tamar is, but I hope we shall now see Charles here at all events.

"This letter is to be dedicated entirely to good news. If you will send my father an account of your washing and letter expenses, &c., he will send you a draft for the amount of it, as well as for your next quarter, and for Edward's rent. If you don't buy a muslin gown on the strength of this money and Frank's promotion I shall never forgive you.

"Mrs. Lefroy has just sent me word that Lady Dorchester meant to invite me to her ball on January 8, which, though an humble blessing compared with what the last page records, I do not consider any calamity. I cannot write any more now, but I have written enough to make you very happy, and therefore may safely conclude."

Jane was in great hopes that Charles would get home in time for this ball at Kempshot, but he "could not get superceded in time," and so did not arrive until some days later. On January 21 we find him going off to join his ship, not very well pleased with existing arrangements.

"Charles leaves us to-night. The Tamar is in the Downs, and Mr. Daysh advises him to join her there directly, as there is no chance of her going to the westward. Charles does not approve of this at all, and will not be much grieved if he should be too late for her before she sails, as he may then hope to get a better station. He attempted to go to town last night, and got as far on his road thither as Dean Gate; but both the coaches were full, and we had the pleasure of seeing him back again. He will call on Daysh to-morrow, to know whether the Tamar has sailed or not, and if she is still at the Downs he will proceed in one of the night coaches to Deal.

"I want to go with him, that I may explain the country properly to him between Canterbury and Rowling, but the unpleasantness of returning by myself deters me. I should like to go as far as Ospringe with him very much indeed, that I might surprise you at Godmersham."

Charles evidently did get off this time, for we read a few days later that he had written from the Downs, and was pleased to find himself Second Lieutenant on board the Tamar.

The Endymion was also in the Downs, a further cause of satisfaction. It was only three weeks later that Charles was reappointed to the Endymion as Lieutenant, in which frigate he saw much service, chiefly off Algeciras, under his old friend "Tom." One is inclined to wonder how far this accidental meeting in the Downs influenced the appointment. Charles appears on many occasions to have had a quite remarkable gift for getting what he wanted. His charm of manner, handsome face, and affectionate disposition, combined with untiring enthusiasm, must have made him very hard to resist, and he evidently had no scruple about making his wants clear to all whom it might concern. The exact value of interest in these matters is always difficult to gauge, but there is no doubt that a well-timed application was nearly always necessary for advancement. The account of the way in which Henry Crawford secured promotion for William Price is no doubt an excellent example of how things were done.

Henry takes William to dinner with the Admiral, and encourages him to talk. The Admiral takes a fancy to the young man, and speaks to some friends about him with a view to his promotion. The result is contained in the letters which Henry so joyfully hands over to Fanny to read.

"Fanny could not speak, but he did not want her to speak. To see the expression of her eyes, the change of her complexion, the progress of her feelings—their doubt, confusion and felicity—was enough. She took the letters as he gave them. The first was from the Admiral to inform his nephew, in a few words, of his having succeeded in the object he had undertaken (the promotion of young Price), and enclosing two more—one from the secretary of the First Lord to a friend, whom the Admiral had set to work in the business; the other from that friend to himself, by which it appeared that his lordship had the very great happiness of attending to the recommendation of Sir Charles; that Sir Charles was much delighted in having such an opportunity of proving his regard for Admiral Crawford, and that the circumstances of Mr. William Price's commission as Second Lieutenant of H.M. sloop Thrush being made out, was spreading general joy through a wide circle of great people."