Six Degrees of Separation: The Jane Austen Game
Soldier of the Raj:
The Life of Richard Purvis, 1789-1868, Soldier, Sailor, and Parson
By Iain Gordon.
Leo Cooper, 2001. 319 pages.
19 b/w plates, maps, and plans.
Reviewed by Barbara Wenner.
we do when we have read everything by and about Jane Austen many times
over? Actor Kevin Bacon’s fans play the Kevin Bacon Game, where they
attempt to find all the other actors connected with him through film.
Jane Austen’s readers might play a similar game, finding all the
connections to the Austen family and another Hampshire family with
naval connections, such as the Purvis family. Let’s play the Jane
Austen Game, using as our base of operations, Iain Gordon’s Soldier of the Raj.
discovered a trove of letters in the home of an elderly aunt, whose
deceased husband had been one of the last of a long family line of
English naval officers. Many of the letters, some arriving overseas to
Hampshire, some in the familiar crosshatched style, were
contemporaneous with Jane Austen’s. In fact, one letter, given by the
aunt to the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, was from Captain Francis Austen
to his daughter Mary-Jane. Captain George Purvis, R. N., married
Mary-Jane Austen at the church in Chawton in 1827, and, as a result of
this connection, several relics were presented to the Jane Austen
Memorial Trust—Mary-Jane’s work table, miniatures of various Purvis
relations, as well as a diamond-encircled miniature of Philadelphia
Hancock, sister of George Austen. And, interestingly enough, a portrait
previously thought to be a Purvis admiral was identified by a visiting
Austen scholar, Jan Fergus, as Francis Austen. Let this collection
represent connection # 1.
of Gordon’s history centers on the correspondence between John Child
Purvis and his son Richard, one which is similar to George Austen’s
with Francis when he was a young midshipman—connection #2. However,
Gordon states that these letters are more revealing than Jane Austen’s
because “Cassandra Austen, who burned, or cut pieces out of, the
greater part of her sister Jane’s letters after her death” concealed
some aspects of her life. Gordon, on the other hand, felt that Richard
Purvis’ life “was quite sufficiently worthy to be judged on a ‘warts
and all’ basis.”
the author focuses mostly on the career of Richard Purvis, the reader
glimpses 200 years of British naval family history. When his mother
died, his father put eleven-year-old Richard aboard the man-of-war London as a Captain’s Servant.
Five years earlier, Francis Austen had been a first lieutenant on the
same vessel—connection #3. A year later, Richard attended the royal
Naval Academy in Portsmouth, where the Austen brothers went, beginning
in 1786. They remained in the navy all their lives. Although his father
eventually became Admiral of the Blue and two brothers made careers in
the navy as a captain and vice admiral, Richard disliked the Academy
intensely and was convinced that he wanted to join the East India
Company as a Military Cadet.
#4 involves Richard Purvis’ fourteen-year stay in India. The Austens
had been familiar with the subcontinent since Philadelphia Austen went
there to marry a surgeon named Hancock. Many historians believe she was
involved with the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, and it was their
child, Eliza, who married Henry Austen. Hastings was responsible for
patronage given to several Purvis friends, but Purvis, unfortunately,
did not benefit. Both he and Henry Austen were disappointed by another
governor-general of India, Lord Moira, whose debts were largely
responsible for the closing of Henry’s bank. Richard Purvis, although
he commanded a Grenadier Company of Native Infantry at age 17, was
overlooked by Moira. Purvis’ increasing frustration led to his return
to England in 1817, where he, like Henry Austen, became an ordained
priest and settled in a Hampshire parish—connection #5.
hopes the inclusion of letters by Georgina Purvis (Mary-Jane Austen’s
sister-in-law and one-time love interest of her cousin Richard) might
add “irresistible…Austenesque charm.” In 1846, Richard Purvis’ son
wrote home about joining Admiral Francis Austen at his Bermuda home and
George Maitland Purvis joined his grandfather Austen on the Vindictive—connection #6. A
relationship that had started when Jane Austen was a girl continued
into the late 19th Century when “John and Francis Purvis, both
grandsons of sailing Admirals…[became] steam Admirals themselves.”
we are so inclined, Soldier of the
Raj is a good place to play the Jane Austen Game. Admittedly,
difficulties exist with the florid, lengthy passages in Purvis’
letters, and Gordon concedes that they are “for those few enthusiasts
who delight in the verbal construction of the period.” Although Gordon
compares some letters to Austen’s, they are in no way as succinct,
clever, and entertaining. Still, if we hurry through a few long
sections of stilted prose, we can find some little-known, yet
intriguing, connections with the Austen family.
is Associate Professor of English at the University of
Cincinnati. She writes and teaches about Jane Austen and is
currently completing a book on Jane Austen and landscape.
v.18, no. 3, Winter 2002, p. 19
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