BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor


The Courtier and Divine

James Stanier Clarke

By Chris Viveash.
Sarsen Press, 2006.
91 pages. 12 B/W illustrations.
Paperback. $17.00.
Available at Jane Austen Books, jabooks@aol.com

Reviewed by Sue Parrill.

The importance of James Stanier Clarke (1766-1834) in his own time and in ours is negligible. A tireless self-promoter of his small talents, Clarke managed to achieve his limited success primarily by his ability to attract influential friends and patrons. Chris Viveash’s biography James Stanier Clarke is appealing primarily because of the interesting and famous people with whom Clarke associated during his life—1766 to 1834.

The book is a name-dropper’s paradise. Viveash frequently refers to Jane Austen and her family as he takes us through the events of Clarke’s life. Like Jane’s father, Clarke attended Tonbridge School. After leaving Cambridge without taking a degree, Clarke took holy orders in 1790 at the age of 22. He later complained to Jane Austen of the difficulty of collecting tithes and would have preferred they be done away with. He hired curates to deal with most of the duties in his livings while he hobnobbed with the rich and famous.

The young Clarke introduced himself to William Hayley, a friend of Clarke’s grandfather and a well-known poet. Through Hayley, whom Clarke often visited in Sussex, Clarke found himself in the company of writers and artists such as William Cowper, Charlotte Smith, William Blake, John Flaxman, and George Romney. Clarke’s first connection with the Royal Navy came with his brother George’s entering a naval career. Then in 1794 Clarke was appointed chaplain to HMS Jupiter, with John Willett Payne as captain. Payne had distinguished himself in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, and in December 1794 he was commodore of a squadron sent to pick up Princess Caroline of Brunswick and convey her to her reluctant fiancé, George, Prince of Wales. The young Lieutenant Francis Austen was aboard one of the ships of the squadron. Payne, notorious as a roué and as a sometimes pimp for the Prince of Wales, was to continue his patronage of Clarke and his brother George until Payne’s death in 1803. Clarke’s sister married William Parkinson, a naval lieutenant who had served with Nelson on the Vanguard during the Battle of Aboukir Bay.

Clarke’s publications met with only moderate success. His Progress of Maritime Discovery (1803) was to have been the first volume of several, but after a savage review by Alexander Dalrymple of the Admiralty, he published no further volumes. His edition of William Falconer’s The Shipwreck (1804), with extensive notes and full-page engravings by Nicholas Pocock, was more successful. The Shipwreck was dedicated to Lord Egremont, Clarke’s new patron, who awarded him a living in 1804, the second from which he was now due tithes and emoluments.

Clarke is perhaps best known to historians for his role in producing with John McArthur the Naval Chronicle, published semi-annually from 1799 to 1819. The purpose of this publication was to present accurate accounts of the war at sea, written by naval officers and illustrated by noted artists. He is also known as the author of the first biography of Lord Horatio Nelson, a book savagely reviewed by Robert Southey when it appeared, and then supplanted by Southey’s own biography of the national hero.

His association with the royal family, particularly with George, Prince of Wales, was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he thoroughly enjoyed seeing his name on the lists of those often received at Carlton House, and he was frequently asked to give sermons there. In 1805 the Prince appointed him Librarian at Carlton House, and in 1812, Historiographer Royal. In November 1815, the Prince Regent ordered him to invite Jane Austen to Carlton House and to show her the library. Clarke did so and afterwards corresponded with Miss Austen. In this correspondence he suggested to her that she write a novel about an English clergyman, obviously to be modeled on himself; later, full of the royal wedding of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold, he proposed an historical romance about the House of Coburg. Miss Austen, of course, politely declared her unfitness to treat these topics.

Clarke’s association with the Prince Regent also placed him in the uncomfortable position of maneuvering in the troubled waters of Princely wives and mistresses and of witnessing the excesses of royal behavior. On the occasion of a celebration at Petworth, he was made the butt of a cruel practical joke, whereby he was made to drink excessively, then put in bed with a live donkey. A print published in 1814 called “The Divine and the Donkey” made Clarke’s humiliation complete. Jane Austen was perhaps thinking of this episode when she commented that “the duties of the courtier could not be too well paid.”

In the last years of Clarke’s life, he lived quietly, performing his duties as a clergyman at Windsor and Tillington. At the age of 57, he married a widow and lived happily another ten years.

Viveash has created an interesting, readable account of the life of James Stanier Clarke. He has drawn on a great many original manuscripts in private and public collections for his information and has illustrated the book with portraits and other contemporary prints.


Sue Parrill is the author of Jane Austen on Film and Television (2002) and the Book Review Editor of JASNA News.

JASNA News v.23, no. 2, Summer 2007, p. 26

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