Persuasions #10, 1988                                                                                                                                            Pages 31-43

The Ships in Mansfield Park



Charlbury, Oxford, England


I would like to share with readers of Persuasions some interesting and perhaps amusing information I received some years ago from the late Professor Michael Lewis of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.  He died in 1970 after a distinguished career as a teacher and as a writer on naval history; and our brief contact arose from an interest in Mansfield Park.

This third of Jane Austen’s publications came out in 1814, late in May or early in June.  Its opening words are, “About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon … had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park …”  Its first readers were, therefore, transported back in their imagination to somewhere about the year 1784.  If they had also realized that Jane was writing those words in 1811, they may have been led back in imagination to 1781; but such mental gymnastics are rather unlikely.  Modern readers of Mansfield Park do not always remember when it was published or written, and probably do no mental arithmetic at all.  However, let us assume the Bertram-Ward marriage to have taken place in 1784.  We may then suppose Tom Bertram, the elder son, to have been born in 1785, and Edmund, the younger, nearer 1786.  Years later Edmund was looking forward to ordination, when he must have been at least twenty-three, which would have been about the year 1809.  Now it was discovered long ago by Sir Frank McKinnon, that the dates mentioned in Mansfield Park fit exactly with the years 1808-09, and that for the latter part of the book Jane was almost certainly using almanacs.  In this way Edmund was quite fittingly ordained just before Christmas, 1808.  The only inconsistency with an 1808-09 dating is that Jane makes her Easter “particularly late this year,” when in fact in 1809 it was not so; for Easter fell on 2nd April.  It was, however, as late as 18th April in 1813, during which year Mansfield Park was still being written; and this may have suggested the device.  There is certainly evidence that Volume III, chapter VII, had been written by 3rd July 1813, for on that date Jane wrote a significant letter to her brother Frank.

He was serving just then as Captain on H.M.S. Elephant in the Baltic.  His sister mentions Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and continues, “I have something in hand – which I hope on the credit of P.&P. will sell well, tho’ not half so entertaining.”  This something was, of course, Mansfield Park, and she goes on, “And by the bye – shall you object to my mentioning the Elephant in it, & two or three other of your old (i.e. former) ships?  I have done it, but it shall not stay to make you angry.  – They are only just mentioned.”1  In Volume III, chapter VII, Jane had named four ships – the Canopus, the Elephant, the Endymion and the Cleopatra.  As we look closely at these ships we find that they are not all Frank’s. Two are his – the Canopus and the Elephant – and the other two are Charles Austen’s!  This is, perhaps, explained by Jane’s other letter of 25th September 1813 to Frank, still on the Elephant in the Baltic: “I thank you very warmly for your kind consent to my application & the kind hint which followed it.”2  She then continued as if Frank’s hint had suggested that the use of the names of certain ships might lead to the revelation of Jane as an author of novels.  But the hint may have been quite different.  Frank may well have hinted that Charles would like honourable mention of some of his ships too; and we may then be permitted to picture Jane seeing to it that of the four ships chosen two were Frank’s and two were Charles’s. Or, of course, she may have confused the ships in which her two brothers had actually served; and we may then attribute their choice to a faulty memory and a love of alliteration.  If so, we can then imagine some teasing from her precise brother Frank, when he read the names of the ships as they stand in the novel.

We have not, however, finished with those ships.  When Fanny Price visited Portsmouth, in what we have taken to be February 1809, her brother William was about to sail in the Thrush.  The Thrush has just gone out of Portsmouth Harbour and is pictured as lying at Spithead.  William asks, “Whereabouts does the Thrush lay at Spithead!  Near the Canopus?”  and his question is later answered by his father: “She lays close to the Endymion between her and the Cleopatra, just to the eastward of the sheer hulk.”  And the information is also volunteered, “Captain Walsh thinks you will certainly have a cruize to the westward with the Elephant.”  Frank had served in the Canopus, while Charles had served in the Endymion and had been serving in the Cleopatra during the earlier days of the composition of Mansfield Park.  Neither had served in the Thrush, which had been built only in 1806.

It was here that Professor Lewis gave me an account of the true whereabouts of these ships in February 1809.  They were not at Spithead!  The Canopus was in the Mediterranean; the Endymion was being used in ferrying Sir John Moore’s survivors from Corunna and might have been at Spithead very briefly but probably not; the Cleopatra was at Halifax, Nova Scotia.  As for the Elephant, she was laid up in dock at Portsmouth undergoing a refit, and still out of commission in the following August.  What of the Thrush, in which William Price was to sail?  She was just the sort of vessel that a new made lieutenant might be expected to be appointed to.  His father’s comment that “anybody in England would take her for an eight-and-twenty” (she’s such a nice roomy modern sloop that she could well be taken for one of the older and smaller 28-gun frigates) is a fair one, and a great tribute to Jane’s own knowledge or to her memory of comments from her brothers.  However, in February 1809 the Thrush was not at Portsmouth but in the Leeward Islands!  Professor Lewis sums up: “I wouldn’t care to say for certain that the ships she names were never lying at Spithead together.  But they were certainly not doing so in February 1809.”  These facts may be remembered when we next hear the over-glib comment that Jane Austen was always careful about details.  If Frank Austen realized that it was in February 1809 that she had brought these five vessels together at Spithead, he probably teased her further.

To Frank we probably owe something more.  The first edition of Mansfield Park was considerably revised in the second, changes that only a sailor could have found necessary.  One or two examples will suffice – the Thrush “had slipped her moorings and was coming out” (of harbour), whereas Jane had originally described the Thrush as “under weigh,” implying, quite incorrectly, that her own anchors had been used in harbour, whereas she must have used a fixed mooring-buoy.  Jane’s earlier astern and larboard were pruned away; and Portsmouth Point, from which Lieutenant Price could not have watched the Thrush at Spithead for two hours, removed in favour of the Platform, with its clear view.  Jane wrote to her publisher, Murray, on 11th December 1815, “I return also ‘Mansfield Park,’ as ready for a 2d edit: I beleive, as I can make it.”3  From her letters written between the two editions we learn that Frank Austen was conveniently at hand to help his sister with the work of revision.  Frank, who was sent on half-pay from the Elephant on 7th May 1814, was expected at Chawton some time towards the end of June, where he and his family were to occupy the Great House.  Jane went up to London several times during this period – it was the time of her correspondence with the Prince Regent’s Chaplain and her visit to Carlton House – but on the last occasion, probably early in October 1815, she must have taken with her the changes in the text of Mansfield Park inspired by Frank, so that they were ready for Murray in December.  It is a pleasant picture – Frank Austen teasing his sister, and then guiding her in her revision of Mansfield Park.





1 R.W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 317.


2 Chapman, Letters, p. 340.


3 Chapman, Letters, pp. 446-47.





Mansfield Park ed. R.W. Chapman, OUP.  The Notes compare the first and second editions of 1814 and 1816.  A Chronology, derived ultimately from Frank McKinnon, is given in the Appendixes.


Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by John H. and Edith Hubback, John Lane 1906.


A Letter from the late Professor Michael Lewis to the author, dated 10th January 1964, passed on information gathered from Steel’s Original and Correct List of the Royal Navy, 1783-1816.  (See British Union Catalogue of Periodicials and the British Library Catalogue under England, Navy, Lists.)

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