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Sailors in Fiction before Persuasion’s “Gentlemen of the Navy”

Persuasion features a host of naval characters, back ashore during “‘[t]his peace’” (19), after what will turn out to be a temporary victory over Napoleon.  Admiral and Mrs. Croft make an early appearance—first as Mr. Shepherd’s disembodied hope of “‘a rich Admiral’” (19) who would mitigate Sir Walter’s insolvency, an ideal countered by Sir Walter’s dismissive anecdote featuring “‘Lord St. Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin’” (22).  When the Crofts move into Kellynch, Captain Wentworth—already a character whose narrative has been recounted—appears at Uppercross, where the late midshipman Dick Musgrove is also, temporarily, recalled to life.  The trip to Lyme widens the cast of naval characters, to include Captain and Mrs. Harville and Captain Benwick.  The novel’s shift to Bath descries, even from Elizabeth Elliot’s elevated vantage, “‘several odd-looking men walking about here, who, I am told, are sailors’” (180).  Anne sees the Crofts “wherever she went, . . . occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her” (183).  And as Anne walks up Milsom-street with the admiral, he points out Captain Brigden, Admiral Brand and his brother (“‘Shabby fellows, both of them!’” [184]), and Sir Archibald Drew and his grandson, who, because of the peace, has been turned off before he has had a chance at promotion (184).  These representatives of the navy range from the ideal to the all too real.

Persuasion’s naval characters have been read—going back to the Hubbacks’ Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers (1906)—at least partly through the filter of the characters and careers of Francis and Charles Austen as well as through the images of celebrities such as Captain James Cook and Admiral Nelson (Harris 106–08, 91–99).  But another useful context is that of fictional sailors before Austen.  The figure of the sailor appeared on stage throughout the eighteenth century, but my focus here is on novels:  on sailors in the pages of fiction by Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett, and Frances Burney and in lesser-known novels and novellas published in the new century—e.g., Catharine Selden’s The Sailors (1800), The Sailor Boy (1800), Anna Maria Porter’s A Sailor’s Friendship (1805), Eliza Parson’s The Convict, or Navy Lieutenant (1807), and Maria Edgeworth’s “Maneouvring” from Tales of Fashionable Life (1809).  A novel like Persuasion that begins with an emphasis on lineage might allow—even encourage—us to examine the fictional pedigree of the gentlemanly Wentworth and his brother officers.  What traits of character have they inherited?  What possible roles, what possible plots might Austen’s readers have expected when encountering a world so populated by the navy, which constitutes approximately twenty percent of the named characters?1 

Sir Walter Elliot’s severe remarks on the offensiveness of the navy—that it is “‘the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction’” and that it “‘cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly’” (21)—repeat charges embedded in naval fictions.  Indeed, while these earlier novels might sport or sympathize with that loss of youth and vigor, they often overlook it, embodying naval characters as romantic heroes; moreover, while they appear to celebrate the possibilities of advancement, merit is often only fulfillment of the secret of high birth, a revelation of the romance origins of the novel.  They also attend to aspects of the naval character that Sir Walter, with his “‘disdain[ ]’” and “‘disgust’” (22), cannot see:  the virtues of friendship, loyalty, and brotherly love and the vice of misogyny.  In Persuasion Jane Austen enters into the argument about the navy, using women’s voices and perspectives—especially that of a woman whose “word had no weight” (6)—to measure naval virtues, vices, and challenges. 

Naval bodies 

When Sir Walter asserts that “‘a sailor grows old sooner than any other man,’” he points to Admiral Baldwin, a forty-year-old whom he imagines to be sixty or perhaps sixty-two, as “‘the most deplorable looking personage you can imagine, his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree, all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top’” (21–22).  Admiral Croft, he assumes, will have a face “‘about as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery’” (24). 

hathawayCommodore Trunnion and Lieutenant Hatchway duel, after Henry Fuseli.  1769. Courtesy of the British Museum.

In the novels before Persuasion, naval characters have either wounded bodies that bear the marks of harsh weather and war or bodies that seem formed, in their pride of strength and health, for heroic deeds.  Commodore Hawser Trunnion, of Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), “has lost an eye and a heel in the service” (1: 6); he has “contracted an habit of stooping, by living so long on board; his complexion was tawny, and his aspect rendered hideous by a large scar across his nose, and a patch that covered the place of one eye” (1: 10).  He is accompanied by Jack Hatchway, his “lame lieutenant” (12).  Rather than dwelling on these marks as a result of the strains of a difficult life aboard ship or of the horrors of war, Smollett presents the sailor as a comic grotesque.  Though Admiral Powel, of Burney’s The Wanderer (1814), describes himself as an “old weather beaten tar” (777) and mentions “a devil of a wound [that] has put me upon the superannuated list” (15), he is still active, aiding Juliet at both the beginning and end of the novel:  his vigorous morality sets him apart from most of the rest of the characters.

Many depictions in the first decade of the nineteenth century magnify naval heroism by inscribing it on the faces and bodies of men in their youth or prime.  In The Sailor Boy, Captain Bloomfield is “a fine manly figure” (1: 2); Edward Fortescue, the boy of the title, whom Bloomfield mentors, is at fourteen “tall, and very well made for a youth of that age” (12), with an “innate sense of rectitude [that] gave lustre to his fine dark eyes” (14).  He is “naturally . . . graceful” (52) and like Bloomfield grows into a “fine manly figure” (2: 15).  In Catharine Selden’s The Sailors, Captain Davenant’s wife describes him, even after years of service, as “lively, elegant, and insinuating:  the favorite of nature” (1: 30).  In contrast, Sir William St. Aubin Marlow, as close to a hero as that gothic novel gets, is weathered:  he is very tall and thin though “at once graceful and dignified,” his “complexion . . . of a mahogany darkness,” and “his features . . . strongly marked” though “far from displeasing” (2: 112).  Captain Robert Byron, the hero of Anna Maria Porter’s A Sailor’s Friendship, has a countenance “strongly charactered by the fire and intelligence of his mind” (1: 200).  Though he has been wounded in battle more than once, he claims a “vigorous” constitution of mind and body (285).  Unrequited love is what takes him to the point of death.  In Mansfield Park (1814), Austen picks up some of the grotesque depiction of Smollett’s Trunnion but mitigates it by pairing it with the more fashionable, romanticized depiction of the naval hero.2  Mr. Price’s coarseness—“he was dirty and gross” (450)—is counterbalanced by William’s attractive youth and strength, heightened by his Lieutenant’s uniform, in which he “look[s] and mov[es] all the taller, firmer, and more graceful” (444). 

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, as Brian Southam suggests, “naval defeat and humiliation” after the victory at Trafalgar, led to a “decline in naval spirit” (271).  Persuasion presents a collection of naval bodies that suggests both what Anne calls the “‘difficulties, and privations, and dangers’” (P 254) of life on the wartime seas and some sailors’ ability to survive and even thrive.  Austen undercuts romantic heroism, Julia Banister argues, partly by emphasizing sailors’ “ordinary bodies” (213).  Dick Musgrove, of course, is dead at nineteen, the cause unspecified—though before being taken under Wentworth’s command, he “‘had been left ill at Gibraltar’” (72).  (Indeed, disease was by far the major cause of naval deaths.3)  Even Captain Benwick, though physically healthy is marked by the travails of service, with “a melancholy air, just as he ought to have” (105). 

But how a character copes with disease or injury has moral implications.  Admiral Croft, not the orange-colored man Sir Walter expects but “the best-looking sailor he had ever met with” (34), is, like Commodore Trunnion, afflicted with gout—though in eighteenth-century fiction that’s an illness associated more with prosperity than with the navy.  In Bath, he walks “to keep off the gout” with Mrs. Croft, as Anne imagines, “in happy independence” (182–83).  Captain Harville, “a tall, dark man, with a sensible, benevolent countenance,” is “a little lame; and from strong features, and want of health, looking much older than Captain Wentworth” (105).  Harville has “never been in good health since a severe wound which he received two years before” (101).  Although the Harvilles’ small rented rooms serve as an objective correlative for his restricted circumstances, “a mind of usefulness and ingenuity” turns that damaged body to action in the home:  “He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children, he fashioned new netting-needles and pins with improvements; and if every thing else was done, sat down to his large fishing-net at one corner of the room” (106).4 

In such a context, the successful and lucky Wentworth stands out.  Although the conditions of the other characters—afflicted by disease, the violence of war, aging, and loss—vividly figure the possibilities that may lie in wait, Wentworth’s physical attractions are undiminished.  In providing his backstory, the narrator emphasizes his mental qualities rather than his physical ones:  he’s described generically as “a remarkably fine young man” (28).  When Anne sees him again after eight years, she is now struck by his physical attributes, measuring his vigor against her own decline:  “the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages.  She had seen the same Frederick Wentworth” (65). 

Austen’s narrator critiques Wentworth’s exploitation of that attractiveness.  In 1806, Anne and Wentworth fall in love almost because it’s the only option open to them.  As the narrator comments wryly, “he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love” (28).  When he returns to the neighborhood, “his object to marry,” his sense of his own superiority, of his “clear head and quick taste,” precludes emotional involvement:  he waits to “be properly tempted,” with “a heart for either of the Miss Musgroves, if they could catch it; a heart, in short, for any pleasing young woman who came in his way, excepting Anne Elliot” (66).  His attractions are enough for the Miss Musgroves as well, immediately aware of “how much handsomer, how infinitely more agreeable” he is “than any individual among their male acquaintance. . . . [H]e had looked and said every thing with such exquisite grace, that they could assure them all, their heads were both turned by him” (58).  And Wentworth responds to “the attractions of Uppercross,” where there is “so much of friendliness, and of flattery, and of every thing most bewitching in his reception” (79).  He responds to “the attention of all the young women” (77) by flirting with two women at once in front of the woman who has broken their engagement, whom he treats with “cold politeness” and “ceremonious grace” (78).  It’s only the force of Louisa’s personality in reuniting Henrietta and Charles Hayter that “mark[s] out Louisa for Captain Wentworth” (96)—an assumption that surprises only him (263).  Anne, of course, does her best to excuse him:  “It was the highest satisfaction to her, to believe Captain Wentworth not in the least aware of the pain he was occasioning. . . . He was only wrong in accepting the attentions—(for accepting must be the word) of two young women at once” (88).  Austen’s tactic of free indirect discourse here allows—even enforces—a contrary reading. 

Naval virtue and vice 

In Persuasion approbation of the naval characters is generally enthusiastic.  Austen distances us from the Dick Musgroves and the Admiral Brands of the navy, instead involving us with and celebrating naval couples in companionate and equal partnerships and with men bonded by experience and feeling.  Anne admires the Crofts as “particularly attached and happy” (69), and, on meeting the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, thinks wistfully, “‘These would have been all my friends’” (105).  The more enthusiastic Louisa Musgrove bursts into hyperbolic “raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy—their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness,” of their having “more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England.”  High-spirited enthusiasm tips over into the absurd:  “they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved” (106–07).  In the context of a world populated by the Elliots and Dalrymples, such hyperbole is to some degree validated. 

Before Jane Austen, and especially in the novels published during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars with France, when the Navy’s popularity was enhanced, naval virtue was celebrated, much in the manner of Louisa Musgrove’s raptures on “their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness.”  In Peregrine Pickle, Mrs. Grizzle uses this same flattery as a way of seducing Trunnion into marrying her:  “In his presence she always exclaimed against the craft and dishonest dissimulation of the world, . . . observing, that in a seafaring life, . . . there was nothing but friendship, sincerity, and a hearty contempt for everything that was mean or selfish” (1: 40).  This emphasis on friendship, fidelity, and love invokes the most important virtues defined in novels before Persuasion

Sailors on and off ship comprise a community with shared experiences and values.  In Defoe’s The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of Captain Singleton (1720), when Singleton and his shipmates mutiny unsuccessfully and are set ashore in Madagascar, they define rules for their community that emphasize equality and friendship: 

that we would live and die together; that we would kill no food, but that we would distribute it in public; and that we would be in all things guided by the majority . . . ; that we would appoint a captain among us to be our governor or leader; . . . and that every one should take turn, but the captain was not to act in any particular thing without advice of the rest, and by the majority. (18) 

On their trek across Africa they agree to share the gold they find equally in order “to preserve the good harmony and friendship that had been always kept among us, and which was so absolutely necessary to our safety” (83).  After his turn as the butt of satire in Peregrine Pickle, Trunnion reveals “the social passions of the soul” (1: 72).  When he dies, his servants mourn, and the neighborhood poor “by repeated howlings, expressed their sorrow for the death of their charitable benefactor” (3: 20).  In the ethical system of The Sailor Boy, naval virtue is almost a given:  when Edward is robbed by two men in sailors’ uniforms he is rightly certain that they are in disguise, “for sailors would not be guilty of such an action” (82).  And in A Sailor’s Friendship Byron gives up his love in favor of his friend Eden, who “has withered away in the bloom of youth”:  “Believe me,” Byron tells Theodora, the woman both love, “it would be harder for me to lose my friend than to lose you” (278). 

Mentoring is an aspect of the fidelity and love exhibited by sailors.  In Smollett’s Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), the hero’s uncle, Lieutenant Bowling, as “a good seaman . . . and a brave fellow as ever crack’d bisket” (161), repeatedly rescues Roderick from poverty and even debtors’ prison.  Trunnion’s social passions are revealed most particularly in his love for his nephew.  Like Bowling and Trunnion, Captain Bloomfield in The Sailor Boy becomes a loyal and constant mentor to Edward; in their first meeting, in a French prison, Bloomfield gently supports the head of the wounded boy on his lap through an entire night (1: 8–9).  In these novels, the significance of male bonds floats on the surface of the narrative rather than lying beneath. 

Persuasion also validates the loyalty and brotherly love that unite these gentlemen of the navy.  Admiral Croft’s objection to Admiral Brand and his brother is to their disloyalty:  they played “‘a pitiful trick’”—“‘got away some of my best men.’”  And, as he remarks, “‘Sophy cannot bear them”’ (184).  Wentworth’s emotional depth and the hoped-for constancy of his love for Anne are established by the love and loyalty he shows to his friends.  He takes Harville’s family from Portsmouth to Plymouth—indeed “‘would assist any brother officer’s wife that I could, and . . . would bring any thing of Harville’s from the world’s end, if he wanted it’” (75).  Without waiting for leave, he takes Benwick the news of Fanny Harville’s death “‘and never left the poor fellow for a week’” (117).  He relieves Harville from the emotional burden of having Benwick’s portrait set for his new fiancée.  The open-hearted Harville speaks some of the most moving and understated words of the novel:  “‘You may think, Miss Elliot, whether he is dear to us!’” (117). 

duvalEvelina helps Madame Duval out of the ditch, after John Hamilton Mortimer. 1779. Courtesy of the British Museum.

But these novels also reveal naval vice (sometimes—as in the case of Roderick Random’s Captain Whiffle [224]—hinting at the “‘Rears, and Vices’” that Mary Crawford jokes about [MP 71]).  Darker elements such as misogyny and xenophobia thread their ways through these novels before Persuasion.  Commodore Trunnion, though his misogyny softens, has turned his house into a garrison and “won’t suffer his own maids to lie [there], but turns them into an outhouse every night before the watch is set” (1: 9).  Evelina’s Captain Mirvan, who takes over both the beginning and ending phases of the novel, darkens the naval portrait represented in Trunnion, robbing it of its comic tones and increasing its brutality.  On meeting his daughter after years away from her, “he began some rude jests upon the bad shape of her nose, and called her a tall, ill-formed thing” (38).  He sees women as “a set of parrots” and tells his daughter, “I charge you, as you value my favour, that you’ll never again be so impertinent as to have a taste of your own before my face” (109).  As he instructs his household, “I expect obedience and submission to orders; . . . if any of you, that are of my chosen crew, capitulate, or enter into any treaty with the enemy,—I shall look upon you as mutinying, and turn you adrift” (139).  The naval terminology here is neither charming nor comic.  Animated by both misogyny and “a fixed and most prejudiced hatred of whatever is not English” (49), in his treatment of Madam Duval his verbal violence becomes physical.  At the climax of his practical joking, he pushes her into a ditch, beats her about the shoulders, ties her ankles, and twitches off her cap and hair. 

Mansfield Park’s Mr. Price marks a return to Captain Mirvan’s vulgarity and taste for violence:  on meeting Fanny he “observed that she was grown into a woman, and he supposed would be wanting a husband soon”; since “Fanny [shrinks] back to her seat, with feelings sadly pained by his language and his smell of spirits” (440), that language is perhaps more explicit than the narrator conveys.  And at Maria’s elopement, Mr. Price boasts that he’d “‘give her the rope’s end as long as I could stand over her’” (509)—in other words, a dose of naval discipline. 

Even among more gentlemanly sailors, traces of such misogyny remain.  In A Sailor’s Friendship, Byron declares his intention to marry someone inferior.  Men, he argues, possess judgment; women, sensibility (52).  He also defines a difference in their vocations:  “women are destined to move in much narrower circles than men; if they diffuse happiness through their families, they do all that is required of them:—but man must describe a wider round; he must animate, and enlighten, and cherish the remotest orb within his influence” (133).  His friend Eden disagrees—“surely both ought to stretch their circle of good as wide as possible” (139)—but the novel doesn’t resolve the argument.  Burney’s kindly Admiral Powel exhibits both misogyny and Francophobia.  “[A] woman can be but a woman,” he says at least twice (16, 798).  Channeling Trunnion’s naval vocabulary as well as his sentiments, he resists “petticoat government” but claims that “no man has a better respect for the sex, in its proper element; which, however, is not the sea” (15).  Despite his desire to protect women, he encourages his niece to return to her husband:  “God forbid I should uphold a wife in running away from her lawful spouse, even though he be a Frenchman! . . . A man, being the higher vessel, may marry all over the globe, and take his wife to his home; but a woman, as she is only given him for his help-mate, must tack about after him, and come to the same anchorage” (806); “if a woman may mutiny against her husband, there’s an end of all discipline” (820); woman, “as the weaker vessel, could never properly, nor even honourably, make the voyage of life, but under the safe convoy of a good husband” (828). 

Persuasion’s naval gentlemen are not so crude, but through female voices Austen critiques the essentialist understanding of gender that they articulate.  Wentworth cites his “‘gallantry . . . in rating the claims of women to every personal comfort high,’” but then echoes Burney’s Admiral Powel:  “‘I hate to hear of women on board, or to see them on board; and no ship, under my command, shall ever convey a family of ladies any where, if I can help it’” (74).  Mrs. Croft, with experience to back her arguments, challenges her brother, rebuking him for “‘this superfine, extraordinary sort of gallantry,’” adding, “‘I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures.  We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days’” (75).  Her language here (“fine gentleman” versus her own sea metaphor) sets Wentworth apart from the naval community with which she identifies.  Gillian Russell observes that “Persuasion commends the naval profession as a more inclusive social model in which women might find a place as ‘friends’ rather than as primarily wives, daughters, or mothers” (267).5

When Captain Harville and Anne debate the strength of love in women and men, the woman makes the claim about the difference between the sexes, and the man is put in the position of responding.  Anne acknowledges, however, that predisposition and personal experience direct the argument:  “‘We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle’” (255).  That very bias both collapses the essentialist claim and denies the authority of “‘all histories . . . , all stories, prose and verse, . . . [s]ongs and proverbs’” (254) that have come before: 

“if you please, no reference to examples in books.  Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.  Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.  I will not allow books to prove any thing.”  (255) 

Through the voices of women, whose word has hitherto had no weight, Austen critiques the authority of naval characters and naval fictions. 

Income, interest, and command 

Besides training a glass on the naval character, these novels consider the institution of the Royal Navy.  In The Wanderer, Admiral Powel links the monarch and the navy:  “I hold our King to be our pilot, without whom we might soon be all aground; and, in like manner, I hold us tars to be the best part of his majesty’s ship’s company; for though old England, to my seeming, is at the top of the world, if we tars were to play it false, it would soon pop to the bottom” (831).  That notion of the Navy’s fundamental importance to the very existence of the state and to what it means to be British increases through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century as war at sea becomes an almost constant condition. 

In some cases, actual naval history and personnel are invoked.  Admiral Croft, Anne informs her father, was “‘in the Trafalgar action’” (24), a credential for him as well as a reminder of both victory and tragic loss of life.  One episode in Roderick Random’s history is the Battle of Cartagena (1741), a major defeat for the British.  Vividly detailing the loss of life from injury and disease, Smollett savagely attacks English institutional incompetence, located in the leadership of the army’s Lieutenant-General Thomas Wentworth and the navy’s Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon:  “between the pride of one [Wentworth], and insolence of another [Vernon], the enterprise miscarried” (211–12).  Porter invokes naval history differently, dedicating A Sailor’s Friendship to the recently deceased naval hero Adam Duncan, first Viscount Duncan (1731–1804), the admiral who defeated the Dutch in the Battle of Camperdown (1797):  she defines him as “a departed Hero, a Great and Good Man, a Patriot, and a Philanthropist” and dedicates her work “to the Remembrance of the Domestic Graces, and Public Virtues.”  Her novel celebrates the virtues Admiral Duncan had represented; however, when the Peace of Amiens is announced, her hero reacts in anger at those in power: 

After walking (I don’t know why) half over the town, I retired to my lodgings, and sat for an hour or two, meditating upon the useless blood which had been shed in this contest.—I cannot tell you what I felt, while I heard the frequent shouts of the mob:  a heap of confused images rushed before my eyes:  I saw all the brave companions with whom I have served, and whom I have seen fall, dropping again by my side.  To think they had sacrificed themselves for nothing!—After the most dreadful slaughters, the severest sufferings, the most brilliant victories, we were just in the very place from which we had set out ten years before:  it seemed to me then, as if we had sought only to make widows and orphans.  Such a peace rendered the war criminal.  (143) 

At the end of the novel, however, he’s returned to duty, commanding a ship on its way to the West Indies. 

Although for the most part naval characters do their duty and fight without question on behalf of their country, there are reservations about institutional injustices that surface in these novels:  the use of press gangs to force citizens into service; the arbitrary and political nature of courts martial; the low wages and thus the dependence on prizes and the resulting financial uncertainties for naval families; the role of political interest in promoting incompetent or tyrannical officers while worthy candidates were left behind. 

nelsonLord Nelson commanding the Victory, published by P. Stampa. 1806.
Courtesy of the British Museum.

Issues of pay and prize money also play a significant role in these novels of the navy.  Julia Banister sees in Persuasion a challenge to the ideal of naval heroism.  She argues that compared to Nelson’s glorious trajectory (as represented in Southey’s Life), Wentworth’s is “decidedly lacking in heroic exploits” (199).  Austen’s sailor, for Banister, is motivated less by heroism than by financial reward:  Wentworth’s narrative focuses on making money, on taking enemy merchant ships—“easy prizes,” she claims (201)—rather than on naval battles.6  (In fact, the prize money during a battle was apt to be less because all ships in sight could claim a part, as could the admiral [Banister 200–01; Sales 183].)  Banister’s reading undercuts the notion of the meritocratic navy, reducing it to a simple system of risk for money, ignoring the possibilities of patriotism or the potential for human loss.

Many of these novels before Austen emphasize prize-taking, and for good reason.  Low pay made the need for prize money more acute, especially for men with families or men contemplating marriage.  The Sailor Boy’s Edward Fortescue, in love with an heiress, will only acknowledge that he “must gain a little more prize-money . . . before I think of matrimony” (2: 56).  Edgeworth’s Walsingham does not declare his love for Amelia Beaumont:  “he honourably concealed, or rather suppressed his passion, resolving not to attempt to engage the young lady’s affections, till he should have made a fortune sufficient to support her in her own rank in life” (240).  Mrs. Davenant of The Sailors, even though her husband is now a captain, refers to years of poverty, and its persistence makes her liable to sexual predation.  Wentworth cannot marry in 1806 because, though he “had been lucky in his profession, . . . spending freely, what had come freely, [he] had realized nothing” (29).  His “‘lovely cruise’” with Harville off the Western Islands was so because he made money “‘fast’” but principally because Harville “‘wanted money—worse than myself.  He had a wife.—. . . I shall never forget his happiness.  He felt it all, so much for her sake’” (72).  Indeed, it’s possible that Wentworth’s emphasis on money in this scene is a pointed message to Anne Elliot, who refused the risk of engaging herself to him.  For naval characters, prize money is the foundation of domestic happiness, a foundation based on risk. 

A concern with money does power these naval fictions.  John Peck points out that Smollett, for instance, presents “a mercantile culture at its most unregulated, where not just every thing but every body, quite literally, has become a commodity” (25). That commodification of heroism—in a system based on the politics of money and status as well as luck—underlies all of these novels.  Margarette Lincoln, considering the issue from a gendered perspective, observes that the “issue of promotion was of great interest to women because it related to the marriage market” (151). 

The issue of promotion, which guarantees a larger share of prize money, thus becomes central to these novels, and, for the most part, promotion is linked to interest.  In some cases, the ideal is realized as heroic characters—like Edward Fortescue in The Sailor Boy or Byron in A Sailor’s Friendship—are promoted based on their heroic deeds, returning to England, as Byron puts it, “full of wounds and honours” (22).  More often promotion comes slowly.  Parsons’s Henry Thompson, “without the smallest hope of assistance from interest or fortune” (1: 1) is “honoured with a lieutenant’s commission, as a reward for his bravery in a distinguished action, which could not be overlooked, though eleven years service had been little regarded” (2).  Edgeworth’s Walsingham is promoted to commander, but until a grateful admiral secretly intervenes, there’s no ship for him.  Edgeworth makes clear that her hero is not a politician:  “Walsingham had such nice notions, and was such a proud principled fellow, that he would not enjoy his promotion if he thought he owed it to any thing upon earth but his own merit” (239).  Though Fanny Price has a similarly idealized view of the navy (as of most institutions) and sees the wait for promotion “‘as one of the hardships which fall to every sailor’s share,’” she’s confident “‘that there will be an end to it, that there will come a time when you will have nothing of that sort to endure’” (290).7  In fact, William must rely on Henry Crawford’s courtship manoeuvers, designed, as Southam points out, “to set a truly compelling trap of ‘obligation’” (202).8  Edmund worries that, without Admiral Crawford’s continued interest, William’s new uniform will soon “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?” (424–25).  The novel’s antepenultimate paragraph refers to William’s “continued good conduct, and rising fame” (547), but the prospect of promotion and command is left open. 

In Persuasion, since Wentworth meets Anne already as a commander back in 1806, interest is not a central issue.  When Wentworth, with some measure of playfulness, criticizes the admiralty for “‘entertain[ing] themselves now and then, with sending a few hundred men to sea, in a ship not fit to be employed,’” however, Admiral Croft’s rebuke reminds him that he was lucky “‘with no more interest than his’” to get such a ship, that “there must have been twenty better men . . . applying for her at the same time’” (70).  Wentworth retreats, confessing “seriously,” “‘I felt my luck, admiral, I assure you. . . . I was as well satisfied with my appointment as you can desire’” (70).  In celebrating Wentworth’s success, Austen makes a point that it is at least partly due to luck.  Robert G. Dryden points out that midshipman Dick Musgrove serves as “a reminder that not every man can achieve naval success, . . . open[ing] the door to speculation about naval men, young and old, who were not successful, who were casualties of the navy in one way or another” (210).  Benwick’s narrative reinforces such speculation.  He and Fanny Harville had delayed their marriage “a year or two waiting for fortune and promotion” (104).  That delay ends in tragedy, and, as Admiral Croft points out, “‘He is only a commander, . . . made last summer, and these are bad times for getting on’” (186). 

The need for promotion threatens one of most important naval virtues:  fellowship.  In The Wanderer Admiral Powel tells of an officer who has 

had the luck, while bravely fighting, in two different engagements, to see his two senior officers drop by his side:  by which means he had arrived at his promotion of first lieutenant, and of captain.  And if, which was likely enough, God willing, he should meet with such another good turn in a third future engagement, he bid fair for being a Commodore in the prime of his days.  (829) 

Burney underscores the fissures in the ideal of naval brotherhood, when one man’s lucky promotion rests on his comrades’ unlucky deaths. 

A more rarified kind of promotion—to the baronetcy or peerage—is also a part of the naval fiction.  Trunnion exclaims vociferously against a newspaper announcement that one Admiral Bower will be created a British peer: 

a fellow of yesterday, that scarce knows a mast from a manger; a snotty-nose boy, whom I myself have ordered to the gun, for stealing eggs out of the hencoops! and I, Hawser Trunnion, who commanded a ship before he could keep a reckoning, am laid aside, d’ye see, and forgotten!  If so be as this be the case, there is a rotten plank in our constitution. . . . I did not rise in the service by parliamenteering interest, or a handsome b—h of a wife.  (1: 12–13) 

Trunnion’s ire meets Sir Walter’s objection to the navy, though from a very different angle, “‘as the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of’” (21).  In fact, according to Colley, the creation of new titles between 1780 and 1830 was a result of the younger William Pitt’s attempt to adjust patrician dominance “in the direction of meritocracy” (190), “to admit in a controlled fashion a number of truly exceptional men for the sake of efficiency, and for the sake, too, of preserving the existing order” (191).9  Mary Musgrove’s worry that Wentworth may be made a baronet (272) has some contemporary precedent; it also points to the competing forces of dynamism and stasis in the world of Persuasion

The issue of interest is directly related to the ability to command—and is often part of the critique of naval officers.  Despite their focus on naval heroes, novels before Persuasion depict some tyrannical and incompetent officers.  Roderick Random, for example, is subject to the brutality of his superiors.  The behavior of Captain Oakum, “an arbitrary tyrant” (184), is linked to class tensions:  “the report goes, as how he’s a lord, or baron knight’s brother, whereby . . . [he] keeps aloof from his officers, tho’f, mayhap they may be as good men in the main as he” (162).  Oakum’s replacement, Captain Whiffle, is a dandy, covered in silk, satin, jewels, ringlets, and perfume (220), and the violent midshipman Crampley is later made a lieutenant.  Such characters have their incarnations in later novels (e.g., a tyrannical, malevolent, and cowardly second lieutenant in The Sailor Boy [1: 167] and Captain Jemmison in “Manœuvring”). 

But for the most part, these novels valorize naval command.  Linda Colley has seen in the patriotic iconography at the end of the eighteenth century a “highly selective cult of heroism, never focusing on ordinary soldiers or seamen but only on those commanding them, [which] was deeply congenial to men intensely proud of their personal status and honour” (180).  Even before his death, she points out, Nelson tapped into this cult of heroism:  “Splendidly, unabashedly and utterly successfully, Nelson did what the majority of the men who dominated Great Britain sought to do more elegantly and discreetly:  use patriotic display to impress the public and cement their own authority” (183). 

Such a cult of heroism certainly influences the naval fictions of the nineteenth century.  The Sailor Boy’s Captain Bloomfield is beloved by his crew, who need “but little exhortation to do their best for the honour of old England” (1: 54).  Edward Fortescue gives orders with such precision that his men “understood even his looks; and convinced he was almost invincible, would have gone to the bottom with the colours flying” (2: 27).  One character remarks that the two men “must spring from a race of heroes” (2: 204).  In Edgeworth’s “Manoeuvring” when the crew of Lieutenant Walsingham’s ship mutinies, he is protected by the mutineers because of his past kindnesses; later he saves the ship on condition that the men return to duty and encourages the crew to fight “like devils [against an enemy ship] to redeem themselves” (235).  He also speaks with precise justice and generosity at the captain’s court martial (237–38) and is rewarded for his heroism with promotion and, later, command. 

Because Persuasion focuses on officers who have been turned ashore during the peace, the issue of command must be illustrated more tangentially.  The narrator provides the memory of Captain Wentworth’s insistence that Dick Musgrove write to his parents as well as Dick’s comment that Wentworth is “‘a fine dashing felow, only two perticular about the school-master’” (56).  Otherwise, Wentworth glosses lightly over his command, focusing on his connection with the “‘dear old Asp’”:  “‘She did all that I wanted. I knew she would.—I knew that we should either go to the bottom together, or that she would be the making of me” (71).  Wentworth’s stature as a hero in the mode of Lord Nelson is, however, undercut in the scene at the novel’s center, at the border between harbor and sea, that depicts his sudden inability to command or even to think.  When Louisa falls apparently lifeless on the Cobb, Wentworth cries, “‘Is there no one to help me?’” in “a tone of despair, and as if all his own strength were gone” (118).  When Benwick and Charles move to support Louisa, Wentworth “stagger[s] against the wall for his support” and begins to dart away for a surgeon even though he has no idea where to go (119). 

In the face of the failure of male ability, commands come from Anne:  “‘Go to him, go to him, . . . for heaven’s sake go to him. . . . Leave me, and go to him.  Rub her hands, rub her temples; here are salts,—take them, take them’” (118).  She is the character of “strength and zeal, and thought” and decision (119).  When a stricken Charles asks her, “‘what is to be done next?’” (120), Wentworth also looks to her.  Captain and Mrs. Harville also bring “senses and nerves that [can] be instantly useful”:  “a look between [them] decided what was to be done. . . . [H]e was obeyed; . . . Louisa, under Mrs. Harville’s direction, was conveyed up stairs” (120).  Austen makes clear that this domestic heroism is the province of both sexes, but especially of women. 

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Combining romance and realism, in Persuasion Jane Austen both valorizes and critiques the heroic myth of the navy through the voices of women.  Although men’s heroism and constancy are juxtaposed against women’s, one is not given more weight.  As Anne suggests, “‘We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point’” (255).  Instead the novel ends with a modestly unifying vision of genre, of gender, of social categories, of future possibilities:  of a lucky member of the meritocracy with a virtuous and active daughter of the failing landed classes, of the dread of a future war and the sunshine of a happy marriage, of national importance and domestic virtues.



Thanks for alerting me to naval characters in many of these novels are due to members of the C18-L listserve:  Jeremy Chow, Shang-Yu Sheng, Nancy Mayer, Michelle Lyons-McFarland, Elizabeth Porter, Carolyn Lyle, Katherine Quinsey, Gillian Williamson, Maximillian Novak, Frank Felsenstein, and especially April London.  I appreciate the generosity of the list.  I also appreciate the helpful comments on an earlier draft of the essay of Laurie Kaplan, Marsha Huff, and Jan Fergus.



1Out of a total of 73 characters, 16 (or 22 per cent) are navy men or navy wives.  This count does not include unnamed children but does include unnamed adults (e.g., Sir Archibald Drew’s grandson and the Miss Hayters) and the dead who haunt the novel (Dick Musgrove, Lady Elliot, Fanny Harville, et al.). 

2I’m indebted to Katharine Quinsey, a member of the C18-L listserve, for pointing out the duality of grossness and gentility represented by Mr. Price and his son William. 

3Margarette Lincoln cites Dudley Pope’s Life in Nelson’s Navy:  “during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the Navy lost 1,875 men in action, 13,600 from shipwreck and 72,000 from disease or accident” (5).  Robert G. Dryden puts the death toll even higher:  “During the twenty-two year period of the Napoleonic War (1793–1815), an estimated 100,000 British seamen lost their lives to combat, disease, naval accident, and naval discipline.  Most of these men were common sailors” (205).  He lists yellow fever, smallpox, typhus, scurvy, and sexually transmitted disease as among the chief causes of naval fatalities (215–16).  Smollett’s Roderick Random goes to sea as a surgeon’s mate, and Smollett graphically illustrates the generally unhealthy conditions as well as the institutional negligence at the Battle of Carthagena, where the injured were housed on hospital ships without surgeons (211–12). 

4Captain Harville’s condition, Julia Banister points out, is mirrored by that of Mrs. Smith, underscoring the point that men’s bodies (not to mention their minds) are not essentially different from women’s (215). 

5Tim Fulford argues that Anne “adopts the practicality, adaptability, and cheerful self-reliance epitomized by Mrs. Croft’s accompanying her husband on his voyages. . . . Anne learns not from her decadent father, feminized by luxury and domesticity as he is, but from the activity and resourcefulness that Mrs. Croft has acquired on ship. . . . The apparently manly and common Mrs. Croft is ultimately a better exemplar and adviser than the well-meaning but hidebound Lady Russell” (188).  While I don’t believe that Anne learns activity and resourcefulness from Mrs. Croft (those are qualities she already has demonstrated), Mrs. Croft does act as an exemplar of the kind of partner a married woman can be. 

6Fulford reads Wentworth’s career differently:  Wentworth’s “profession has allowed him to unite his own and the nation’s interests.  He has gained promotion by his prowess in defending the empire—he is made commander after defending the British colony on Saint Domingo (Haiti) from the French fleet.  He has enriched himself by taking prizes.  But these too have aided British imperial sway:  by capturing privateers, he has prevented Spanish and American interference with the lucrative West Indies trade; by capturing a frigate, he has struck a blow at French naval power” (189). 

7Southam remarks that Fanny’s “misplaced confidence” in Sir Thomas’s ability to help William achieve promotion “betray[s] a certain unworldliness on her part” (202). 

8Peck notes here “a lack of correspondence between the public face, and voice, of the characters, and their private feelings, which can only be expressed in whispers.  The positive words that are associated with William—words such as heroism and courage—are touchstones of value, and, as such, create a sense of national unity and shared values.  But we also encounter other, half-heard voices, conveying a sense of divisions within British life” (37–38). 

9See also Southam 275.

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