Gentle Readers, Tony Grant’s latest contribution to this blog centers around Jane Austen’s two sailor brothers. What a delightful read just before the Holidays. His blog, London Calling, is worth visiting.
Francis was the older of Jane’s two brothers who joined The Royal Navy. He was twelve years old in 1786 when he travelled to Portsmouth from Steventon, a mere twenty miles away, to be enrolled at The Royal Naval Academy.
His father thought it would provide a good education for Francis. The Royal Naval Academy provided a very formal education. He was taught, navigation, mapping, how to use and handle sails, the construction and architecture of ships and gunnery, ropework, communications, maritime law, weather, meteorology and watch standing. He needed a thorough knowledge of mathematics to be able to be proficient at all these skills. The mathematics he had to learn and become adept at included pure mathematics, stations, elongations of an inferior planet, reflection at plane surfaces and reflection at two plane surfaces, Euclid, algebra and trigonometry. Future officers were also taught politics and diplomacy alongside fencing, French and dancing. It was thought that these skills were needed in diplomacy and often officers of ships, arriving at far-flung parts of the world, were required to act as diplomats for Britain.
Jane’s brother Charles joined The Royal Navy five years after Francis and followed a similar course of education.
Life at the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth was tough. We might say more than tough, in these enlightened times. Claire Tomlin, in her biography , Jane Austen A Life, writes,
“…and Francis was at the naval school in Portsmouth. The regime there was tough, not to say brutal; discipline was maintained with a horsewhip, and there were complaints about bullying, idleness and debauchery.”
From our point of view, in the Britain of the 21st century, horse whipping and a very rigid regime of rules and punishments might be termed as abuse and a criminal offence, damaging individuals for life. I don’t think it was seen like that in the 18th century.It is difficult for us to get into the minds of people in the 18th century but the Christian religion in the form of the Anglican church as part of the state, primarily possessed the minds, hearts and actions of people in very authoritarian and draconian ways. What was written in the Bible was law. Man’s baser instincts and proclivity for the seven deadly sins of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony could be legitimately beaten out of them through pain and fear. Hence the horsewhipping. This obviously created the opposite scenario too. The secret lives of people in the 18th century, particularly those who could afford it, created a world of brothels and the prostitutes of Covent Garden and the affairs and licentious living that took place in a city like Bath. It just shows that fear and pain do not create the noble perfect man, they create somebody with two diverse sides to their personality . But of course in the 18th century psychiatrists and behaviourists had not been invented . A hundred years later,the story of Jekyl and Hyde was trying to grapple with this more overtly, and Darwin was beginning to challenge the viewpoint of religious status quo through science. With the fear of wrongdoing and the prospect of going to hell, at the back of peoples minds it took strong intelligent characters to question and be creative in their views about life and living.
Claire Tomlin goes on to explain that Jane’s two brothers did not appear to mind this strict regime of corporal punishment. They were both bright and intelligent and so succeeded. They probably avoided being punished because of their abilities and being successful and probably also, as we say, by“keeping their heads down.”
The two brothers, during their careers saw action and provided a diplomatic service in many places across the globe including, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Indian Ocean, the North and South Atlantic, the China Seas, the Caribbean and in South American waters.
The Royal Navy provided a very rigid hierarchical career structure. Once an officer had progressed past midshipman to Lieutenant, their career was often guaranteed. They progressed because of age and endurance. As people above them advanced, they moved in to fill their positions. Nowadays the Royal Navy and every professional and modern navy promotes their officers depending on their abilities. In the 18th century ability was not taken into account. Skilled people like Admiral Nelson or Jane’s two brothers rose through the hierarchy, but not because they were necessarily deemed as more able than others. Officers were in the navy virtually until they died, and as long as they stayed alive they progressed up the career ladder.
Francis and Charles both rose through the ranks. Francis eventually became a full admiral and was the Commander in Chief of The North American and West Indian fleet. He became the Senior Admiral of the Fleet in 1868 when he was 89 years old. That seems ridiculous to us now. Unfortunately, Francis, did not have a very good opinion of Americans. He disapproved of the men spitting and didn’t like the flippant attitude of the women. The American women were not as cultured and sedate as his dear sister, Jane.
Francis was unhappy about his career. Many things passed him by or were too slow in coming, such as the position of Senior Admiral of the Fleet. His deepest regret was that he missed being at The Battle of Trafalgar with Nelson. His ship was there, but at the time he was ordered to perform another duty ashore.
Jane Austen includes Royal Naval characters in her novels, Persuasion and Mansfield Park. She had a great deal of affection for her brothers and knew a lot about the navy through them. Like her brothers, her naval characters were honest and chivalrous.
More on the topic
- Sir Francis William Austen: Glimpses of Jane Austen’s Sailor Brother In Letters
- Jane Austen’s Siblings: Charles John Austen 1779-1852
- The Secret Diary of a Midshipman: The Joyful Molly