Edited by George Justice

Austen on the High Seas

Jane Austen and the Navy

By Brian Southam.
Hambledon and London, 2000. vi + 384 pages. 22 b/w illustrations.
Hardcover. $29.95.

Reviewed by Kim Orr.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Brian Southam's Jane Austen and the Navy is his even-handed treatment of the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. Naval histories tend to view battle decisions either as heroic or incompetent, and various commanders as brilliant or criminal. The Navy as an institution may be full of heart-of-oak Tars, or brutes capable of despicable practices and punishments.

Southam avoids such judgements and provides the reader with an understanding of the importance of the Navy to England during Austen's lifetime. He offers a straightforward account of the way in which the Navy worked: the system of patronage and promotion, the education of the Sailors, the dangers and opportunities, prizes, honors, and Admiralty and Parliamentary politics. Southam shows how the two brothers both suffered and profited from naval life. He traces each of their careers with stories of their ships, their duty stations, the battles they took part in, and their relationships to their naval benefactors. Then he demonstrates how these experiences made their way into their sister's novels.

The novels are faithful to the details of naval life. They offer an unusual glimpse into the home life of naval officers. The novels distill poignant moments for the families of any Sailor: the receipt of news from a ship, the joy of promotion, presents made possible by prize money unannounced arrivals, sudden departures, evenings when the family gathered to hear sea stories and tales of far-away places.

Southam includes a chapter for each of two of the most controversial commanders of the Royal Navy: Popham and Nelson. Austen comments on Popham in a poem and on a biography of Nelson in a letter. Southam gives the reader a lively idea of the kind of public controversy that might surround either official or private acts of naval "heroes." Austen takes a sympathetic view of Popham's actions and declares herself heartily tired of reading about Nelson. In both cases she voices the less popular opinion of each man. Southam attempts to determine what could be the cause of Austen's unusual points of view.

The book leaves the reader touched by the deep ties between the Austen brothers and sisters. The richness of their family life shines throughout. We see it in a letter from the Revered Austen to his son Francis--advice given when Francis takes up his commission. We see it in the keen interest Jane has in any steps which might further her brothers' interests. We find it in her writing to her brother Francis so that he might correct the naval terms in her novel. But the greatest testimony to Jane Austen's admiration for her Sailor brothers and their Naval life lies in the invention of her naval characters, all of whom are, with one exception, handsome, handy, invariably kind, entertaining, frank, open, manly, and the best of husbands and brothers.

Kim Orr is an independent scholar who has commissioned three ships for the United States Navy, and whose experience of Sailors and of naval life agrees with Jane Austen's.

JASNA News v.17, no. 2, Summer 2001, p. 28

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