For a book slightly more than 200 pages in length, John Peck’s Maritime
Fiction: Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719-1917
covers a great deal of novelistic territory. Using Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as
his starting point (although going as far back as Homer and Hakluyt), Peck
covers many important novels with maritime themes, including those by Austen,
Dickens, and Melville, and the lesser known Frederick Marryat, author of Mr.
Peck primarily focuses upon the connection between sea stories, national identity and the economy. As he takes the reader chronologically through more than two centuries of novels referring to the sea, he illustrates how maritime interests evolve, change, and fade. He transports us from Dickens, who believes the British sailor “will do his duty,” to Conrad, who “shows men yielding to temptation.” In examining abuse of the human body (including cannibalism) as portrayed in maritime fiction, Peck moves from the repugnance Dickens had for the very notion that an Englishman could eat human flesh to Conrad’s repeated use of cannibalism as a subject.
In “Jane Austen’s Sailors,” Peck finds that Austen both “acknowledges and seeks to deny” a gap between the ethical code of the sea and that of the domestic front. Peck points out that during a time when England felt very threatened by the French, a strong belief in the British navy’s preeminence was imperative. As other Austen scholars make clear (notably Brian Southam in his latest book, Jane Austen and the Navy), Jane Austen had close ties to the navy, with two brothers as naval officers. She also lived during an era when British naval victories were perceived as the salvation of the country. Francis Austen’s correspondence, during the days following the Battle of Trafalgar, indicate how important participation in battle and the ensuing prize money was for the sailor’s family.
Fixity and change are the two disparate qualities that Jane Austen attempts to reconcile in her portrayal of the navy in both Mansfield Park and Persuasion, according to Peck. Just as Jane Austen’s brothers depended upon the goodwill of the upper ranks of the navy for their promotions, so William Price must depend upon the goodwill of Admiral Crawford. Peck points out that both Fanny and William are well aware of the necessity of patronage. Although William Price represents the best of naval honesty, discipline, and morality, Peck reminds us that William must depend upon the goodwill of an “Admiral Crawford,” who seems to represent moral laxity and a threat to Austen’s notion of domestic virtue. Peck also discusses the now familiar comment by Mary Crawford concerning “rears and vices,” which he speculates is either “an astonishingly dirty joke about homosexuality in the navy” or “it muddies any sense of the navy as the transparent embodiment of manliness and manly conduct.” So Austen is a realist about how a young midshipman gets promoted and the political machinations which finally allowed sailors, like William Price--and Austen’s two brothers—to move into the higher ranks of the navy.
In his discussion of Persuasion, Peck focuses upon how history, particularly the Battle of Trafalgar, has affected the portrayal of naval officers. No longer do we see an Admiral Crawford. Instead we have characters such as Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth, praised for their unaffected natures, honesty, and competence. They mirror the success we might have predicted for William Price. As in his reading of Mansfield Park, Peck points out the disparity between what he calls the navy as “the vanguard of a risk-taking, entrepreneurial society” and the importance of “marriage and domestic order.”
Peck sees Austen as handling the gap between naval and domestic society with words. In the famous conversation between Anne Eliot and Captain Harville, Harville uses a flurry of nautical metaphors to downplay the differences Anne describes between men and women. Peck suggests that “the life of a sailor might, therefore, provide metaphors that help us make sense of life on land, but at a deeper level—that level at which we acknowledge that sailors speak a different language—life at sea has nothing to do with shore-based existence.” The final words of the novel suggest a close connection between the navy and “domestic virtues” that is not borne out by the text, according to Peck. Set in the context of a myriad of novels with maritime references, Peck uses his chapter on Mansfield Park and Persuasion as a significant commentary on the constantly shifting gap between ship and shore in nineteenth-century maritime fiction.
Barbara Wenner is Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently completing a book on Jane Austen and scopophilia - the love of looking - and landscape.
JASNA News v.18, no. 1, Spring 2002, p. 17
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