George Justice, Editor

Six Degrees of Separation: The Jane Austen Game

Soldier of the Raj: The Life of Richard Purvis, 1789-1868, Soldier, Sailor, and Parson

By Iain Gordon.
Leo Cooper, 2001. 319 pages.
19 b/w plates, maps, and plans. Hardcover. $36.52.

Reviewed by Barbara Wenner.

What do we do when we have read everything by and about Jane Austen many times over? Actor Kevin Bacon’s fans play the Kevin Bacon Game, where they attempt to find all the other actors connected with him through film. Jane Austen’s readers might play a similar game, finding all the connections to the Austen family and another Hampshire family with naval connections, such as the Purvis family. Let’s play the Jane Austen Game, using as our base of operations, Iain Gordon’s Soldier of the Raj.

Gordon discovered a trove of letters in the home of an elderly aunt, whose deceased husband had been one of the last of a long family line of English naval officers. Many of the letters, some arriving overseas to Hampshire, some in the familiar crosshatched style, were contemporaneous with Jane Austen’s. In fact, one letter, given by the aunt to the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, was from Captain Francis Austen to his daughter Mary-Jane. Captain George Purvis, R. N., married Mary-Jane Austen at the church in Chawton in 1827, and, as a result of this connection, several relics were presented to the Jane Austen Memorial Trust—Mary-Jane’s work table, miniatures of various Purvis relations, as well as a diamond-encircled miniature of Philadelphia Hancock, sister of George Austen. And, interestingly enough, a portrait previously thought to be a Purvis admiral was identified by a visiting Austen scholar, Jan Fergus, as Francis Austen. Let this collection represent connection # 1.

Most of Gordon’s history centers on the correspondence between John Child Purvis and his son Richard, one which is similar to George Austen’s with Francis when he was a young midshipman—connection #2. However, Gordon states that these letters are more revealing than Jane Austen’s because “Cassandra Austen, who burned, or cut pieces out of, the greater part of her sister Jane’s letters after her death” concealed some aspects of her life. Gordon, on the other hand, felt that Richard Purvis’ life “was quite sufficiently worthy to be judged on a ‘warts and all’ basis.”

Although the author focuses mostly on the career of Richard Purvis, the reader glimpses 200 years of British naval family history. When his mother died, his father put eleven-year-old Richard aboard the man-of-war London as a Captain’s Servant. Five years earlier, Francis Austen had been a first lieutenant on the same vessel—connection #3. A year later, Richard attended the royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth, where the Austen brothers went, beginning in 1786. They remained in the navy all their lives. Although his father eventually became Admiral of the Blue and two brothers made careers in the navy as a captain and vice admiral, Richard disliked the Academy intensely and was convinced that he wanted to join the East India Company as a Military Cadet.

Connection #4 involves Richard Purvis’ fourteen-year stay in India. The Austens had been familiar with the subcontinent since Philadelphia Austen went there to marry a surgeon named Hancock. Many historians believe she was involved with the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, and it was their child, Eliza, who married Henry Austen. Hastings was responsible for patronage given to several Purvis friends, but Purvis, unfortunately, did not benefit. Both he and Henry Austen were disappointed by another governor-general of India, Lord Moira, whose debts were largely responsible for the closing of Henry’s bank. Richard Purvis, although he commanded a Grenadier Company of Native Infantry at age 17, was overlooked by Moira. Purvis’ increasing frustration led to his return to England in 1817, where he, like Henry Austen, became an ordained priest and settled in a Hampshire parish—connection #5.

Gordon hopes the inclusion of letters by Georgina Purvis (Mary-Jane Austen’s sister-in-law and one-time love interest of her cousin Richard) might add “irresistible…Austenesque charm.” In 1846, Richard Purvis’ son wrote home about joining Admiral Francis Austen at his Bermuda home and George Maitland Purvis joined his grandfather Austen on the Vindictive—connection #6. A relationship that had started when Jane Austen was a girl continued into the late 19th Century when “John and Francis Purvis, both grandsons of sailing Admirals…[became] steam Admirals themselves.”

If we are so inclined, Soldier of the Raj is a good place to play the Jane Austen Game. Admittedly, difficulties exist with the florid, lengthy passages in Purvis’ letters, and Gordon concedes that they are “for those few enthusiasts who delight in the verbal construction of the period.” Although Gordon compares some letters to Austen’s, they are in no way as succinct, clever, and entertaining. Still, if we hurry through a few long sections of stilted prose, we can find some little-known, yet intriguing, connections with the Austen family.

Barbara Wenner is Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.  She writes and teaches about Jane Austen and is currently completing a book on Jane Austen and landscape.

JASNA News v.18, no. 3, Winter 2002, p. 19

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