Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                             Pages 7-12

The Still Unknown Lover

Department of English, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721

In an article entitled “The Unknown Lover” (Persuasions, no. 9, pp. 37-40), Constance Pilgrim offers new evidence intended to support her thesis in Dear Jane (London, 1971) – that Jane Austen met William Wordsworth’s sailor brother, John, in Devon, while John’s ship was delayed by contrary winds, and that John Wordsworth was the mysterious lover mentioned in several accounts originating with Jane’s sister Cassandra.

Dear Jane appears to have attracted little notice among students either of Jane Austen or the Wordsworth circle, probably because the event it speculates about left no clear trace in Jane Austen’s biographical records and none at all in John Wordsworth’s.  It is an ingenious book, bent on examining all evidence which might establish any possible links between Jane and John – a task which could be undertaken more easily because one of several gaps in Jane’s letters occurs during the key year 1797 and with two exceptions John Wordsworth’s surviving letters do not begin until 1800. (See Carl H. Ketcham, ed., The Letters of John Wordsworth, Cornell University Press, 1969, hereafter cited as JWL.)  Constance Pilgrim is thus left to provide negative proofs – to establish that it was not impossible that Jane and John might have met at various times and places, beginning in Devon in 1797, and that John might have been the lover described by Cassandra as having shown a great interest in Jane and expressed a desire to see her again, a fulfillment thwarted by his early death.  (Constance Pilgrim speculates also on a second thwarting: not only was Anne Lefroy, who in real life rescued her nephew Tom from Jane’s charms, guilty, in her fictional embodiment as Lady Russell, of having persuaded Anne Elliot to abandon Captain Wentworth; she was also, according to Dear Jane [pp. 44-46] responsible for temporarily separating Jane and John.)

It is difficult to refute the bare possibility of an affair that occupies gaps in our records, so that no alternative course of events is available for either party.  Such evidence as Dear Jane does introduce is therefore, taken cumulatively, perhaps somewhat more persuasive than it would be either in the face of a clear contradiction (which is not available) or in the light of a careful consideration of the likelihood of each of Constance Pilgrim’s suggestions, taken one by one.

Dear Jane necessarily relies heavily on the obviously risky technique of finding supposed biographical data in Jane Austen’s novels, as well as in otherwise unexplained occurrences in her life and letters or in John Wordsworth’s.   Constance Pilgrim, like Jane’s biographer Francis Warre Cornish, offers as a touchstone her sense that certain passages in Persuasion seem to be more intensely felt than others, hence may reflect biographical experiences.   Not surprisingly, these scenes, according to Dear Jane, centre around Captain Wentworth, whose name and title are perhaps the nearest Constance Pilgrim comes to finding support for her theory.   (The name Wentworth did, however, belong also to an accused highwayman who was active during Jane’s girlhood: see the article by Edith Lank elsewhere in this issue of Persuasions.)   The debonair, impulsive Captain Wentworth was totally unlike the shy, bookish, though efficient John Wordsworth, but never mind: as in Freud’s dream work, the hidden facts of John’s character and personality have been slipped into Persuasion in the person of Captain Benwick (Dear Jane, pp. 104-07).   There is no need to comment on the convenience of selecting from an author’s whole output the particular points which seem to match the givens of one’s subject (in this case the known facts about John Wordsworth) while ignoring both the irrelevant or contradictory aspects of a character and the necessities of the novel in which he appears: Captain Benwick’s impressionable, romantic, weak personality is needed in Persuasion both to make Anne shine by contrast and to relieve Captain Wentworth of the Musgrove sisters by making possible Benwick’s emotional desertion of his lost love in favour of Louisa Musgrove.  (This is, of course, to say nothing of the discredit done to Jane Austen’s ability to create intense crises in fiction without having lived through them.)

Dear Jane, then, must be read very cautiously, with an eye to possible alternative explanations and a clear awareness of probabilities.   Did Jane really refuse Harris Bigg-Wither after accepting him because she happened to have found and misunderstood William Wordsworth’s wedding announcement in a York paper, then discovered the real facts in a back file of the Morning Post just after Bigg-Wither’s proposal?   Did she really choose the name Wasp for Captain Wentworth’s sloop because the stream in the Waspe valley was called Gavenne in Old French and thus resembles the name of the stream from which John Wordsworth’s ship was (ultimately) named (Dear Jane, p. 127)?   Was supposed inside information concerning William Wordsworth’s uncertainties about entering the Church a likely contribution to the portrait of the scoundrelly Wickham (Dear Jane, pp. 133-36)?   What about the considerable evidence (see JWL, pp. 24-26) that John had at least a warm sentimental attachment to Mary Hutchinson, the woman whom William Wordsworth later married, just when the John-Jane affair was supposed to be at its height after his return from Calcutta in 1800 (Constance Pilgrim [Dear Jane, pp. 49-51] envisions Mary suggesting to John how to approach Jane); or that Jane, instead of entering an artistic decline in 1797, was at work on First Impressions during the time when she and John were supposed to be meeting, and continued to write at least into the following year; or what about Louisa Lefroy’s precise description of the love affair in Devon as having taken place at Sidmouth in 1801, and involving not John Wordsworth (who was drowned in 1805) but a clergyman who died shortly after the romance?   These are a few examples of questions that need to be asked about Constance Pilgrim’s book, especially since she has been intriguingly thorough in her pursuit of speculative possibilities.   The present article, however, is not the place for an exhaustive study of Dear Jane.  Instead, I should like to respond to the points raised in “The Unknown Lover.”

Constance Pilgrim’s article establishes that (1) John Wordsworth was known to Charles William Johnson, a young man who travelled to Calcutta on the Duke of Montrose when John was second mate, and whose life was reportedly saved by John’s quelling of a mutiny; (2) Jane Austen was a friend of Charles William Johnson’s aunt, Mary Johnson Furse (or possibly, on the basis of the evidence, of Johnson’s mother); (3) William Johnson Cory, Charles William Johnson’s son (and, through his father’s marriage to a cousin, the grandson of Mary Johnson Furse) recorded the above facts and added, perhaps on the basis of information from his grandmother, that Captain Wentworth was Jane’s lost lover.  His record is found in The Letters and Journals of William Johnson Cory, author of “Ionica” (London, 1897), edited by Cory’s friend Francis Warre Cornish, who later, as noted above, wrote a life of Jane Austen (English Men of Letters series, 1914).

Cory, then, does at least mention the names of Jane and John in the same book; and on this basis Constance Pilgrim speculates as to how his remarks might lend support to the idea that Jane and John met in Devon while John’s ship was delayed there by contrary winds.  In Dear Jane (p. 37), the scenario had been that John went to visit his brother William during the latter’s brief return to Racedown in July, and perhaps met Jane while he was passing through Lyme.   Now there is a new scenario: John rescued Charles Johnson from the mutineers before the Duke of Montrose reached Tor Bay; Mary Furse and her friend Jane took advantage of the ship’s long delay to visit Mary’s nephew, who of course introduced them to the mate who had saved his life – and during the subsequent weeks when John was at leisure he and Jane fell in love.

William Johnson Cory is clearly a sound witness when he mentions his grandmother’s friendship with Jane and when he identifies John Wordsworth as the mate of the Duke of Montrose and goes on to speak of him as “the Wordsworth of the Daisy,” with reference, of course, to William Wordsworth’s elegiac poem To the Daisy (“Sweet Flower! belike one day to have / A place upon thy Poet’s grave”), first published in 1815.   It is only when we examine Cory’s statements in their context that they lose some of their interest for Austen or Wordsworth fans.   First of all, we do not know when or how well Cory’s grandmother knew Jane Austen: Cory says only that Jane “was a real lady (my grandmother knew her).”  Mary Furse (or the other grandmother) cannot be shown to have known anything about Jane’s love life; if she did know that there was a lover and that he was not only a naval captain but specifically John Wordsworth, why didn’t she say so – and if she did say so, why didn’t her grandson in his chatty letters mention the fact when he was talking about Captain Wentworth as Jane’s “own lost lover” (p. 545, to A. D. Coleridge, July 22, 1889), or about John Wordsworth himself (p. 551, to F. Warre Cornish, February 2, 1890)?

The two passages cited are quite unrelated to each other except that both happen to deal with popular impressions of the character and activities of ships’ officers.  The letter to Coleridge, by all odds the more interesting to investigators of the Lost Lover and John Wordsworth theories, begins, “Of course your friend looks at Nelson as he appears in Mrs. Tench’s Journal, drunk, vain, &c.” and, after giving some evidence in favour of Nelson’s considerateness and “imaginative affection” for his officers, concludes by saying, “No man should presume to write of those days without first sweetening his idea of the sea-captain in a careful perusal of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.   Her Wentworth is her own lost lover, and a sweet knight of the quarter-deck.”

Cory, then, had heard of the lover, and believed that he entered into Jane’s portrait of an eight-years-lost (but ultimately surviving) sea-captain, a rank which John eventually held (though not, of course, in the navy).   Even here, a careful analysis might point out that Cory’s emphasis in the passage where he identifies Wentworth as the lover is the sweet knightliness of the fictional character, a character who can sweeten the reader’s idea of sea-captains generally.  Given this context, Jane’s love for Wentworth’s original seems to have been introduced partly, or mainly, because it suggests a reason for her portraying Wentworth as sweet and knightly.  As to the reality of the lover’s naval captaincy, we cannot tell how much Cory knew about that; it may have been as fictional as Louisa Musgrove, and certainly Jane’s naval-captain brothers could have provided her with plenty of data on naval captains, if not (to proceed for a moment with free speculation) with a lonely brother officer.

Indeed Cory, as Dear Jane indicates, was not the first to appear in print with the identification of Jane as Anne Elliot, nor to associate her (if that was his intention) with a real naval officer. James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen, first published in 1870, summed up, rather vaguely, the stories of a lost lover originating with Cassandra Austen, and noted the recollection of a Mrs. Barrett that “Anne Elliot was herself [Jane]; her enthusiasm for the navy, and her perfect unselfishness, reflect her completely” (Dear Jane, p. 19).  And in 1886 the poet Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, whom Cory mentions (p. 562) as having been “kind to me,” published his Reminiscences and Opinions, 1813-1885, in which he tells a dramatic tale about a young naval officer who met Jane in Switzerland, began a mutual love affair, promised to meet her at Chamonix, but died of brain fever on the way.   These accounts were available to Cory as well as whatever his grandmother may have told him; and it should be noted that all of them could have been derived either from Cassandra’s various tellings of the lost-lover story or from Persuasion, given the natural tendency to hear an autobiographical ring in it.  Cory’s testimony is interesting, but not necessarily a source of new information.

John Wordsworth himself, as he appears in the second passage from Cory, is by no means a “sweet knight” but a “dour carle who quelled a mutiny, and saved my father’s life thereby.”  Here the context is Cory’s wish to “get some ‘humane’ reminiscences” of John Keate, whose reputation for flogging during his years as headmaster of Eton was legendary.<   One approach that Cory suggested was to “point out how our good grandsires were forced to do honour to ferocity, because of the [naval] mutinies.”  There follows a list of sea-captains who “for some eight or ten years” “were tempted into terrible fierceness.”  Amidst several references apparently taken from naval histories, Cory draws briefly on his own family’s experience to mention the mate John Wordsworth’s quelling of the mutiny.  The description “dour carle” (possibly an echo of Keats’ “melancholy carle” in his lying “Character of Charles Brown”), though hardly descriptive of John Wordsworth as his family and friends remembered him, might fit him well enough in his capacity as disciplinarian, the only role in which Cory’s father knew him.  (At one point, infuriated by the cutting of some trees near his favourite walk in Grasmere, John growled, “I wish I had the monster that cut them down in my ship & I would give him a tight flogging” [JWL, p. 104].   The description, however, lends no support to any identification with the “sweet knight” Captain Wentworth as described in the earlier letter.

The log, or journal, of the Duke of Montrose during John Wordsworth’s voyage as second mate is preserved in the India Office records.   It is not much help in establishing John’s exact whereabouts on a day-to-day basis, but such evidence as it does afford tends to run somewhat counter to the particulars of the 1797 meeting as imagined by Constance Pilgrim.

First, the matter of the mutiny. There is no doubt that the crew of the Duke of Montrose shared at one point the rebellious spirit of the times (John was obliged to quell an incipient mutiny as captain of his own ship in 1803), and it is interesting to find that, perhaps   together with the other petty officers, John also played a significant role in quelling an uprising on the voyage to Calcutta.   However, as the ship’s journal records, there were two sets of rebellious activities on board the Duke of Montrose.   The first appears to have been a mere protest, only technically a mutiny.   Alarmed by reports of a serious leak in the vessel, the crew, “soberly and in a decent deportment,” refused to weigh anchor at the start of the voyage at Portsmouth until the leak was stopped.   Refusal of duty was a serious matter, but there is no indication that anybody’s life was endangered by it, even when the passengers tried in vain to help get the ship underway.  Two groups of ten seamen each, the second described as “refractory,” were sent ashore (a mild enough safeguard, hardly a fit punishment for mutiny); but the rest of the crew seem to have listened to and been satisfied by the Company surveyor’s report that the leak was only a little over an inch an hour, and the voyage proceeded uneventfully, with the crew routinely performing their daily tasks, after some new and, as it turned out, dangerous hands were shipped at Portsmouth.  Not long afterward came the long delay at Tor Bay caused by contrary winds, a circumstance which I should like to discuss a little later.

The Duke of Montrose left Tor Bay on September 22, 1797, and it appears from the journal that not until a month after she sailed did a really dangerous mutiny erupt.  At 7 a.m. on October 29, “Jno. Stevens seaman” was given six lashes on the breech “for neglect of duty in the Main Top, & not answering when the Top was haild & other instances of insolence, such conduct having become frequent with him.”  Stevens’ insolence had apparently become widespread: an hour later two other crewmen were punished “for mutinous conduct and inflammatory expressions.”  These overt rebellions brought to the surface a problem which had been developing for some time.  On October 31, the journal records:   “Finding a spirit of disaffection & Mutiny to have prevailed for some days amongst several of the People who were shipped at Portsmo[,] that flogging rather encreased the number of the Party[,] that the Petty Officers were become in constant dread of Assassination in the Night & reflecting that a number of Men in Irons is not only a Nuisance but a source of irritation & Disturbance – It was judged proper in a consultation of the Commander & Officers to separate the Ringleaders & accordingly with the approbation of Capt. Carruthers the Senior Comre who has Kings Troops on board, sent three….on board of his Ship.   In the Consultation of the Comre & Officers it was also determined to punish the above before they were turned out of the ship; but to this Capt. Carruthers objected – ”

Almost certainly this was the mutiny that threatened the lives of the passengers on board the Duke of Montrose, as it had threatened the lives of the mates, and that was quelled by the mates’ discipline, both in the concerted action recorded in the journal and, probably, in other unrecorded actions in response to the crew’s defiance.   John Wordsworth may have stood out somehow in Johnson’s memory as active in repressing the revolt; he probably would not, in 1797, have commanded attention as the brother of the author of An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. But Constance Pilgrim’s theory that Jane was introduced to John in Devon because he had saved the nephew of her friend Mary Furse (the friend whom Jane might or might not have met again in the summer of 1797) does not seem to fit the facts: the mutiny in question did not take place until the ship had left Devon for Calcutta.

Finally, even if we knew that Jane was available to meet John in the way imagined (and we have not a scrap of evidence for such a meeting) there is no indication that John had leisure to conduct a love affair during the weeks of delay in Tor Bay.   In Dear Jane, p. 35, Constance Pilgrim speaks of “eight weeks of enforced idleness,” during which John might have been given leave to visit his brother.  This is an understandable misconception: her source (JWL, p. 18) states that the East India Fleet “waited” during the unfavourable winds, but the journal of the Duke of Montrose (on which the account in JWL is based) makes clear that the wait was a period of more or less constant activity, with the ships’ crews kept busy with routine tasks (among other pieces of make-work, they were always washing the gun deck), while keeping in readiness for a fair wind if it came.  (On September 10 the wind shifted to the east and “The Commodore made the signal to remove,” but a heavy contrary swell sent the fleet back to anchor.)  It was also necessary to wait for a warship to be ready to sail with the fleet as convoy; on August 21 and again on September 3, John Wordsworth was sent on board H.M.S. Polyphemus, which had signalled for convoy to the westward, and received sailing instructions.  (They came to nothing, however, and the fleet finally left under convoy from the Indefatigable.)  Meanwhile there had naturally been visiting between the ships of the fleet, and presumably some brief chances to go ashore or receive shore visitors, but all such activities seem to have been restricted by the chance that the winds might suddenly become favourable, which, as the journals show, they failed to do day by day.  On Friday, August 11, “Comre made the signal for all persons to repair on board their respective ships” – a clear indication that no one had gone far away.  Altogether, it appears that if John did any courting during this period, it was done in spite of an apparently full schedule of routine duties.

Jane, then, evidently did not meet John that summer in Devon, certainly not because he had saved her friend’s relative.   That she met him at all remains, at best, a supposition on which to exercise entertaining speculation, and one that obviously lacks substance compared to her known relationships with Tom Lefroy, Edward Bridges, Samuel Blackall, and Harris Bigg-Wither, or perhaps even with the mysterious clergyman at Sidmouth.  The unknown lover must, despite Constance Pilgrim’s ingenuity and her new sources, rest in the category of the unknown.  

Back to Persuasions  #11 Table of Contents

Return to Home Page