18 May 2023

In this blog we explore some of Austen’s literary nautical themes, but also consider her actual maritime connection

by Sophie Warburton, Archive Assistant

Readers of the novels of Jane Austen will be familiar with her naval references, but less well known is that two of her brothers served and became admirals in the Royal Navy. In this blog we explore some of Austen’s literary nautical themes, but also consider her actual maritime connections and the naval careers of her brothers which helped shape the background to two of her best-loved novels.

Mansfield Park

In Mansfield Park (Austen’s third published novel), the heroine Fanny Price is the eldest daughter in an impoverished naval family struggling on half pay in Portsmouth, the Navy’s largest and most important base.

Portsmouth Point by Thomas Rowlandson 1811
Portsmouth Point, Thomas Rowlandson, 1811 (RMG ID: PAF3841)

Fanny is adopted by her rich relatives and transported to the opulent surrounding of Mansfield Park.

We learn about Fanny’s beloved brother William’s naval career. We experience her anxiety about having a relation away at sea for years on end and William’s frustration at failing to advance from midshipman through lack of connections after seven years of service.

We are introduced to Mary Crawford who, through her admiral uncle, is accustomed to social moving among the highest (although possibly not the most moral) ranks of the Navy, with 'their bickerings and jealousies… Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough” (1).

When William visits Mansfield, his tales of voyages around the Mediterranean and the then West Indies enthral everyone. Through connections, strings are pulled to finally promote William to lieutenant, leaving Fanny under obligation to an unwanted suitor, Mary Crawford’s brother, Henry. 

Accompanied by a jubilant William, Fanny returns to Portsmouth in disgrace for refusing Crawford. When the latter visits Fanny and her family to renew his wooing, he is caught up in the excitement and pride of the naval dockyard, which he has visited ‘again and again’ (2). We share Fanny’s anguish at premature separation from William as he rushes off to join his ship, the Thrush, at Spithead.

The Nymph Frigate passing the Round Tower on Portsmouth Point
The Nymph Frigate passing the Round Tower on Portsmouth Point, on her leaving the Harbour; with a view of Spithead, and St Helen's at a distance, Bowles & Carver, 1800 (RMG ID: PAD5998)

We hear on the last page of the novel of William’s ‘continued good conduct and rising fame’ (3).


Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel, published posthumously in 1817. It is set in 1814 at the (temporary) cessation of the French wars and where sailors form a distinct social group. Austen explores how 'this peace will be turning all our rich Navy Officers ashore. They will be wanting a home… Many a noble fortune has been made during the war' (4).

Some consider these maritime returnees as an attractive marriage prospect but others, such as Sir Walter Elliot, view the Navy negatively as 'the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dream of' (5). He also objects to the effect such a life has on sailors’ appearances; 'they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen' (6).

Captain Frederick Wentworth had initially come to Somersetshire in 1806, having been made a commander following the Battle of San Domingo.

Duckworth's Action off San Domingo, 6 February 1806
Duckworth's Action off San Domingo, 6 February 1806, Nicholas Pocock, 1808 (RMG ID: BHC0571)

He fell in love with Sir Walter’s daughter, Anne. He proposed but she was persuaded against her own better judgement to refuse his offer due to his lack of both fortune and rank. Anne has since kept an eye on his career through the ‘navy lists and newspapers’ with their tales of ‘successive captures’ (7), and so is fully aware of his accumulated prize money. By the time he returns to England in 1813, he is a gentleman of fortune.       

The novel explores many maritime topics, some positive, and some less so. The first words Anne speaks are in defence of the Navy: 'The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow.' (8)

There is the issue of surviving on half pay when without a ship, which became an increasing problem and was widely discussed at the time, resulting in 1814 in a new peacetime pay scale. We are given insights into what effect a naval career can have both on those in service and those remaining at home. Mrs Croft has remained with her husband during their fifteen years of marriage, both at sea and at his stations abroad, and declares: 'I can safely say, that the happiest part of my life has been spent on a ship.' (9)

Captain Benwick was forced to put off marriage, 'waiting for fortune and promotion' (10), but by the time it came his fiancée had died. Admiral Croft comments, 'these are bad times for getting on', (11) and there is a subtle reminder of the possible dangers a Navy career entails, with the reference to Captain Harville’s lameness.

Whereas Louisa Musgrove and her sister ‘burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy… of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England’ (12), there is also their mother’s grief at the death of her midshipman son at sea. 

As Anne and Wentworth rediscover their love for one another and Anne herself becomes a naval wife, the novel closes with the narrative voice showing a strong bias towards the Navy:

'His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less, the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than its national importance.' (13)

Jane Austen’s maritime connections

For nearly all of Austen’s adult life, England was at war with France and two of her brothers enjoyed naval careers during this transformative period in British maritime history.  

Austen’s father, George, was a clergyman and it was traditional for younger sons of a cleric to enter the Navy. Austen was in constant correspondence with all of her family, including both naval brothers. When they were not away at sea, she paid extended visits to them and their families and, on these visits, she was introduced to their many naval acquaintances. She lived with her brother Francis and his wife in Southampton from 1806 to 1809. 

Sir Francis William Austen (1774 – 1865)

Sir Francis William Austen’s naval career spanned 79 years, first entering the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth in 1786.     

Three years later he set sail for the then East Indies. Jane’s brothers were both helped in their early careers by family connections. Their older brother James and their cousin (another Jane) both married into influential naval families. Rapidly promoted to midshipman within ten months and (unlike the frustrated William Price in Mansfield Park) gaining immediate commission, Francis was appointed lieutenant of an armed brig called the Dispatch in 1792. 

Use of a further family connection meant that in early 1805 Francis was posted by Nelson to the Canopus and accompanied the Victory across the Atlantic and back in search of combined French and Spanish fleets before joining the blockade of Cadiz.

HMS Canopus, Rudolph Ackermann, 1796
HMS Canopus, Rudolph Ackermann, 1796 (RMG ID: PAH0757)

Francis was then sent to Gibraltar to collect provisions, despite his pleas to remain and face the imminent engagement. Nelson assured him he would be back in time for the battle but this was not to be and so Francis was absent from the Battle of Trafalgar, which was of lifelong disappointment to him. He had no connections or leverage with Nelson’s replacement, Collingwood, and had to put off marriage, having missed out on prize money.

The following year, however, Francis did gain recognition at the Battle of San Domingo, still on the Canopus. He then remained almost continuously in active (albeit mundane) service until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, including escort duties to India, China and in the Baltic.

During the writing of Mansfield Park (1812-1814) Jane wrote to Francis for information about naval vessels and to request that she might use the names of the ships in which he (and his brother) had served. She mentions four ships in the novel with Austen connections - the Elephant, which Francis was commanding in the Baltic at the time, the Canopus, the Endymion, in which his brother Charles had served three times, and the Cleopatra, in which Charles had sailed home in 1811. 

Over the next three decades, Francis was regularly promoted but did not actually return to sea until 1844, at the age of 71, when his final posting was as Commander-in-Chief of the North America and West India Station. In 1848, he then came home to Portsmouth and continued to be promoted, finally becoming Admiral of the Fleet in 1863, two years before his death. Three of his sons entered the Navy.

Charles Austen (1779 – 1852)

Charles followed his brother into the Royal Naval Academy in 1791. His first commission was in his cousin’s ship, the Daedalus. In 1797, he was promoted to lieutenant for his part in the Battle of Camperdown.

A Representation of the Glorious Victory obtained by Admiral Duncan over the Dutch Fleet, 11 October.1797
A Representation of the Glorious Victory obtained by Admiral Duncan over the Dutch Fleet, Octr. 11th.1797, G. Thompson & J. Evans, 1797 (RMG ID: PAF4688)

He was then made commander in 1804 following a series of engagements including the capture of three men-of-war and two privateers. Charles then spent almost seven years patrolling the Eastern seaboard of North America before returning to England in 1811.

Following Napoleon’s escape from Elba, Charles was sent first to pursue a Neapolitan Squadron said to be in the Atlantic, then to aid the blockade of Brindisi and finally to suppress piracy off Greece. This all occurred before his ship, the Phoenix, was wrecked - fortunately without loss of life. Despite being cleared of any error or negligence, he then struggled to find another command and did not go back to sea for a decade, having to survive with his increasing family on half pay. He was then stationed in Jamaica, before an accident in 1830 forced him to return home for another eight years, prior to being promoted to rear admiral in 1846 for his contribution in the bombardment of Acre. In 1850, he was made Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies and China Station, where he led the capture of Rangoon in 1852, before dying in the line of duty of cholera. His two sons both entered the Navy. 

The Austens at Royal Museums Greenwich

Sadly, no notebooks or diaries of Jane Austen have survived, and most of her letters to various family members were destroyed by her relatives. However, we are fortunate enough to have in the Archive a considerable number of papers of both Francis and Charles. 

Francis’s papers (RMD ID: AUS/1-17) were presented as a gift to the National Maritime Museum by Captain Ernest Leigh Austen in 1930. They cover almost all his active service and include official logbooks, letter books, order books, and loose papers, which mainly comprise general remarks and notes.

Charles’s papers (RMG ID: AUS/101-163) contain a complete series of diaries that he kept between 1815 and 1852, which were deposited at the Museum as a private loan in 1962.

The Collection also has a pamphlet (RMG ID: PBP9787) produced by The Jane Austen Society (1949) to mark the formal opening of the novelist’s home to the public in Chawton, Hampshire. Jane moved to Chawton in 1809 from Southampton and lived there until just before her death in 1817.

For further information on this subject, we have the following titles within the Caird Library:

Jane Austen and the navy

Jane Austen's sailor brothers: being the adventures of Sir Francis Austen, GCB, Admiral of the Fleet, and Rear-Admiral Charles Austen

Jane and her gentlemen: Jane Austen and the men in her life and novels

Jane Austen's transatlantic sister: the life and letters of Fanny Palmer Austen /Sheila Johnson Kindred


Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008

  1. see page 48
  2. see page 316
  3. see page 371

Austen, Jane, Persuasion, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004

  1. see page 20
  2. see page 22
  3. see page 22
  4. see page 29
  5. see page 21
  6. see page 61
  7. see page 81
  8. see page 139
  9. see page 83
  10. see page 203 

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