Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park was published 200 years ago, in May 1814. It contains a good deal about the Royal Navy, as does Persuasion, which was published soon after her death. Roy and Lesley Adkins are authors of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England and Jack Tar, and here they consider why Jane Austen knew so much about the navy and whether she was ever tempted to run away to sea.
For much of Jane Austen’s lifetime (1775–1817), Britain was at war with France, the United States, or both. These conflicts hardly show up in her novels, although many of her characters are military officers, mostly very likeable naval officers. She knew a great deal about sailors: two of her brothers, Francis and Charles, joined the navy and she took a keen interest in their careers. Not only did she learn a great deal from them (her letters show that she asked them detailed questions), but they introduced her to their naval friends. She would also have met naval officers at assemblies, balls and other social events, and all this fed her imagination. As they strolled through the streets of perhaps Bath or Southampton, did she and her sister Cassandra fantasise about what it would be like to run away and join the navy? And what would Jane have found if she had gone to sea?
Women were not unknown in navy ships, and most large warships had a few on board. Their presence was against navy regulations, so like good followers of Nelson, captains generally turned a blind eye. Wives of officers were treated as passengers and sometimes given extra cabin space. Jane Austen’s brother Charles married his first wife Fanny in Bermuda in 1808, and three years later, when he was captain of the frigate Cleopatra, his wife and two children accompanied him across the Atlantic to Britain. The Cleopatra was a small ship, less than 130 feet long, so whatever arrangements were made, conditions on board must have been very cramped indeed.
Even this was luxury compared to what the partners of lower-deck seamen had to put up with, because they shared their men’s food rations and living space. Each seaman had an allotted hammock space just 14 inches (36 cm) wide – cramped enough without sharing it. As one sailor commented about the hordes of prostitutes who invaded the ship when in port, “they are not very particular about the convenience of sleeping in private, as that is impossible to find among so many men”. At sea, women sharing their husband’s hammocks gave rise to the saying “show a leg”. When the petty officers roused up the next watch from their hammocks, they were sometimes unsure of an occupant and demanded that they show a leg. If it was a female leg, the woman was left alone, but a seaman trying to get some extra sleeping time had his hammock cut down and would fall on the deck.
What if Jane Austen had decided to run away to sea and join the navy, perhaps as a romantic teenager or desperate for adventure? Several women did just that, disguising themselves as men, and their exploits became the theme of popular songs. Authenticated accounts were also published, sometimes embellished to appear more sensational. It was easier for girls or young women to pretend to be boys and enlist as a servant or cabin boy, as happened on board the Nisus frigate in June 1810. Two days after leaving Plymouth in Devon, the captain recorded: “Before sailing I wanted a lad as an under servant, and my steward, George, recommended me one. Last night this youth was discovered to be a buxom girl, dressed in boy’s clothes … I shall send her home by the first opportunity.”
Plymouth has a long maritime history. The town found wealth and national strategic importance during the establishment of British naval dominance in the colonisation of the New World.
All the women faced the same daily hardships as the men. Fresh water, for example, was stored in casks and was so precious that it was reserved for drinking and cooking, with sea water used for other purposes. Sailors therefore did little washing of clothes or themselves. In any case, the water in the casks was “fresh” in name only, as one seaman found with casks filled in the Thames at London: “I thought, how could a person drink such filthy water. Streaks of green, yellow, and red muddy water, mixed up with the filth of a great portion of the city of London.” The answer, of course, was that sailors avoided drinking water as much as possible, preferring beer, wine or grog – rum mixed with water, often with lemon or lime juice added.
The food was hardly better because the basic diet revolved around hard ship’s biscuits and beef or pork that had been salted down in casks to preserve it. Against regulations, some seamen tied pieces of meat to cords and dropped them into the sea to try to reduce the saltiness.The meat also tended to be old and hard, and the ship’s biscuit was no better, being prone to infestation by insects, as one midshipman recalled:
“The biscuit that was served to the ship’s company was so light, that when you tapped it upon the table, it fell almost to dust, and thereout numerous insects, called weevils, crawled; they were bitter to the taste … if, instead of these weevils, large white maggots with black heads made their appearance, then the biscuit was considered to be only in its first state of decay; these maggots were fat and cold to the taste, but not bitter.”
Whenever possible, sailors purchased fresh food to supplement their rations, and if all else failed, there was always fresh meat in the form of rats. One officer recalled an incident on board HMS Brunswick in 1802:
“Our ship was full of rats, and one morning he (Lieutenant Field) caught four which he had baked in a pie with some pork chops. When it came to table he began greedily to eat, saying ‘What a treat! I shall dine like an alderman.’ One of our lieutenants (Geo. M. Bligh) got up from the table and threw his dinner up, which made Field say, ‘I shall not offend such delicate stomachs and shall finish my repast in my cabin,’ which he did and we wished the devil would choke him. When he had finished, he said one of the rats was not exactly to his taste as the flesh was black; but whether from a bruise or from disease, he could not say, but he should be more particular in future in the post mortem examination.”
Toilet facilities were rudimentary, and a large warship like the Victory had only six toilets (“heads”) for over 700 seamen, though the officers had better facilities. The heads comprised just two rows of three seats with holes giving a clear drop to the sea. They were situated right in the bows of the ship with no shelter or privacy, and in very bad weather they were too dangerous to use.
If daily life was unpleasant, a battle was terrifying. During the fighting women served as powder monkeys, carrying gunpowder cartridges to the cannons, or else they helped the surgeon. At short range even small cannons were capable of punching a hole through the side of a ship with a cannonball, so nowhere was safe, not even below decks where the surgeon operated. During the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, one surgeon recalled that “a shot at this time came into the cockpit and passed the operating table, close”. He added that this “startled all the women who formed the chief of my assistance”.
Life at sea in the navy was so bad that nowhere near enough men could be recruited to serve, and many were forcibly conscripted by press-gangs. It is therefore hard to understand why any women ventured to sea at all. In reality, a hard life afloat was preferable to an even harder life ashore. This was particularly true of sailors’ wives, because the men were paid irregularly, at least six months in arrears. Those women left behind were frequently short of money and often so desperate that they went into the workhouse or turned to prostitution.
Apart from necessity, a few women (and men) went to sea because they had romantic notions – often soon shattered – about what life in the navy was like. As the unmarried daughter of a well-off rector, who had brothers who could be relied on to save her from the workhouse (and naval brothers, too, who told her what shipboard life was really like), it is doubtful if Jane Austen was really ever tempted to run away to sea! But you never know…