Books · Witterings

Persuasion and the Navy

When I was undertaking my history degree, I recall being referred to the works of Austen in relation to the presence of the Navy. My dissertation was on the Dockyard workers of the eighteenth century and with obvious reference to the naval ships that they built and those who served upon them. I took a quote out of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, but I still admit to having never read the whole novel, and will have to rectify this.

Some years later, I find myself not as a dockyard worker but as a contractor working for the Royal Navy and it was with some amusement when I came to the passages in the Persuasion that I thought so much has changed but oh how so much has not.  The Navy of Austen’s time worked on a seemingly different principle to the one of today, when it seems when at war the Navy were making their fortune when not at war they were making very little but living off their spoils and going about the business of finding a wife.   Captain Wentworth was considered not worthy of Anne because he had not made his fortune, upon his return some 7 years later it seems he suddenly is more of a better looking prospect.

The position in society of Naval officers in Persuasion is an important one. Upon looking for tenants for his house Sir Walter, is given the idea that

“they will all be wanting a home. Could not be a better time, Sir Walter, for having a choice of tenants, very responsible tenants. Many a noble fortune has been made during the war. If a rich admiral were to come our way…”

Oh how things are different today, the officers of today (from my experience)have no compunction in jumping up and down on beds and breaking them, removing door spyholes, handles, being ill (I will leave this to imagination) on their sheets and hiding them in drawers and in some cases living a general squalor. I think Sir Walter would certainly not want them as tenants today.

“I have known a good deal of the profession;and besides their liberality, they are so neat and careful in all their ways!These valuable pictures of yours, Sir Walter, if you chose to leave them, would be perfectly safe.”

I am reminded here of a picture of Lord Mountbatten who after one such night developed a rather black moustache. The culprits were never caught, the story goes down in history for those that work there.

The adage, work hard, play hard can probably be applied and some might think I am being a trifle unfair, but I think basic manners and respect of property our things that are a given should not be reminded of.

“Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow”

Anne Elliott is a great supporter of the Navy, very early on in the book or is it her overwhelming desire to be reminded of Captain Wentworth that makes her so?

Anne’s father, Sir Walter has differing views about the Navy and would hate to see anyone he was close to and certainly not a male family member called into such a profession.

“…two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their father and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life.”

I think Sir Walter has seen a rise through the ranks, as a bad influence of those of a more upper class upbringing. There are a lot of officers who come straight in as such, after going through university and do not perhaps have the wise or not so wise experience from those who have come up from an ordinary able seaman. Then again, there are those who have risen who have a chip on both shoulders because they have risen from nothing. It is a very fine line to find an officer nowadays who has perhaps the same morals and principles of those of Austen’s time. Though I am sure they exist.

The fascination for all things naval, still exist today with documentaries of the fly on the wall variety and a rather weak and cancelled tv drama series from a few years ago In Persuasion it is the fascination of the “two Miss Musgroves” in all things naval.

“There was a very general ignorance of all naval matters throughout the party; and he was very much questioned, and especially by the two Miss Musgroves, who seemed hardly to have any eyes but for him, as to the manner of living on board, daily regulations, food, hours &c.,”

That is what seems people want to know about it, they know they have a purpose but it is how they ‘live’ that seems to fascinate and I can say it still interests me as I have seen changes as well. For those who are classed as ‘living on board’ whilst ashore i.e. not on a ship were charged a daily rate of food regardless of whether they ate it or not. Now they have some called ‘Pay as you Dine’ and it does what it says on the tin – pay for what you eat. But there are restrictions, if you want an extra sausage or bacon at breakfast then you will have to pay for each individual item. “Dining Rooms are being turned into motorway caffs” is a moan comment I hear often. Strangely enough it was the Navy that wanted to do this after many trials decided it would work – therefore do not blame the contractor look to those who you work with; they made the decision. And yes you will still have to pay 50 pence if you want a piece of fruit with your breakfast!

As the Navy of today, starts to cut back through its strategic defence and security review, this Friday sees many people rethink a career in the Navy as their redundancies are issued. Would such a thing have happened in Austen’s time and would Captain Wentworth still have been a good or bad prospect for Anne Elliott. I would like to think, that she would have chosen him, and her family would have to accept her choice, a choice that would make her happy in her life.

1995 Film Adaptation (Amanda Root as Anne, Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth)
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7 thoughts on “Persuasion and the Navy

  1. I didn’t know there was going to be redundancies in the Navy this week. It’s certainly a tough time all round.

    I enjoyed reading this post, it was very well thought out 🙂

  2. It was the same when Thatcher was in power, lots of redundancies in the Navy and Army. I was brought up near naval bases on the west coast of Scotland and there was a lot ungentlemanly behaviour in the shape of bed-hopping going on. The wives often waved off their bloke and welcomed in another sailor on the same day. Info from a submariner’s wife!

  3. Hi, very interesting post on the Navy. I presume Austen’s knowledge of the Navy came from her brothers. Even the ‘happy ending’ of Persuasion is tempered by the constant awareness of danger that is the lot of a sailor’s wife.

  4. Thank you for this fascinating post, Jo. What an interesting viewpoint you have been able to bring – it’s funny how perceptions of vocations can change and what assumptions people can have about the navy, army etc. It seems to me from my reading of Austen that soldiers were the rakes and sailors the respectable ones – I don’t think that would be the case now!

    1. Thanks for popping by, Rachel. People do have assumptions about the armed forces, but I think there is some truth in what they say that has probably got very clouded over time.

  5. With no sector immune from the our current economic travails it is difficult to know which profession a modern day Jane Austen would give to Captain Wentworth. A couple of years ago she might have made him a hedge fund manager, but I would rather like to think that a modern Austen would have seen through the glamour that was, until recently, associated with financial alchemy.

    I recently wrote the following on Librarything in response to having read “Master and Commander” by Patrick O’Brien: “Next time I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I will have a clearer idea what working life was actually like for Captain Wentworth. Reading Austen one could be forgiven that the Navy simply existed to provide commissions for the sons of the upper middle classes and husbands for their daughters; reading O’Brian one is reminded of the realities of service life, not least the risk of serious injury.”

    Whilst she certainly doesn’t do battle scenes, one thing that re-reading Persuasion has shown me is that Austen has more to say about the Navy than I imagined. You have highlighted some of this in your interesting post.

    She has been criticised in some quarters for her novels failing to reflect more prominently that the nation about which she wrote was mostly at war for the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century. I would suggest, though, that wars which take place primarily overseas, and without recourse to conscription, inevitably have a less direct impact on the home nation. I’m sure there have been plenty of serious novels about Britain in the past ten years that make scarce, if any reference, to what has been going on involving our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Sorry for the late comment. I’ve been under the weather for a couple of weeks and I am only now catching up with online debates.

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