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Austen and the Admiral: commemorating the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805.

Southey's Life of Nelson;--I am tired of Lives of Nelson, being that I never read any. I will read this however, if Frank is mentioned in it.

12 October 1813 letter to Cassandra Austen

JANE AUSTEN MUST HAVE READ, or at least skimmed, The Life of Nelson. Robert Southey was the Poet Laureate of England when she wrote this letter. She was already familiar with him as the nephew of the Rev. Herbert Hill who, in 1808, married her friend Catherine Bigg of Manydown Park. (Rev. Hill had paid for Southey's education at the Westminster School which expelled him for denouncing flogging.) Austen had previously read Southey. "We have got the 2d vol. of Espriella's Letters, & I read it aloud by candlelight. The Man describes well, but is horribly anti-english. He deserves to be the foreigner he assumes" (1 October 1808). Southey wrote Espriella's Letters as "[a]n account of English life, written in the guise of letters assigned to a fictitious Spanish traveller" (Letters 391). On 24 January 1817 Austen wrote to Alethea Bigg, "We have been reading the 'Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo', & generally with much approbation. Nothing will please all the world, you know; but parts of it suit me better than much that he has written before." It is very plausible that Austen includes The Life of Nelson in what Southey had written before.

Austen's letters are filled with information about her brothers in the Navy, Francis (Frank) and Charles, and references to their naval careers thread throughout the letters. A few months prior to her Lives of Nelson letter she had written to Frank, then in the Baltic as Captain of the Elephant (previously the flagship of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson in the victorious 1801 Battle of Copenhagen). She had "something in hand--which I hope on the credit of P. & P. will sell well, tho' not half so entertaining" (6 July 1813). She asks her brother's permission to mention the names of his ships in this work, later published as Mansfield Park. Austen does indeed mention the ships: the Elephant and the Canopus (in which Frank had served as a Captain under the command of Admiral Nelson), and two ships in which Charles served: the Endymion and the Cleopatra. On 24 January 1813 Austen was reading "an Essay on the Military Police & Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining." It is quite probable that, having perused Pasley's Essay, she would have given Southey's The Life of Nelson at least a glance later in the year, if only to look for a reference to Frank.

Austen would have read of Horatio Nelson, at age twelve, asking that a letter be written to his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling that he wished to go to sea. "'What,' said he in answer, 'has poor Horatio done, who is so weak, that he, above all the rest, should be sent to rough it out at sea?--But let him come, and the first time we go into action a cannon-ball may knock off his head, and provide for him at once'" (my italics; Southey 26). This is the sort of anecdote that might amuse Austen and endear Captain Suckling to her. In Persuasion Austen has Sir Walter Elliot enumerate his objections to men of the navy. He concludes with Admiral Baldwin as an example:

"Picture to yourselves my amazement: I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age." (my italics; 20)

Of course, this may be just a coincidence of phrasing, but it may also provide a clue that Austen did indeed peer into The Life of Nelson after all, just as she read Capt. Pasley's Essay, "protest[ing] against at first" but enjoying "upon trial."

A great deal was known about Admiral Horatio Nelson, not only as a result of the publication of Southey's and prior biographies, but through newspaper reports of his naval battles and his romantic entanglements. The Austen family had an even closer connection than the general public because of Francis Austen's naval service. Austen would have known that Nelson "was born on September 29, 1758 in the parsonage-house of Burnham-Thorpe, a village in the county of Norfolk, of which his father was rector" (Southey 25). The resemblance to the Austen family continues beyond having a clergyman father and a rather large number of siblings In both families the notable ancestors were on the maternal side. Sir Thomas Leigh, an ancestor of Austen's mother, born Cassandra Leigh, was Lord Mayor of London and led the procession of Elizabeth I to her coronation in 1559. It was the Rev. Thomas Leigh, Mrs. Austen's cousin, who took possession of Stoneleigh Abbey and with whom Jane, Cassandra, and their mother traveled to the Abbey in 1806.

Nelson's mother was born Catherine Suckling, of which family the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling (who coined the phrase "nick of time") was a member. Catherine Nelson's grandmother was the sister of Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of England. Nelson was named after Sir Robert's brother, Lord Horatio Walpole, as was Sir Robert's son, who changed his name to Horace Walpole (and coined the term "serendipity"). Horace Walpole's Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764 and started the Gothic novel trend satirized by Austen in Northanger Abbey.

Despite their maternal lineage, as the sons of clergymen Nelson and Austen's sailor brothers were considered to be from respectable, but undistinguished, backgrounds. Sir Walter Elliot objects to the navy '"as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of.... A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to....'" He gives an example of Lord St. Ives, "'whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St. Ives ...'" (19-20). One can imagine Sir Walter's disgust at the deference he was required to give. Austen puts this criticism into the mouth of a character considered a fool, thereby satirizing a prevalent attitude of pretension while at the same time showing that a curate's son might rise through the navy to a peerage (as did Nelson).

Persuasion begins in 1814. Anne Elliot tells Sir Walter that his prospective tenant Admiral Croft "'was in the Trafalgar action'" (21-22). No further explanation was needed. The Battle of Trafalgar bad taken place on 21 October 1805. It was considered England's finest naval victory: the culmination of an incredible trans-Atlantic naval chase and the end to years of fear of invasion by Napoleon and his military might. In December 1796 fifty warships with 50,000 soldiers had attempted an invasion from France via Bantry Bay in Ireland, but they were beaten back by violent storms. In April and May 1797 the Great Mutiny arose in the ships in the anchorages at Spithead off Portsmouth and at the Note in the Thames Estuary. But by October the British navy was once again in unity. At the Battle of Camperdown it defeated the Dutch navy on whom the French were relying to enable an invasion of southeastern England. Napoleon urged the Directory, then governing France, that it "must destroy the English monarchy, or expect itself to be destroyed by these intriguing and enterprising islanders.... Let us concentrate all our efforts on the navy and annihilate England.... That done, Europe is at our feet." A group of invaders landed at Fishguard in Wales. "Hordes of sightseers arrived, including hundreds of farm women wearing the traditional red shawls of Wales. From a distance they looked like Redcoats to the French" (Dugan 46). This attempt also failed and the invaders asked to return to France.

The threat continued in the ensuing years with an intermission during the Peace of Amiens between England and France (1802-03). At its end Napoleon began to build an invasion army. On December 2, 1804 he crowned himself Emperor. In 1805 he had amassed at Boulogne 175,000 troops, which he planned to transport across the Channel in 2,000 flatboats protected by the ships of the French navy (Horwarth 297). The English defenses were the militia, sea fencibles (a naval militia of local seamen), signal towers with beacons, and "telegraph" stations six or seven miles apart from the Admiralty office in London to Portsmouth and on to Plymouth. On the roof of each building was a 20-foot-high wood frame containing six shutters which would be opened and shut in various combinations. Viewed by telescopes these codes were relayed from one station to the next and decoded. Along the southern coast Martello towers were constructed with walls six to fifteen feet thick and guns on top. (James Joyce's Ulysses begins atop such a tower.)

The foremost defense, however, was the navy. The Channel Fleet blockaded the French ships at Brest in the northwest corner of France at the western end of the Channel. The North Sea Fleet protected the narrow east end of the Channel. All ports in which enemy ships were anchored were blockaded. Earl St. Vincent declared, "I do not say the French cannot come. I only say they cannot come by sea." The invasion threat was, nevertheless, alarming. In Dorset, home of Nelson's Flag Captain Thomas Hardy, a nursery song was sung:
 Baby, baby naughty baby,
 Hush, you squalling thing, I say;
 Hush your squalling, or it may be
 Bonaparte will pass this way.

 Baby, baby he's a giant.
 Tall and black as Rouen steeple;
 And he dines and sups, rely on't,
 Every day on naughty people.

 Baby, baby, he will hear you
 As he passes by the house.
 And he limb from limb will tear you,
 Just as pussy tears a mouse. (Howarth 285)

In August 1805 Jane Austen was in Kent, an area targeted by Napoleon for invasion. During a visit to the Bridges family of her brother Edward's wife Elizabeth, she mockingly refers to anti-invasion maneuvers. "Next week seems likely to be an unpleasant one to this family.... The evil intentions of the Guards are certain, and the gentlemen of the neighbourhood seem unwilling to come forward in any decided or early support of their rights. Edward Bridges has been trying to arouse their spirits, but without success" (30 August 1805). The First and Second Grenadier Guards were marching from Deal to Chatham, and the First Coldstreams and First Scots Guards were marching from Chatham to Deal. Partridge shooting season was starting in a few days. Edward Bridges was concerned that troop movements would disturb the birds, and some of the marchers might do a bit of poaching (Letters 384).

At the same time, Frank had just participated in one of the greatest of naval chases, under the command of Admiral Nelson, leading up to the Battle of Trafalgar. The year 1805 had begun with Jane Austen writing to Frank, Captain of the Leopard, two poignant letters on the death of their father as well as a letter that tells how "My mother has found among our dear Father's little personal property, a small astronomical Instrument which she hopes you will enjoy for his sake." She refers to "a Compass & Sun-dial" and "also a pair of Scissors" (29 January 1805). That same month he was made captain of the Canopus, an 80-gun ship of the line captured from the French at the Battle of the Nile on August 1, 1798, another of Nelson's naval victories. Frank had wanted a frigate, a smaller, faster ship better able to catch enemy ships, thereby earning prize money for its crew. Frank sought political influence. But Nelson wrote to Lord Moira, "You may rely upon every attention in my power to Captain Austen. I hope to see him alongside a French 80-gun ship, and he cannot be better placed than in the Canopus, which was once a French Admiral's Ship, and struck to me. Captain Austen I knew a little of before; he is an excellent young man" (Nicolas, Vol. vi, 310). On March 26, 1805 Nelson directed Rear Admiral Thomas Louis to hoist his flag in the Canopus.

Nelson was in command of the Mediterranean Fleet. Napoleon issued numerous, sometimes contradictory, invasion plans. The gist, however, was that the French fleet would break out of the blockades at the ports of Toulon in the Mediterranean, and at Brest and Rochefort on the west coast of France; the Spanish would break out of Ferrol and Cadiz on the Atlantic. They would meet in the West Indies and, as a Combined Fleet, re-cross the Atlantic to Boulogne to assist the invasion flotilla cross the Channel. Napoleon wrote to an admiral on July 20, 1805, "all is prepared; and there, master of the seas for three days, you will enable us to end the destiny of England.... When you receive this letter, we shall be in person at Boulogne-sur-Mer" (Howarth 303).

Admiral Villeneuve brought his French ships out of Toulon, passed Gibraltar and left the Mediterranean, joined with the Spanish ships out of Cadiz, and headed across the Atlantic. On May 11, 1805, ten days behind Villeneuve, Admiral Nelson with Admiral Louis second in command in Frank's Canopus, also left the Mediterranean and began the chase to the West Indies. Then they chased the French and Spanish back across the Atlantic again, a seventy-day journey covering almost seven thousand miles. Southey describes the chase in exciting detail. Napoleon waited at Boulogne in vain. His Combined Fleet never arrived. It was unable to sail into the Channel which was protected by the Channel Fleet under Admiral Sir William Cornwallis, who had spent two years successfully blockading the French ships at Brest so they could not join the French and Spanish returning from the West Indies.

On August 18, 1805 Nelson retired to Merton, his home with Lady Emma Hamilton and their daughter Horatia; he had been continuously at sea for more than two years. Napoleon abandoned Boulogne and led the French army into southern Germany, 500 miles in forty days. There in October he defeated the Austrian and Russian armies. (Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace begins with this point in time.) Almost ten years of land warfare ensued until Napoleon met his final defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo.

In August 1805 Admiral Villeneuve took his fleet into port at Cadiz, north of Gibraltar, where Frank's Canopus was patrolling the waters. Nelson was recalled to duty and joined the fleet at the end of September: "the officers, who came on board to welcome him, forgot his rank as Commander, in their joy at seeing him again" (Southey 333). Nelson and Villeneuve each had thirty-three ships of the line. "But the enemy knew that Admiral Louis, with six sail, had been detached for stores and water to Gibraltar" (334). Here is an indirect mention of Frank, the only mention his sister Jane would have found in The Life of Nelson. Subsequent books discussing the reduction in Nelson's fleet repeat Frank's account, first published in Nicolas: "I had been dining with Lord Nelson on board the Victory, having accompanied my Admiral (Louis); and on taking leave in the evening, Admiral Louis said, 'You are sending us away, my Lord--the Enemy will come out, and we shall have no share in the Battle.' To which Lord Nelson replied,--'My dear Louis, I have no other means of keeping my Fleet complete in provisions and water, but by sending them in detachments to Gibraltar. The Enemy will come out, and we shall fight them; but there will be time for you to get back first. I look upon Canopus as my right hand (she was his second astern in the Line of Battle); and I send you first to ensure your being here to help to beat them'" (Nicolas, Vol. vii, 63). But it was not to be. "I do not profess to like fighting for its own sake, but if there have been an action with the combined fleets I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the squadron as the most inauspicious one of my life," Frank wrote to Mary Gibson from the Mediterranean on 21 October 1805 (Hubback 155). On the west coast of Spain at the Cape of Trafalgar, between Cadiz and Gibraltar, the Battle was already under way.
 Southey reprints Nelson's now famous prayer before battle:
 "May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country, and
 for the benefit of Europe in general, great and glorious victory;
 and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it! And may humanity
 after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet! For
 myself individually, I commit my life to Him that made me; and
 may His blessing alight on my endeavors for serving my country
 faithfully! To Him I resign myself, and the just cause which is
 entrusted to me to defend. Amen, Amen, Amen."

Southey also prints a "remarkable writing" in which Nelson leaves "Emma Lady Hamilton therefore a legacy to my King and country, that they will give her an ample provision to maintain her rank in life. I also leave to the beneficence of my country my adopted daughter ..." (340-41). Southey vividly relates the course of the battle and the death of Nelson. His Flag Captain came to him.

"'Take care of my dear Lady Hamilton, Hardy; take care of poor Lady Hamilton. Kiss me, Hardy.' Hardy knelt down and kissed his cheek; and Nelson said: 'Now I am satisfied. Thank God, I have done my duty!'... He said to the chaplain: 'Doctor, I have not been a great sinner;' and after a short pause, 'Remember that I leave Lady Hamilton, and my daughter Horatia as a legacy to my country.' ... 'Thank God I have done my duty!' These words he repeatedly pronounced; and they were the last words which he uttered." (354-55)

Six days later Frank continued his letter to Mary:

"Alas! ... all my fears are but too fully justified. The fleets have met, and, after a very severe contest, a most decisive victory has been gained by the English twenty-seven over the enemy's thirty-three. Seventeen of the ships are taken and one is burnt; but I am truly sorry to add that this splendid affair has cost us many lives, and amongst them the most invaluable one to the nation, that of our gallant, and ever-to-be-regretted, Commander-in-Chief, Lord Nelson, who was mortally wounded by a musket shot, and only lived long enough to know his fleet successful. In a public point of view, I consider his loss as the greatest which could have occurred; nor do I hesitate to say there is not an Admiral on the list so eminently calculated for the command of a fleet as he was. I never heard of his equal, nor do I expect again to see such a man. To the soundest judgment he united prompt decision and speedy execution of his plans; and he possessed in superior degree the happy talent of making every class of persons pleased with their situation and eager to exert themselves in forwarding public service." (my italics; Hubback 155-56)

This was Frank's "public point of view." Frank's and Austen's private point of view of Nelson is not known. They would certainly have been aware of Nelson's relationship with Emma Hamilton, a relationship Southey calls "an infatuated attachment ... which totally weaned his affections away from his wife" (210). After the Battle of the Nile (August 1, 1798), Nelson traveled and lived with Emma Hamilton and her husband Sir William, who was 35 years older than she. For almost thirty years he was the British Envoy, or ambassador, to the court of Naples. He wrote philosophically to Emma:

"My study of antiquities, has kept me in constant thought of the perpetual fluctuation of everything. The whole art is, really, to live all the days of our life; and not, with anxious care, disturb the sweetest hour that life affords--which is, the present! Admire the Creator, and all his works, to us incomprehensible: and do all the good you can upon earth; and take the chance of eternity, without dismay." (Nelson, Vol. II, 178)

Sir William Hamilton died in the arms of Emma and Nelson in April 1803.

This menage a trois called themselves tria juncta in uno, three joined in one, and was reported on in newspapers and mocked in caricatures sold in print shops. One such print by Isaac Cruikshank shows Nelson and Emma smoking water pipes, or hookahs. "Pho," Emma exhales, "the old man's pipe is always out, but yours burns with full Vigour." "Yes, Yes," replies Nelson, "I'll give you such a Smoke. I'll pour a whole broadside into you." We are reminded of Mary Crawford's entreaty in Mansfield Park not to suspect her of punning when she describes her acquaintance with a circle of admirals. "'Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough'" (78). Her uncle, Admiral Crawford, "was a man of vicious conduct, who chose, instead of retaining his niece, to bring his mistress under his own roof ..." (60). This conduct was particularly egregious because the Admiral's wife had died leaving him technically free to remarry. Nelson's wife Fanny, on the other hand, outlived him and received a pension on his account.

Despite Nelson's dying request, Emma Hamilton and Horatia received nothing. Emma dissipated what assets she had. In 1813 she was arrested for debt and required to live in an area close to King's Bench Prison. She petitioned the government and wrote memorials of Nelson that were printed in the newspapers. She wrote to the Prince Regent with no result. "I wrote to him ... a letter which he must feel & He sent me word He had sent & spoken to the ministers but then why is he the Regent of nothing.... I am determined to act with firmness Fortitude Honor and prudence--god all mighty bless you amen amen amen as Dear Nelson used to say." The letters in Emma's possession were stolen and, in 1814, a collection of them was published. They were considered scandalous and created a public sensation. They clearly confirm Nelson's intense love for Emma and their daughter. On September 17, 1805 he wrote, "I intreat, my dear Emma, that you will chear up; and we will look forward to many, many happy years, and be surrounded by our children's children. God Almighty can, when he pleases, remove the impediment. My heart and soul is with you and Horatia" (Nelson, Vol. II, 97). The "impediment" was his wife Fanny; the scandal was the implication of her death.

Emma moved to Calais where, on January 15, 1815, she died destitute. Horatia, then age fourteen, was taken in by Nelson's family. She later married a clergyman and had nine children. Austen's nephew George (Austen) Knight, at age thirteen, visited Southampton after the death of his mother. His Aunt Jane noted how he made and named paper ships that he shot at with horse-chestnuts and they "looked into a 74" (a 74-gun ship under construction) (25 October 1808). In 1837 George married the widow of Nelson's brother William, an Earl thanks to Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Frank married Mary Gibson in 1806 after his victory in the Battle of Santo Domingo, and they moved to Southampton with Jane, Cassandra, Mrs. Austen, and Martha Lloyd, later his second wife. In 1863 Frank was made Admiral of the Fleet under Queen Victoria. Sir William Hamilton's collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman vases is in the British Museum.

Southey's public view of Nelson was that "(s)o perfectly, indeed, had he performed his part, that the maritime war, after the battle of Trafalgar, was considered at an end: the fleets of the enemy were not merely defeated, but destroyed: new navies must be built, and a new race of seamen reared for them, before the possibility of them invading our shores could again be contemplated." (361). William Makepeace Thackeray in Vanity Fair puts a private view in the mouth of an eccentric aunt: "'That was the most beautiful part of dear Lord Nelson's character,' Miss Crawley said. 'He went to the deuce for a woman. There must be good in a man who will do that ...'" (119).


Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1978.

--. Persuasion. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1978.

--. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Dugan, James. The Great Mutiny. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1965.

Howarth, David and Stephen. Lord Nelson: The Immortal Memory. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

Hubback, J. H. and Edith C. Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers, Being the Advent of Sir Francis Austen, G.C.B., Admiral of the Fleet and Rear-Admiral Charles Austen. London: John Lane, 1906.

Nelson, Horatio. The Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton with a Supplement of Interesting Letters by Distinguished Characters. London: Macdonald and Son, 1814.

Nicolas, Sir Nicholas Harris. The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson. 1844. London: Chatham Publishing, 1997.

Southey, Robert. The Life of Nelson. London: Constable and Company Limited, 1999.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Elsie G. Holzwarth practices law in Chicago, Illinois and writes a column for the newsletter of the Greater Chicago Region of JASNA.
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Title Annotation:Jane Austen, Horatio Nelson
Author:Holzwarth, Elsie G.
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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