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Jane Austen Music and the “Truly Accomplished” Woman

Jane Austen music

A Short Essay Exploring Jane Austen Music and her Musical Characters

It is vain to expend large sums of money and large portions of time in the acquirement of accomplishments, unless some attention be also paid to the attainment of a certain grace in their exercise, which, though of a circumstance distinct from themselves, is the secret of their charms and pleasure-exciting quality.”
A Lady of Distinction

The Mirror of Graces
, 1811

“The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.” As any daughter knows, Mrs. Bennet is typical not only of her time, but of any other. The marriage game has always held a fascination for mothers, and as Fanny Price comments in Mirimax’s Mansfield Park, “Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.” With the war in France creating a shortage of eligible men on the homefront, it would seem that the more abilities a young woman had at her disposal, the greater chance she would stand of making a good match. Towards that end, parents during the Regency set about schooling their daughters in accomplishments that would make them stand out in the eyes of “men of good fortune.” Jane Austen’s Caroline Bingley gives us a contemporary definition of “accomplishment”: “No one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”

Period fashion plate

Jane Austen Music

Jane Austen herself was known to be a diligent student of music, spending hours every day practicing. She played for the sheer love of music and she instilled that love into her “own dear child[ren],” her heroines. She valued this time with her music, transcribing her favorite pieces into a collection of books that exist to this day. This was not, however, her chief charm. That lay in her personality, her lively manner and her ready wit. Jane Austen wrote about what she knew. In her books, she employs music to tell about the personalities of her characters. If Caroline Bingley’s was the accepted standard of accomplishment, however, it would seem that Jane Austen’s heroines fall short. Could it be that there is something more dearly prized among “sensible young men” than all the knowledge and “accomplishment” that a woman can possess? Lady Susan, one of Jane Austen’s early characters (a woman who, one would suppose, knows what gentlemen prefer) offers that: “It is throwing time away; to be Mistress of French, Italian, and German, Music, Singing, Drawing, &c. will gain a Woman some applause, but will not add one Lover to her list. Grace and Manner, after all, are of the greatest importance.” It would seem, as her heroines suggest, that this is the view Jane Austen took. She is known to have been a sharp observer of the people and lives surrounding her. Is it possible that she could see evidence of this principle lived out in daily life? None of the six heroines of her major novels are “true proficients.” Most do not play “so well as they could” and three do not play at all!

Elinor Dashwood,”neither musical, nor affecting to be so,” does not play, but rather draws. “The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s [Moreland] life.” As for Fanny Price, her cousins are scandalized to learn that “she does not want to learn either music or drawing.” The others play “tolerably well”– even “delightfully”; however, they also know that they could do much better if they practiced more, and most, at some point, are shown up by superior performers. “My fingers,” said Elizabeth Bennet, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault — because I would not take the trouble of practicing.” Emma Woodhouse seems to excel in everything, but on closer examination we see that this is a carefully constructed facade. “She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labor as she would ever submit to.” However, “She knew the limitations of her own powers too well to attempt more than she could perform with credit.” Anne Elliot, who can play “for half an hour together, equally without error, and without consciousness” is an exception to this general rule. However “her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware. She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself…” Viewers of Persuasion (Sony, 1995) may observe how she is neglected at the piano, left to provide entertainment while others dance.

In transferring Jane Austen’s work to film, most screenwriters have been careful to preserve these scenes of musical diversion and revelation. Because of this, we are treated not only to the sounds of period pieces and instruments (Miramax’s 1996 Emma used music directly from Jane Austen’s own song books) recreating the atmosphere with which Jane was familiar, we are also given the added bonus of seeing the effect of the music and/or performance reflected in the faces of those listening.

None of the rest of Jane Austen’s characters who do play an instrument can be held up as examples of happiness or felicity. All are deficient to our heroines in the area of “Grace and Manner.” Most of her young ladies who are musical play the pianoforte: Mary Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Mary Crawford, and Jane Fairfax were always “happy to oblige.” Anne De Bourgh would have been a true proficient “had she ever learnt.” Elizabeth and Emma took a little more coaxing, but their efforts were rewarded by warm praise and thanks. This popular instrument was easy to learn, and could be demonstrated by students at all levels of accomplishment. There was, however, another instrument that was quite the rage during the Regency- the harp. None of Austen’s six heroines play this instrument, rather, it symbolizes wealth, sophistication, and perhaps a slight snobbery. It is, after all, an instrument of choice for Mary Crawford, Louisa Musgrove, and Georgiana Darcy.

What about the men? Some of them were quite musically inclined and, here again, Jane Austen uses the music to display character. Col. Fitzwilliam is a cultured man who can speak intelligently and entertainingly on the subject. John Willoughby, Frank Churchill,Hugh Thompson Illustration from S&S and Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey, 1986) sing. Mr. Collins finds it a not unacceptable pastime (“If I,” said Mr. Collins, “were so fortunate as to be able to sing, I should have great pleasure, I am sure, in obliging the company with an air; for I consider music as a very innocent diversion, and perfectly compatible with the profession of a clergyman.”) Even Capt. Wentworth is seen to play a little. It is interesting then to note that most of these men did not marry the girls they performed with or for! Willoughby and Churchill are well known cads and used music for their own purposes. While both were, at the time, sincere in their attentions to the ladies they accompanied, they are two of the most notorious flirts Austen created. Mr. Collins is only interested in displaying himself. Tilney’s singing, in light of Catherine’s non-musical nature, sets him apart from her — for the moment, he belongs to another sphere. Col. Fitzwilliam seems to be the only character to escape villification.

Capt. Wentworth uses his ability on behalf of the two Miss Musgroves (“[Anne] had left the instrument … and he had sat down to try to make out an air which he wished to give the Miss Musgroves an idea of.”), but it is his musical appreciation (“Capt. Wentworth was very fond of music…”) that brings him to the concert in Bath (one of the few appearances of professional musicians in the novels). It is there that Anne begins to feel that there might be a chance for them after all; “He began by speaking of the concert gravely…. owned himself disappointed, had expected singing; and in short, must confess that he should not be sorry when it was over. Anne replied, and spoke in defense of the performance so well, and yet in allowance for his feelings so pleasantly, that his countenance improved, and he replied again with almost a smile…” Only when discussing music do they finally attain a “real” conversation which opens the way for their reconciliation later on in the book.

Hugh Thompson illustration for MPThis is not to indicate that our other heroes are not appreciative of good music. Indeed, though their motives for doing so were often misunderstood, all listened to their beloved ones (who could) play at some point before finally proposing. Mr. Darcy, Edmund Bertram, and Col. Brandon come readily to mind, and are well known for the rapt attention they give the fair performers. Elizabeth Bennet takes delight in teasing Mr. Darcy about his intentions: “[Mr. Darcy] moving with his usual deliberation towards the piano forte, stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said, ‘You mean to frighten me, Mr Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? But I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.’” Andrew Davies’ film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice makes Darcy’s admiration for her less than superior performance quite apparent with his famous use of close-ups and replay.

Mr. Knightley too enjoys hearing Emma play: “I do not know a more luxurious state, sir, than sitting at one’s ease to be entertained a whole evening by two such young women; sometimes with music and sometimes with conversation.” What he does not enjoy is Frank’s unpardonable audacity in presuming an intimacy with Emma in which he, himself, did not share. It is only Edward Ferrars who is inclined to be dismissive of music altogether– a fact which is incomprehensible to Marianne: “Music seems scarcely to attract him; and, though he admires Elinor’s drawings very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their worth.” One must attribute his preferences solely to affection.

Music may be the food of love, but it is not apparently the cause of it. As an offering of love, however, it is a most acceptable gift. Robert Martin hires his shepherd’s boy to sing for Harriet Smith and leaves his marriage proposal for her in a packet of music. Frank Churchill, Mr. Darcy, and even Col. Brandon (Thompson’s screenplay, 1995) make gifts of pianofortes to young ladies they adore. Extravagant? Yes. But also thoughtful, sensitive tokens they know will be appreciated.

Hugh Thompson Illustration for P&PWhat is it that Jane Austen is trying to tell us? Why would she create such “untalented” heroines? Wouldn’t she want to encourage her young readers to excel in their studies? There are two categories of performers she describes: those who play out of a love of music (Elizabeth, Anne, Marianne Dashwood, Jane Fairfax, etc.) and those who play for love of attention (Mary Bennet, Louisa Hurst, Caroline Bingley, Augusta Elton). Though the latter are often praised for their execution, it is only the ones who love what they are doing who are described as giving pleasure to their listeners. Is this not another instance of “Grace and Manner?” Is this not another instance of Jane Austen’s perfection of craft? Could unconventional heroines- ones who are admired not for what they can do, but for who they are, be a part of the genre she created? Heroines who seem real — who are as fresh today as when they were penned nearly 200 years ago — heroines who remain as enduring role models for today’s young women. This is, after all, the woman who wrote, “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked.”


Laura Sauer is the only non-musical member of her family. As such this essay is a sort of vindication of her skills and proof that one needn’t play and sing to be “accomplished.” Besides- if everyone were a performer, who would be left to listen?

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Sense and Sensibility

Is it all about self-control?

The Dashwood Family, from left: Elinor, Marianne, Marguerite, and Mrs. Dashwood.

“The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.” Thus begins the story of two sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood with an emphasis on family, sense of place and society. Forced into reduced circumstances by the sudden death of their father, the Dashwood sisters and their mother move from their home in Sussex to Barton Cottage in Devonshire. Before leaving Sussex, an attachment has been formed between Elinor, the eldest, and Edward Ferrars, her sister-in-law’s brother. In Devonshire, the youngest sister Marianne meets and falls in love with the handsome Willoughby. Both relationships encounter problems: Edward Ferrars has been engaged for years to Lucy Steele whom he feels bound to marry out of a sense of duty, and Willoughby mysteriously disappears. Upon learning of Willoughby’s checkered past and his recent marriage to an heiress, Marianne becomes gravely ill.Happy Couple Things work out in the end: Edward, released from his engagement is free to marry Elinor, and Marianne recovered from her illness, realizes the error of her infatuation and eventually marries the much older Colonel Brandon.

Just as easily as I sketched the story line of Sense and Sensibility, critics from the start have been quick to reduce the theme of the novel to a polar opposition: head versus heart. In its contemporary and original review The British Critic wrote: “The object of the work is to represent the effects on the conduct of life, of discreet, quiet good sense on one hand, and an over-refined and excessive susceptibility on the other.Thomas HobbesI hope to show that things are not so simple. The two words of the title are not there by chance: they represent a literary tradition which Jane Austen was very much aware of. In the seventeenth century, philosophers had become preoccupied with the problem of whether man is a wholly self-centered and self-seeking being. Thomas Hobbes believed man was naturally bad. His pessimistic view of human nature held that if man was self-seeking and depraved, enlightened despotism was needed to curb men’s passions. Contrarily, Anthony Ashley Cooper Shaftesbury and his followers held that man was naturally good, possessed an innate moral sense, and that consequently it was society which was at fault (an idea which lead to Rousseau and the French Revolution.) In the realm of literature such ideas would lead to Romanticism and its attendant emphasis on sensibility and imagination as well as its valuing of human impulses expressed freely. In light of this, we could say that today’s society believes Shaftesbury rather than Hobbes.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) (on right, his brother is on the left.) Picture taken from:

But what of Jane Austen and her society? In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Professor Butler argues that by the end of the seventeenth century (i.e.: Jane Austen’s formative years) both world views were battling it out and were in favor alternatively. Shaftesbury’s ideas gave rise to the Sentimentalists (1760’s -1770’s) a group of writers identified as individualistic, libertarian and anti-social. Their novels were seen by many as dangerous because they were vehicles for moral relativism. Samuel Johnson and the conservative critics regarded them with great suspicion because, as Marilyn Butler points out, the sentimental tendency “is indeed to work against the exercise of the ethical sense, and actively to enlist the reader, by half conscious and almost subliminal means, in the party of unlimited toleration.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of Godwin, Mother of Mary Shelley.A glimpse at William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft will help us get a sense of the war of ideas being waged about the time Jane Austen began to write. Professor Butler characterizes Godwin, political essayist and novelist, in the following terms: “Instead of the sentimentalist’s benevolent intuition or fellow-feeling, he believes in the conscious, willed understanding as the essentially human thing, the guarantee of man’s dignity and his sole hope for improvement. He minimizes those aspects of man’s nature which limit the freedom of his mind, such as the pleasures of the senses, tastes and ‘involuntary affections’, which include emotional attachments to family and friends.” As for Mary Wollstonecraft, she writes, in A Vindication of the Rights of Man: “Sensibility is the mania of the day, and compassion the virtue which is to cover a multitude of vices, whilst justice is left to mourn in sullen silence, and balance truth in vain…”

Emma Thompson as Elinor In such a philosophical and literary climate, how does Jane Austen give shape to her characters? Does she truly view reason as being more important than feeling in female affairs? Yes– but not cold Cartesian reason but rather understanding, observation, reflection and poise. The importance of reason in the novel seems to be borne out by the obvious fact that Elinor, the sensible one, is the privileged focus and that the narrative voice, though seemingly objective, is on her side. This is apparent immediately beginning with chapter 1:

“Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding and coolness of judgment which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught. Marianne’s abilities were in many respects quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great. Emma Thompson as ElinorElinor saw with concern the excess of her sister’s sensibility, but by Mrs. Dashwood it was valued and cherished. They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future. Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with proper attention; and could strive to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance.”Kate Winslet as Marianne; Greg Wise as Willoughby.What seems significant in this description of the sisters and mother is the accumulation of words such as understanding, judgment, govern, sensible, moderation, prudent, struggle, exert, strive and forbearance: words seeking to express the degree of effort these women are willing or unwilling to put forth to control the feelings they all have (including Elinor). As a quintessential romantic, of course Marianne deems such efforts as un-natural. Why deny one’s good and true nature simply to please or fit into society? Such are the values in conflict in this “didactic” novel: self versus society. Elinor (and Jane Austen) are on the side of society and politeness. This is what Elinor, who is only nineteen, desires for her sister when she deplores: “Her systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at nought; and a better acquaintance with the world is what I look forward to as her greatest possible advantage.” (Chapter 11). Upon learning of the pleasant outing Marianne had visiting Mrs. Smith’s house, Elinor repeats her lesson: “…the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety.” (Chapter 13). Oddly, Elinor will consent to lie when politeness requires it. (Chapter 21).Hugh GrantBesides civility it is understanding, the power of observation and goodness which are valued when Elinor admires Edward with a bit of Marianne-like enthusiasm: “…he has an innate propriety and simplicity of taste, which in general direct him perfectly right […] The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent […] I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure.” (Chapter 4). She also esteems Colonel Brandon because he is “a sensible man, well-bred, well-informed, of gentle address, and I believe possessing an amiable heart.” (Chapter 10). Her intelligence and method guarantee that she will first think and then hope.

Greg Wise as John WilloughbyReflecting upon the probability of Marianne and Willoughby being engaged secretly, Elinor does not jump to conclusions: “…and Elinor was then at liberty to think over the representation of her mother, to acknowledge the probability of many, and hope for the justice of all.” (Chapter 15). Her self-control and concern for others also allow her to be the comforter of others in their distress. Most importantly for her, reflection leads to happiness: “She who had seen her week after week so constantly suffering, oppressed by anguish of heart which she had neither courage to speak of nor fortitude to conceal, now saw with a joy which no other could equally share an apparent composure of mind, which, in being the result as she trusted of serious reflection, must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 10). The young woman who seemed so much older than her age can indeed feel joy. She is not cold or devoid of feelings. She betrays warmth when she speaks of Edward:Hugh Grant “I do not attempt to deny,’said she,’that I think very highly of him –that I greatly esteem, that I like him.” And when Marianne bursts with indignation at her expression of lukewarm feelings, Elinor responds: “…be assured that I meant no offence to you by speaking in so quiet a way of my own feelings. Believe them to be stronger than I have declared; believe them, in short, to be such as his merit and the suspicion — the hope of his affection for me may warrant without imprudence or folly.” (Chapter 4).

Here and throughout the novel we witness a softening of the opposition between sense and sensibility, as Ian Watt has remarked. Elinor has feelings and emotions but they are kept in check. Upon meeting Edward at Barton: “His coldness and reserve mortified her severely; she was vexed and half angry; but resolving to regulate her behaviour to him by the past rather than the present, she avoided every appearance of resentment or displeasure and treated him as she thought he ought to be treated from the family connection.” (Chapter 16).Elinor and Edward Elinor is aware of the temptation to self-righteousness. To follow reason does not mean she will impose her “correct”” view on others: “I will not raise any objections against anyone’s conduct on so illiberal a foundation as a difference in judgment from myself for a deviation from what I may think right and consistent.” (Chapter 15). Elinor can even feel momentary regrets at not being more like her sister: “…and Elinor, in spite of every occasional doubt of Willoughby’s constancy, could not witness the rapture of delightful expectations which filled the whole soul and beamed in the eyes of Marianne without feeling how blank was her own prospect, how cheerless her own state of mind in the comparison, and how gladly she would engage in the solicitude of Marianne’s situation to have the same animating object in view, the same possibility of hope.” (Vol. 2, Chapter 4).

Elinor and EdwardThe reader has access to Elinor’s consciousness and knows of her constant struggle to remain the voice of reason in the household. After reading Willoughby’s and Marianne’s correspondence “she was silently grieving over the imprudence which had hazarded such unsolicited proofs of tenderness, not warranted by anything preceding, and most severely condemned by the event…” (Vol. 2, Chapter 7). Her efforts at sparing her family all are finally revealed when she declares to Marianne: “You do not suppose that I have ever felt much. For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature, knowing that it would make you and my mother most unhappy whenever it were explained to you, yet unable to prepare you for it in the least […] If you can think me capable of ever feeling, surely you may suppose that I have suffered now.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 1).

Greg WiseIt is, however, without doubt, in the scene where she hears Willoughby’s confession that the sensible Elinor allows herself to listen to her heart: “Willoughby, he whom only half an hour ago she had abhorred as the most worthless of men, Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated forever from her family with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself, to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight: by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so, long, long before she could feel his influence less.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 9). Such a scene contributes in no small part to increasing the reader’s sympathy for Elinor who is, at times, in danger of appearing too insensitive and even boring to us readers who have read the Brontes and other assorted Romantics.

Elinor and MarianneI have focused on Elinor, showing how she displays both sense and feelings, but there are also a few passages describing Marianne as “sensible and clever” as quoted above in chapter 1. Reason and sense are good things, it seems, but they do not preclude feelings as long as those feelings are examined prudently, kept in check, and not allowed to cloud the judgment of a person or to shock or offend society. Both Elinor and Marianne have a bit of both: sense and sensibility. The fact that Marianne elicits our sympathy in spite of her seeming foolishness would tend to show that Jane Austen valued both sense and sensibility, the latter perhaps in spite of herself. Elinor and EdwardI will end with the wonderful scene at the end of the novel where we see Elinor overwhelmed by feelings as she discovers that Lucy and Robert Ferrars are newly married and that Edward is free: “Elinor could sit it no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.” Her joy is intense, yes, but as a young lady always aware of decorum, she remembers not to run and to shut the door. (Vol. 3, Chapter 12).

Françoise Coulont-Henderson teaches French language and literature in a small liberal arts university in the US. She has discovered Jane Austen late in life.

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What’s a Guy like you doing in a place like this?

I guess I should start by explaining why an American male would decide to throw himself almost obsessively into the study of an English woman that lived 200 years before his time. Well, at the age of 13, most boys fall in love with celebrities and super models, but by some act of fate or the funny curriculum of an American public school at that pivotal moment, when I should have formed a crush on Debbie Gibson, all my time was occupied in struggling through Pride and Prejudice. Instead of a youth enthralling pop-star, I fell in love with the vibrant and charming Lizzy Bennet.



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I now see Lizzy with a critical eye, which was focused in college, but her faults are almost as endearing as her perfections. My progress as an English major eventually brought me here to England and to the Jane Austen Centre. Before starting, I feared they would throw me in front of a room crowded with top notch Janeites who would batter me with obscure, impossible questions. Instead, they gave me the time to absorb the author. Whenever I am at the centre- with employees who study and talk about Austen, with visitors inquisitive about Austen, and with shelves of books just itching for a browsing- I learn by submersion.
Self-guided Tour
Finally having gained some confidence and expertise, I began to introduce the exhibit. This involves a 15 minute talk about the biography of the author. I was nervous, but it was made easier by not being compulsory; voluntary anxiety is the least painful. Each talk has been better than the one before, but, more importantly, I get to meet others who have the same tastes as I do, yet with widely different backgrounds. The Jane Austen Centre, while allowing me to contribute to England, has brought me closer to the country, Lizzy, and others who enjoy them both.
Kevin Piper is a college student who recently spent a semester as an intern at the Jane Austen Centre.

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Wentworth Makes His Bones: The Battle of St. Domingo: February 4, 1806


Wentworth Makes His Bones: The Battle of St. Domingo: February 4, 1806

In Volume I, Chapter IV of Persuasion, Jane Austen mentions that Captain Wentworth had been “made commander in consequence of the action off St Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come into Somersetshire, in the summer of 1806,” (26) where he met and wooed the lovely young second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot. A tantalizing reference; the contemporary audience for whom Jane was writing would of course know all about that battle, but what about modern Janeites, reading the novel nearly two centuries later and wondering how this obscure action fits in between Trafalgar and Waterloo?

Capt. Wentworth in the 1995 version of PersuasionJane Austen’s legion of biographers have already recorded that her brother Francis Austen participated in the Battle of St. Domingo on 6 February 1806 as captain of HMS Canopus, an 80-gun ship of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth. We have the Canopus’ log book entries, which describe the battle with military terseness; we also have Frank’s letter to his fiancée Mary Gibson, assuring her of his safety and giving a more descriptive account of the action. Austenian scholarship usually stops there, if it makes any mention at all of Frank’s participation in the battle; a frustrating exercise for the Janeite seeking information about the fictional Wentworth’s career. The Battle of St. Domingo is mentioned only in passing in naval histories, while the Battle of Trafalgar, which occurred only a few months before, has entire books written about it and is celebrated to this day. It is understandable that a reader might consider the Battle of St. Domingo relatively unimportant, and return to the story without further elucidation. However, if one considers the battle in the context of the surrounding events of its time, the importance of the action can be better understood, as can the mindset of the confident young Commander Frederick Wentworth in the summer of the Year Six.

A peace treaty between France and England was signed in Amiens on 25 March 1802, but the peace had been uneasy and short-lived, and the British declared war against France and her dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte, on 16 May 1803. Napoleon had planned to invade Britain even before the peace treaty (Parkinson 91), and when he crowned himself Emperor of France in December 1804 and began massing troops in seaside towns along the Channel, the British mobilized their naval forces to prevent the Emperor’s plan from succeeding. They organized companies of “sea fencibles,” sort of a naval militia, and Frank Austen received command of a group protecting the coast near Ramsgate in July, 1803 (Nokes 261).

Admiral Lord Horatio NelsonThe Channel fleet and the Mediterranean fleet had the French blockaded, and a few offensive sallies by the North Sea Fleet kept the French under control (Parkinson 93). William Pitt, the Prime Minister, made alliances with Russia, Austria, and Sweden, an alliance called the Third Coalition, while Spain chose to remain neutral, though they resisted pressure to take an active stand against France. According to C. Northcote Parkinson, “Napoleon came to realize that his enemies were gathering against him. The coalition took time to organize but Napoleon recognized his danger and concluded that his invasion of Britain must take place in 1805 if it were to take place at all. He could not count on naval victory but he began to dream of elaborate plans by which the British fleet might be tricked and lured away from its position in goal.” (96) Napoleon’s plan was to have two squadrons escape the blockades and sail for the West Indies; the British, fearful of French disruption of their lucrative trade in the sugar islands, would naturally follow. When the French ships reached Martinique, they would rendezvous and promptly sail back to the Channel, which would now be undefended.

With this plan in mind, Rear-Admiral Villeneuve sailed from Toulon on 30 March 1805 toward the Straits of Gibraltar. “Reaching Cadiz, the French Admiral raised the blockade of Cadiz, added six Spanish and one French ship to his squadron, crossed the Atlantic and presently reported his arrival at Martinique with 18 sail of the line.” (Parkinson 99) Unfortunately Villeneuve’s counterpart, Rear-Admiral Ganteaume, was unable to break the blockade at Brest, having been ordered by Napoleon not to engage the British fleet (Glover 39). However, Villeneuve’s action had induced Admiral Lord Nelson to take 10 sail of the line and chase the French squadron across the Atlantic, only to find when they arrived in the West Indies that the French ships had turned around and sailed back to France. One of the ships under Nelson’s command was Frank Austen’s ship, the Canopus, which Nelson had captured from the French at the Nile (the ship had then been named Le Franklin after Benjamin Franklin) and which carried Nelson’s second-in-command, Admiral Louis. (Honan 216)

Disheartened by his failure to stop Villeneuve, Nelson took a short shore leave upon his return to England, but soon was ordered back to his command. When he reached Cadiz on 28 September 1805, Nelson found the fleet needful of supplies, and dispatched Canopus to Gibraltar for water and stores; Nelson assured Admiral Louis, who did not want to miss the now-inevitable battle, that there was plenty of time for them to go to Gibraltar and return before the combined enemy fleet took action (Nokes 293).

HMS Ganges, built in 1819 as a reproduction of HMS Canopus.However, Nelson miscalculated; on 14 September, Napoleon had sent orders to Villeneuve “to break out of Cadiz, pass Gibraltar, pick up the Cartagena squadron and transport French troops to Naples.” (Glover 101) While Canopus was on its way back to Cadiz on 19 October, the Combined Fleet (French and Spanish), led by Admiral Villeneuve, left Cadiz and sailed toward Cape Trafalgar with a fleet consisting of 33 sail of the line, 5 frigates, and 2 corvettes. Two days later, Nelson gave orders for the famous signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” and the British fleet, at a slight disadvantage with 27 sail of the line, four frigates, a schooner and a cutter, sailed toward the enemy, led by Nelson’s flagship Victory. By the end of the action, the Combined Fleet had only 11 sail of the line remaining. The rest were either captured by the British or destroyed, and Admiral Villeneuve had been taken prisoner. However, the British had lost Nelson, cut down by a French sniper’s musket ball.

Four French sail of the line, commanded by Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, escaped south. They were unable to sail for Toulon because of the presence ofCanopus and the other British ships returning from Gibraltar, so they sailed north and encountered the frigate Phoenix. They chased the frigate, which led them back to the British squadron blockading Ferrol under the command of Captain Sir Richard Strachan, which engaged and eventually captured the four French ships. The French had 730 killed or wounded in the action while the British had only 135 casualties. (Parkinson 114)

The decimation of the fleet meant that Napoleon was forced to abandon his plan of invading England for the time being, so he decided to try to disrupt British trade in the West Indies, trade that helped finance the British war effort. Two French squadrons, commanded by Rear-Admiral Willaumez and Vice-Admiral Leissegues, were able to break the blockade at Brest and sailed for the West Indies. “When news of Leissegues’ operations reached Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth, who, with six sail of the line and two frigates, was blockading Cadiz, he sailed with six sail of the line for Madeira. He finally caught up with the French squadron off Santo Domingo in the West Indies. Here the five French ships were all captured or driven on shore, only the smaller vessels escaping. There were heavy losses again, over 1,500 men in all, over 500 of them aboard the three-decked flagship Imperial.” (Parkinson 114)

The Battle of St. Domingo
The Battle of St. Domingo.
On fire are the French ships Diomede and Imperial.

Frank’s official description of the action is reported by Nokes: “‘Five minutes before seven,’ Frank wrote in his log, ‘Enemy’s ships are of the line.’ At a quarter past ten, he noted, ‘the Superb commenced to fire on the enemy’s van’. By half past ten, he was in action himself; ‘opened our fire on the first ship in the enemy’s line…with one broadside brought her masts by the board…ten minutes to eleven, the dismasted ship struck…Engaged with the three-decker…ten minutes to twelve, gave her a raking broadside which brought down her mizzen mast…'” (299) Frank’s letter to Mary Gibson was a little more descriptive: “(H)is first broadside from the Canopus ‘brought our opponent’s three masts down at once, and towards the close of the business we also had the satisfaction of giving the three-decker a tickling which knocked all his sticks away.'” (Tucker 173-174)

Capt. Francis William Austen, 1794 miniature. By kind permission of the owner. All reproduction prohibited.Canopus returned to Plymouth in early May, whereupon “Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund presented (Frank) with a silver vase valued at 100 pounds as a memento of St. Domingo, and he also received a gold medal as he left theCanopus. This accession of honours and prize-money evidently encouraged him to think that he could now afford to marry Mary Gibson, and so the date of 24 July was chosen.” (Austen-Leigh 137) It was not uncommon for first lieutenants of ships involved in a successful action to receive promotion, and a few years later, when Jane Austen created her fictional naval officer, she drew upon her brother’s experiences. Commander Frederick Wentworth, who had been promoted but had not yet received a command, made his way to Somerset to spend the summer of the Year Six and pursue a romance of his own.

Between Trafalgar, the capture of the four escaped ships by Strachan, and the Battle of St. Domingo, the French navy was severely crippled. Only 32 ships of the line remained, although the French were busily building 21 more, and could capture or ally themselves with other countries and make use of their navies. But the lessening of French naval power meant that the fear of imminent invasion of England was past, as well as establishing the prominence of the Royal Navy; it is easy to see why Captain Francis Austen received medals and prizes as a result of his participation in the action, and why an able young lieutenant who took part in the action was promoted to commander rank.


Margaret C. Sullivan is the webmistress of Tilneys and Trap-doors andThe Cult of Da Man and has a childlike fascination with big wooden ships and the men who sail them.

Minature portrait of Capt. Francis Austen, by kind permission of owner. All other reproduction prohibited.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Ed. by R.W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923.
Austen-Leigh, William and Richard Arthur. Jane Austen, A Family History. Revised and enlarged by Deirdre LeFaye. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989.
Glover, Michael. The Napoleonic Wars: an illustrated history 1792-1815. New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1979.
Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Parkinson, C. Northcote. Brittania Rules: The Classic Age of Naval History, 1793-1815. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1994.
Tucker, George Holbert. A History of Jane Austen’s Family. Sutton Publishing, 1998.

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Austen’s Appeal

With the upcoming release of Northanger Abbey, the last of Jane Austen’s six major novels to be filmed in the past few years, there is much questioning as to why Jane Austen, long the staple of high school English Literature classes, has become so wildly popular. In a world filled with rudeness and disrespect, she has gained not only a loyal following (though there has always been a faithful remnant), but worldwide media acclaim such as she did not experience even during her lifetime!

P&P Video Cover

Many people claim that it is the movies made in the last five years that have caused this meteoric rise in popularity, making Jane Austen a household name and her works blockbuster successes. However, twenty years ago the same books were transferred to film without the same results. Better actors you say? Well, there is something to be said for that, as well as the fact that these new movies have larger budgets. I think, though, that the real answer lies in a changing mindset of today’s women. Without interest in these stories, the movies would never have been made. Continue reading Austen’s Appeal

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What makes Persuasion Unique?


In an article entitled “A Masterpiece of Delicate Strength” Elizabeth Bowen asserts: “Not till she [Austen] came to write Persuasion did she break with her self-set limitations. Did something in her demand release, expression, before it was too late?” One cannot help but wonder after reading the novel what direction her writing would have taken had she lived past the age of 42. Perhaps Persuasion gives us an inkling. We sense a shift, a change.

In her famous essay, Virginia Woolf writes:

Vivacious, irrepressible, gifted with an invention of great vitality, there can be no doubt that she would have written more, had she lived, and it is tempting to consider whether she would not have written differently. The boundaries were marked; moons, mountains, and castles lay on the other side. But was she not sometimes tempted to trespass for a minute? Was she not beginning, in her own gay and brilliant manner, to contemplate a little voyage of discovery?
Continue reading What makes Persuasion Unique?

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Darcy’s Romance: The Backbone of P&P

“The very essence of romance is uncertainty.”

~Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Ernest, Act One

She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me!
Pride and Prejudice is more than a romance–a great deal more–but the romance is what continues to make it the favourite book of many people (including my mother-in-law) and to make its adaptations successful commercially. There is a heroine we take into our hearts, a hero, a misunderstanding, and a resolution based on the action the hero takes to
win his bride. It ends on the marriage of the two protagonists. The romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy is the backbone of the novel. Continue reading Darcy’s Romance: The Backbone of P&P

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Inspiring Thousands


When The Jane Austen Centre in Bath was first set up, in May 1999, we recognised the need not only to establish ourselves as a popular tourist attraction, or even as an authoritative body on Jane Austen, but more importantly, we believed one of our aims should be to actively promote reading, making literature appear more accessible and books more readily available. Our latest figures show we have more than achieved this. Working in the Centre’s small but well stocked gift and book shop puts me in the perfect position to identify our visitor’s levels of interest in Jane Austen. Where we were expecting our average visitor to be a real Jane Austen enthusiast, who had read all the novels and wanted to know a bit more about the woman behind the writing, we were wrong. What we are in fact seeing are an increasing number of visitors who know the name, but not the books, who may have seen one or two of the films, but that’s about it. With this in mind, it is with great satisfaction that we can report our book sales figures.

STAGGERING! Continue reading Inspiring Thousands