Over the Easter holidays I travelled to Portsmouth with my family to visit the naval dockyard and in particular, the old battleships, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior. Jane Austen's brothers, Frank and Charles, were sailors, working on similar ships, as were several of Jane Austen's characters, most notably Captain Wentworth (Persuasion) and Fanny Price's brother William (Mansfield Park).
Through her brothers, Jane Austen herself was very familiar with naval life and took a keen interest in her brothers' work, and it therefore comes as no surprise that she has used the setting so extensively in her novels. She held an admiration for the navy, and Frederick Wentworth is inarguably one of her most attractive, masculine characters. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the world of the navy of her time and get a close viewpoint of how life was onboard and on the docks.
HMS Victory is, of course, one of the most famous battleships of Jane Austen's time, used by Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar, the decisive sea battle against the French in which the famous admiral was shot and killed in 1805. Nelson was hugely admired and praised at the time, and Frank Austen was excited to serve under his command. Frank was upset to have missed the Trafalgar action, as he had only just been commanded elsewhere, and he never quite ceased to be disappointed. No doubt, HMS Victory must have been very similar to the boats on which Frank served.
HMS Victory is beautifully built and well maintained. The low ceiling and slanted floors of the captain's quarters, or "The Great Cabin", give an antique feel to it, in comparison to the newer Warrior.
The living conditions were certainly better for the captain and his commanders than the sailors down below.
The conditions on the Lower Gun Deck below were very cramped. It is dark, the ceilings are lower, and as you can see, it is difficult to get a good photo in the dim conditions. There was just a tiny hammock space allotted to each sailor, with cannons between the cots.There were 450-600 sailors dining and sleeping on the deck at the same time, and the arrangement hardly allowed any privacy.
The food prepared in the Galley was basic but high in calories, mainly consisting of boiled beef or pork with vegetables or dried fish. Animals were kept on board for meat. The meat was salted down in casks to preserve it.
While HMS Warrior is a newer ship, built in the 1860's, seeing the interiors of the ship would give you quite a good idea of life on board. The captain and the commander's quarters were quite livable, although they were not very large. Naval life must have been very ascetic indeed back at the turn of the century, when the facilities on board were so much more basic.
Life on board was no plain sailing (excuse the pun!). Sailors often suffered from seasickness, Nelson himself included. "Decks could be like wet porous stone with dampness below in every hammock. The hacking cough of men echoed in every hour of the watch. More men died of tuberculosis than were killed by shot, and other diseases...were common" (Honan, p, 160-1.)
However, you couldn't afford to be lazy; there were brutal punishments for inefficient sailors and even the young officers in training. Flogging was commonplace. "You faced the grating with tied wrists as bosun's mates flogged your back into livery pulp. Twenty lashes for minor naval infringements were common: fifty exposed your bones. When three sailors were sentenced to 400, 500 and 600 lashes in this harbour, mates flogged at upright corpses" (Honan: p. 2).
Bloodshed was obviously part of the business, and on the Orlop Deck where wounded sailors were taken for medical assistance, there were some gruesome details on display, such as an amputated leg and some bloody instruments.
Walking down the decks, I imagined myself an Anne Elliot on board with her Captain Wentworth. Seeing the ships helped me understand the story behind Persuasion better. Being a captain was certainly a glamorous job at the time, and one could understand why Anne "gloried in being a sailor's wife". With his newly acquired prize money and fancy title, Captain Wentworth would be a thousand times more presentable in society, a powerful figure and a military hero that people would look up to - Anne Elliot not the least.
However, as I recall Mrs Croft's stories in Persuasion about life on board, describing how wonderful it was to accompany her husband, Admiral Croft, on board, it is hard to imagine anything glamorous about naval life. There was a lot of hardship in terms of food, health and general comfort, and to be one of the only ladies surrounded by hundreds of men through episodes of bloodshed, drunkenness and foul language, it baffles me how the accompanying wives coped from day to day. It reminds me of the scene in Persuasion where Captain Wentworth argues with his sister, Mrs Croft, claiming that a battleship is no place for a woman: "I hate to hear of women on board, or to see them on board; and no ship, under my command, shall ever convey a family of ladies any where, if I can help it." (Ch. 8)
Yet, this was the life that Jane Austen knew inside out and romanticised about; as described by her nephew, James-Edward Austen Leigh, "with ships and sailors she felt herself at home" (p. 18).
'Austen-Leigh, J. E. (2002) A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections. Oxford World Classics.
Honan, P. (1987) Jane Austen - Her Life. Phoenix Giant.