Before discussing Fanny Austen, we must, first, establish the lady’s relationship to the author Jane Austen by mentioning the lady’s husband, Rear Admiral Charles John Austen (23 June 1778 – 7 October 1852), who was the sixth and youngest son of the Reverend George Austen. Like his elder brother, Sir Francis Austen, Charles joined the Royal Navy Academy, eventually becoming a midshipman on HMS Daedalus and served throughout the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and beyond, achieving the rank of Rear Admiral.
Austen married Frances Palmer, the subject of this piece, in 1807. She was the youngest daughter of the late Attorney-General of Bermuda. Together, they had three children. [Please note: After the death of Frances in 1814, Charles married his late wife’s sister, Harriet Palmer in 1820, which was, at that time contrary to the law of the land and considered a Voidable Marriage. Charles and Harriet had 4 children. One of his sons by Harriet followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the British Royal Navy.]
Yet, this piece is designed to use Fanny Austen as the model for Mrs. Croft in Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion. Do you recall this scene?
“Oh! Frederick! But I cannot believe it of you. –All idle refinement! –Women may be as comfortable on board, as in the best house in England. I believe I have lived as much on board as most women, and I know nothing superior to the accommodations of a man-of-war. I declare I have not a comfort or an indulgence about me, even at Kellynch Hall,” (with a kind bow to Anne), “beyond what I always had in most of the ships I have lived in; and they have been five altogether.”
“Nothing to the purpose,” replied her brother. “You were living with your husband, and were the only woman on board.”
“But you, yourself, brought Mrs Harville, her sister, her cousin, and three children, round from Portsmouth to Plymouth. Where was this superfine, extraordinary sort of gallantry of yours then?”
“All merged in my friendship, Sophia. I would assist any brother officer’s wife that I could, and I would bring anything of Harville’s from the world’s end, if he wanted it. But do not imagine that I did not feel it an evil in itself.”
“Depend upon it, they were all perfectly comfortable.”
“I might not like them the better for that perhaps. Such a number of women and children have no right to be comfortable on board.”
“My dear Frederick, you are talking quite idly. Pray, what would become of us poor sailors’ wives, who often want to be conveyed to one port or another, after our husbands, if everybody had your feelings?”
“My feelings, you see, did not prevent my taking Mrs Harville and all her family to Plymouth.”
“But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
“Ah! my dear,” said the Admiral, “when he had got a wife, he will sing a different tune. When he is married, if we have the good luck to live to another war, we shall see him do as you and I, and a great many others, have done. We shall have him very thankful to anybody that will bring him his wife.”
“Ay, that we shall.”
“Now I have done,” cried Captain Wentworth. “When once married people begin to attack me with,–`Oh! you will think very differently, when you are married.’ I can only say, `No, I shall not;’ and then they say again, `Yes, you will,’ and there is an end of it.”
He got up and moved away.
“What a great traveller you must have been, ma’am!” said Mrs Musgrove to Mrs Croft.
“Pretty well, ma’am in the fifteen years of my marriage; though many women have done more. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies, and back again, and only once; besides being in different places about home: Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never went beyond the Streights, and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.”
Mrs Musgrove had not a word to say in dissent; she could not accuse herself of having ever called them anything in the whole course of her life.
“And I do assure you, ma’am,” pursued Mrs Croft, “that nothing can exceed the accommodations of a man-of-war; I speak, you know, of the higher rates. When you come to a frigate, of course, you are more confined; though any reasonable woman may be perfectly happy in one of them; and I can safely say, that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship. While we were together, you know, there was nothing to be feared. Thank God! I have always been blessed with excellent health, and no climate disagrees with me. A little disordered always the first twenty-four hours of going to sea, but never knew what sickness was afterwards. The only time I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal, when the Admiral (Captain Croft then) was in the North Seas. I lived in perpetual fright at that time, and had all manner of imaginary complaints from not knowing what to do with myself, or when I should hear from him next; but as long as we could be together, nothing ever ailed me, and I never met with the smallest inconvenience.”
From Austen’s letters, as well as others in her family such as Caroline Austen (Fanny’s niece) and Fanny Knight who wrote in her diary in May 1807, “Uncle Charles and the lovely Fanny Palmer are married at Bermuda.” (Deidre Le Faye’s Chronology of Jane Austen and Her Family, page 339)
Charles Austen first met Frances Fitzwilliam Palmer when Fanny was but 15. Charles was twelve years her senior. They, however, reportedly fell deeply in love. Eventually, they were married in St. Peter’s Church, Bermuda on 19 May 1807. She was 17, at the time.
His land base during their early years of marriage was St. George’s, Bermuda, where Fanny tended to their daughters, Cassandra Esten (born in December 1808) and Harried Jane (who arrived in February 1810). We know something of her life with Charles in the letters she wrote to family during their years together. From those letters we know that Fanny looked up to her husband with much admiration. We know they appeared to be a happily married couple, who enjoyed each other’s company. They had an active social life together in Halifax, as his promotion to post captain and the command of the Swiftsure, the flagship of his commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, placed him thusly.
As to the character of Mrs. Croft, like Fanny, Mrs. Croft was noticeably content in sharing her husband’s lifestyle. Mrs. Croft and the Admiral were a “particularly attached and happy” pairing. Austen allows the reader to view their relationship in some detail. For example, when the Crofts are out driving in a gig, we read: “But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.” Mrs. Croft does not criticize her husband, she simply assists him where needed.
As did Mrs. Croft when she said: The only time I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal, when the Admiral (Captain Croft then) was in the North Seas. I lived in perpetual fright at that time, and had all manner of imaginary complaints from not knowing what to do with myself, or when I should hear from him next…, Fanny Austen wrote of her anguish when Captain Austen delivered troops close to the battle ground in Portugal during the Peninsular War. She wrote (summer 1810): “Captain Austen’s sudden departure, and the uncertainty of his returning…if he is not here by the middle of September, I shall give him up.”
Later, in late 1813, Fanny wrote to her brother-in-law, James Christie Esten, who resided in Bermuda, at the time. “Charles is very anxious to be in active serve just now…should he be fortunate enough to get a frigate before the American War is over, he will certainly endeavor to go out to that station and has promised I shall accompany him.”
We know that Fanny made several journeys with her husband, especially between Bermuda and Halifax on a variety of ships. She also made a transatlantic voyage back to England in June 1811. As noted above, Mrs. Croft lived on five of her husband’s ships and crossed the Atlantic four times. Also above, one must note how Mrs. Croft tells Mrs. Musgrove, “[W]e do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.” One can easily assume Jane Austen learned something of Bermuda from Frances Austen, her sister-in-law.
Others have dared to compare Fanny Austen to the ill-fated Fanny Harville, also in Persuasion. If one recalls, Captain Benwick, Captain Wentworth’s lieutenant when they were sailing on the Laconia, had been engaged to Captain Harivlle’s sister, Fanny. Benwick was attempting to win enough prize money so they might marry. Unfortunately, Fanny Harville dies while Benwick is away at sea. He goes into a deep depression. Ironically, Fanny Austen died early also (at age 24) from complications of child birth, Charles Austen’s short-lived daughter, Elizabeth. This event happened in September 1814, before Jane wrote Persuasion. Many wonder if Charles Austen grief was recorded in the character of Captain Benwick.