In Jane Austen’s books, most naval men come home to their wives, sisters, mothers, and sweethearts. Service at sea in the Napoleonic Wars was cast in Austen’s novels as more opportunity than threat, with young men going forth to make their fortune and returning as captains ready to wed.
The only seaman to not make it home alive in an Austen novel was a small bit player in her last novel, Persuasion, and he was the unlovable and unworthy Richard “Dick” Musgrove, which was no loss at all. Nevertheless, this was far from the reality of Austen’s day. Why was she so sentimental about the Royal Navy when she was sharp enough about everything else?
It was probably because Austen’s brothers in the Navy all lived and rose to high ranks and established their wealth during these conflicts; that was the world as she knew it. Furthermore, her love for her siblings edged upon religious devotion, and their profession was as sacrosanct as they were. The only negative emotion she ever expressed regarding the loving a seafaring man was, again, in Persuasion, where she wrote that the hero’s profession as a captain, “was all that could ever make [Anne Elliot Wentworth’s] friends wish that tenderness less, the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine.”
Even then, Austen declared that Anne, “gloried in being a sailor’s wife”, even though “she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.” It was clear that in Austen’s opinion to be a Naval officer was all that was noble, and to be a naval officers wife was worth risking the ultimate sacrifice of losing one’s husband.
The modern reader is blissfully unaware of how truly dangerous going to sea in His Majesty’s Service really was, but the contemporary reader could have not have been ignorant of the facts. If nothing else, horrific shipwrecks happened with distressing regularity off the coast of England even without military action.
For example, on 26 January 1800 the HMS Brazen, under the command of Captain James Hanson, was wrecked under high cliffs west of Newhaven in East Sussex by strong winds. The crew cut the main and mizzen masts to lighten the ship and try to prevent avoid the Brazen from hitting the rocks, but even without the masts the waves were too strong. The Brazen tipped (or heeled) over onto her side, sending the men into the water. At dawn,
the Brazen‘s hull was visible about half a mile from shore. The tide was low and observers could see large numbers of her crew still clinging to the upturned hull. As the hours passed the ship’s remains gradually disappeared, until by high tide the waves were “breaking nearly fifty feet up the cliff face”
Captain Andrew Sproule, Commander of the Brighton Sea Fencibles, tried to effect a rescue but it was no use.
Of a crew of 105, there was only one survivor, able bodied seaman Jeremiah Hill. The townspeople of Newhaven recovered 95 bodies and buried in the churchyard of St Michael’s church. Captain Hanson’s body was never found; Davy Jones kept him. The captain’s widow, Louisa Hansen, lived to the age of 103 without remarrying, and “is believed to have been the longest recipient of a naval pension on record.”
The people of Newhaven were so distraught by their inability to save the men clinging to the ship that in “May 1803, using funds partly raised locally and partly from Lloyd’s of London, they acquired a rescue lifeboat of Henry Greathead‘s “Original” design … some twenty years before the formation of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)”, just in case it ever happened again on their shores.
The Brazen was one of almost 200 ships lost in 1800 to Great Britain alone and even more were lost in battle. Serving in the Navy may have been glorious, but was frequently also an one-way ticket to a wet grave.