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  • “Domestic Virtues and National Importance”:Lord Nelson, Captain Wentworth, and the English Napoleonic War Hero
  • Jocelyn Harris (bio)

The ancient canard that Jane Austen did not write about the Napoleonic Wars is annihilated in Brian Southam's Jane Austen and the Navy. As he proves, her detailed knowledge of the British navy, its battles, and its personalities is clear, particularly in Persuasion. I suggest in this article that Austen was just as alert to the cult of naval heroism, which represented a new kind of masculinity and a new kind of Englishness. Although she denied reading any lives of Lord Nelson, she models Captain Wentworth in Persuasion not only on her brothers, as is well known, but also on England's foremost naval hero, especially as Robert Southey represented him in his hagiographic Life of Nelson of 1813. That is, Wentworth enacts many of Nelson's most admirable qualities, but the adulterous admiral was no exemplar for the "domestic virtues" lauded in the last sentence of her novel. Nor was the battered, wizened appearance of England's prematurely aged defender appropriate to her hero. For Wentworth's contemptuous curl of the mouth and his bright, proud eye, Austen turned elsewhere, to the dashing villain-heroes of Byron's Oriental tales. Byron's admiration for Napoleon then so complicated the issue, however, that she had to clear away all taint of imperial tyranny and misogyny.

As Austen considered what it meant to be a Napoleonic war hero, she may also have called upon Othello, the sailors' favourite, for Wentworth's pride of service and his jealousy, and on Antony for his [End Page 181] feminization. Finally, she seems to turn to Captain Cook, the very emblem of British manliness, for the most unimpeachable aspects of Wentworth's character. Her attention to masculinity as much as femininity suggests that, in spite of persistent assertions that she could not write about men, she moved easily between the public and the private spheres of action that convention called male and female.

Many of Persuasion's first readers must have realized, without Austen needing to remark upon it, that Captain Wentworth's status as a star of the Navy List is frequently enhanced by his resemblance to the man Southey called the "darling hero of England," Horatio Lord Nelson.1 The Admiral was virtually deified after his death at Trafalgar in 1805. Even "his leaden coffin, in which he was brought home, was cut in pieces, which were distributed as relics of Saint Nelson." Likewise at his interment, when a flag was about to be lowered into the grave, the attending sailors rent it into pieces, "that each might preserve a fragment while he lived."2 After Trafalgar, his image appeared everywhere from the theatre to any imaginable souvenir.3 Although Nelson exemplified what Linda Colley calls the ostentatious cult of heroism and state service that arose during the wars,4 his public and private reputations were both problematic.

The rapid trajectory of Wentworth's career follows the early stages of Nelson's meteoric rise. After entering the navy at the age of twelve, Nelson was a midshipman at seventeen years, a lieutenant at eighteen and a half, instead of the usual twenty, and a commander, then a captain at twenty.5 Part of the Nelson legend was that he rose by merit, not patronage, and Wentworth too earns his way, beginning his life of command in the Asp, a one-masted sloop of war.6 [End Page 182]

Sloops, the smallest vessels of war except for cutters, were rated sixth. Sometimes they carried out the patrol duties of frigates, but being vulnerable because of their size, they kept close to shore for raiding and cutting-out expeditions to capture particular ships.7 Sloops were usually commanded by lieutenants, but in 1806, Captain Wentworth is "made commander in consequence of the action off St Domingo" (26), his "hero-promotion" being one way for a lieutenant without patronage to command a sloop and claim prize money.8 In Wentworth's passage on the way home the following autumn, he duly takes "privateers enough to be very entertaining" (66). By capturing these virtual pirates, for privateers were...


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