This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the August 1999 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
High on a hill looking out to sea stood a young, exceedingly pretty girl, her luxuriant auburn curls in wild disarray under a bonnet that was making every effort to fly away. She braced herself against the cold January winds, wrapping her woolen cloak more tightly around her. She knew that she should be heading back to the protective shelter of Town Square, St. George’s. However, nothing could persuade her to quit her strategic lookout not far from the narrows, with its unobstructed view of the approaching frigate, its sails borne along by the fierce northeasterly bluffs.
The arrival of the Cleopatra from Portsmouth was eagerly anticipated by St. George’s townspeople; on board were two passengers, the new commanders for the sloops of war that were currently being built. But on January 14, 1805, five weeks short of her 15th birthday, plump, fresh-faced Fanny Palmer, was hoping the Cleopatra would bring her a mail packet that would include a gift from her parents.
What she did not know, and could not have foretold at the time, was that one of those distinguished commanders standing on the deck of the Cleopatra would, in fact, become her husband; that two years after her marriage she would leave Bermuda and spend a good part of her married life on board ship; that she would give birth to four daughters; and that tragically, she would die at age 24. And she certainly would never have imagined that one of her husband’s spinster sisters, “Dear Jane,” tucked away in a Hampshire village writing stories for ‘amusement’ would become one of England’s greatest novelists.
Charles and Fanny Austen’s story is a true love story. “Dreamt of my dearest Fanny,” he would write in his diary 12 years after her untimely death. Because it took root so far away from England, with Charles well removed from his immediate family circle, it is a tale that can stand, if not on its own, certainly on the periphery of that rarefied picture of 19th-Century English country life that we have come to identify as ‘the world of Jane Austen.’ The Austen clan, with its intricate family dynamics, never really seemed to connect with “dear Charles” and his little family, however cheery and loving their communication to one another appeared. Charles was the youngest of eight children. Admittedly, Jane Austen was close to her “own particular little brother,” as she endearingly referred to him, and was keenly interested in following the naval careers of both her sailor brothers, Charles and Francis. Charles was the only one in her family to marry and settle for an extended period overseas. Distances were great and mail took months to reach its destination. Jane and her family were not to meet her baby brother’s bride and two young daughters until four years after their marriage when Charles’ command of the North American Station had ended. By then he had developed a close relationship with his wife’s family, the Palmers, and the Estens. Eventually, the gap that seemed to exist between Charles and the Austens did gradually close, particularly after Fanny’s death.
Captain Charles Austen was 26 when he sailed into St. George’s, with orders to take command of the Indian. It was a promotion made on the recommendation of his previous Captain, Charles Paget, for his outstanding conduct at the capture of three men-of-war and two privateers in the Mediterranean. Since his graduation from the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth in 1794 at the tender age of 15, this young handsome lad had gone straight to sea as a midshipman, quickly rising through the ranks, initially through family connections, and enjoying active service throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with France.
Now in Bermuda, his job serving on the North American Station was to patrol the coast of the United States to enforce the right of search for deserters and for the curtailment of illegal American trade with enemy countries under the influence of France. It was an arduous and thankless job and extremely unprofitable. Charles was not destined to be a wealthy man, as his family, however kindly, never failed to point out. “There must be always something to wish for, and for Charles, we have to wish for rather more money,” his elder sister Cassandra would write in 1811. Thirty years later, she was still lamenting: “I wish he were richer, but fortune has not yet smiled on him.” When fortune did happily, but briefly, fall into his hands as prize money for capturing a privateer in the Mediterranean, he generously bought his sisters two topaz crosses on gold chains. “I shall write again by this post to thank & reproach him — we shall be unbearably fine,” Jane wrote to Cassandra in 1801. Those two exquisite crosses are now on display at Jane Austen’s House, Hampshire.
In the early 1800s, it was decided to make Bermuda, rather than Halifax, an important British naval base.
Accordingly, the decision was made to build more vessels locally and the Admiralty ordered two sloops of war, each to carry 20 guns. It was the first of these sloops, the Indian, commissioned to shipbuilder Tynes of Devonshire, which was to be under Charles Austen’s command. In September 1804, Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra: “My Mother is at this moment reading a letter from my Aunt. Yours to Miss Irvine has thrown them into a quandary about Charles & his prospects…my Mother had previously told my Aunt, without restriction, that a sloop (which my Aunt calls a Frigate) was reserved in the East for Charles; whereas you had replied…on the subject with less explicitness & more caution.
Never mind — let them puzzle on together — As Charles will equally go to the E. Indies…and my Aunt may do what she likes with frigates!” Charles was appointed captain in October, set sail westward in late November on the Cleopatra for a seven-week voyage to what would be his island home for five years.
Fanny — Frances Fitzwilliam Palmer — was the youngest daughter of John Grove Palmer, Attorney General, and Advocate-General in the prize court of Bermuda from 1783 to 1801. A Londoner from Kentish Town, he was rich with a legal family background, but not necessarily in cash. Palmer’s biggest claim to fame in Bermuda was overseeing, in May 1800, a controversial piece of legislation banning any ministers or missionaries who were not from the Church of England or Scotland from preaching and keeping a school. The law targeted Methodist preacher John Stephenson, who had been sent out from Ireland in 1799 and immediately began preaching to the slaves. Stephenson continued to preach after the law was passed, was tried, and jailed in St. George’s for six months. A petition to the King with 115 signatures was circulated, with Stephenson protesting the law as “anti-Christian and unconstitutional.” It was finally agreed in London to let the Act expire at the end of its three-year life. Palmer firmly believed that Methodists were at the root of all revolutionary ideas.
Palmer had married Dorothy Ball of St. George’s. She was the daughter of George and Esther Ball, who owned the property known as Casino on Water Street just behind the State House. The Palmers’ eldest daughter, Esther, married James Christie Esten in 1799. Three years later, Henry Wilkinson tells us in From Sail to Steam, Palmer resigned to attend to his family affairs in London. As he had failed to gain a seat in the Assembly and was not asked to be a Member of Council, he decided to remain in London. One wonders what those family affairs were. Perhaps Harriet, the Palmers’ middle daughter who became Charles Austen’s second wife and who is so frequently referred to as “unwell” in both Fanny’s and the Austens’ correspondence, needed medical attention.
The Palmers took up residence on Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, and remained there until Mrs. Palmer’s death in 1830 at age 73. Keppel Street was to become the fulcrum around which Charles’ little family, several years later, would revolve and it would be the scene of at least one or two visits from “Aunt Jane.” “I am going this morning to see the little girls in Keppel Street,” she wrote to her niece Anna Lefroy in November 1814. And it was to that address on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1817, that Jane wrote her last letter to Charles from Chawton, Hampshire: “God bless you all. Conclude me to be going on well if you hear nothing to the contrary.” She died on July 17, aged 41.
J.G. Palmer’s son-in-law, James Esten, succeeded him as Attorney General in Bermuda. Esten evidently was in London at the time of the Palmers’ return in 1802, probably with his wife Esther. Immediately following Esten’s appointment, they returned to Bermuda. Why Fanny was in Bermuda and how she met her dashing Captain Austen are, at this point, conjecture. We do know for certain that she was born in Bermuda on February 21, 1790. St. George’s, at the time, was a bustling town with British ships anchored in the Harbour or at Ferry Reach. Inland bays were dotted with the Bermuda sloops — known as ‘swift sailers’ — which brought fortune and a fair amount of fame to enterprising privateers. St. George’s was also a garrison town and could rely on military men to lend colour and flair to the Old Town. Fanny, because of her father’s position as AG, would have grown up accustomed to elegant entertainment, society teas, and King’s birthday celebrations. She may have attended an acrobatic or theatrical performance in the upstart new Pembroke Town, later to become Hamilton, its beginnings having taken shape in a coffee house the year of her birth.
One thing is certain. Fanny Palmer would have had ample opportunity to meet the young captain newly arrived in port, fresh from his naval escapades in the Mediterranean. She no doubt would have been caught up in his excitement over the fitting out and launching of his sloop of war, Indian, “the finest and most beautiful ever built,” its recruiting call in the Bermuda Gazette in April 1805 would proclaim. Seamen and “stout landsmen” were asked to fight the Spanish War — now or never. Not only would their pockets be lined with Spanish doubloons and dollars, so would their stomachs with “grog and fresh beef” served every day at noon. Its final sound of the horn, “Success to the Tight Little Island,” surely must have tipped the scale for signers-on; that, and the reputation of the Commander, Charles Austen, for his fairness, integrity, and respect for his men.
Perhaps it was this side of Charles Austen that drew Fanny to him. It was a quality of character very similar to Jane Austen’s depiction of James Benwick in Persuasion as John Hubback points out in Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers: “An excellent, good-hearted fellow, a very active, zealous officer.” For his part, Charles most obviously fell in love with Fanny’s “fair and pink” complexion, her gentleness, modesty, and refined manners. Their wedding took place on May 18, 1807, presided over by Rev. Mr. De Passa, and was a significant enough event to be announced in the Bermuda Gazette. But mention of this auspicious occasion is not to be found in any Jane Austen correspondence. Sadly, it belongs to one of those gap periods — in this instance, from February 1807 to June 1808 — where letters are missing.
But on December 28, 1808, Jane wrote to Cassandra: “I forgot in my last to tell you, that we hear by way of the Palmers, that they were all well at Bermuda in the beginning of November.” As only a proud sister could, she said later in the letter: “I must write to Charles — He is looked up to by everybody in all America.”
In fact, four days earlier, December 24, Charles had already penned a jubilant letter to Cassandra, announcing the birth of his daughter. In this letter, now owned by Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, he described his little girl as “the finest that ever was — a good looking healthy young Lady “and as fat as butter. I mean to call her Cassandra Esten.” He asked his elder sister to be her godmother, a gesture that would be the beginning of a very close relationship between ‘the two Cassandras.’ Shortly before her death in 1845, Cassandra made Cassy Esten (who died a spinster at age 89) executor for her personal effects, including at least a dozen Jane Austen letters, the topaz cross that Charles had given her, and other miscellaneous articles and papers. Most of these were sold at auction by Cassy’s unmarried nieces in the 1920s.
Charles, by his own admission, was fortunate to be given permission to be in port for Fanny’s confinement. Ever since the Indian was launched from Mr. Goodrich’s Wharf in St. George’s, he had been sailing the high seas on cruises, many with a convoy and under sealed orders. The Bermuda Gazette makes several notes of his comings and goings between Bermuda, Halifax, and Haiti.
He was never lucky enough to capture another ‘prize’ – no more extravagant crosses and gold chains. In that same letter of December 24 to his sister, he writes of having captured “a little Frenchman” — La Juene Estelle — but she got away from him, due to bad weather. Jane Austen, who had also heard from Charles, refers to the mishap. “He had taken a small prize in his late cruise: a French schooner laden with Sugar, but Bad weather parted them,” she wrote in January 1809. But for Charles, the misfortune was more the loss of the lives of his crew — “two of them mids” — than the loss of bounty. “Confess little hope of ever hearing from her,” he wrote resignedly, dismissing the matter.
An entry in the Bermuda Gazette for May 12, 1810, notes the arrival of Swiftsure and Indian in Bermuda. That would be Charles Austen’s last cruise on his old Indian, as he fondly referred to the ship which had become his pride and joy. He had now been promoted to rank of post-captain of the Swiftsure. Within a few days, he would bundle his little family, which included a new infant daughter, Harriet Jane, on board. The Austens sailed away to Halifax and then to England. Fanny would never see Bermuda again.
Discovering the Bermuda Connection
It all started with Dick and Pam Angel’s visit to Bermuda a few years ago. The Angels, who hail from the U.K., were enjoying a meal at Somerset Country Squire. Dick happened to notice a handsomely-framed blow-up of an old newspaper advertisement hanging on the wall. On closer inspection, they realized it was a recruitment call, published in the Bermuda Gazette on April 13, 1805, for a Bermuda-built sloop of war the Indian. What intrigued them most was the name of its Commander, Charles John Austen, Esq.
Back home in East Sussex, they called their neighbour down the lane, Francis Austen, and asked if the commander could possibly be related to him. Francis Austen the great great-nephew of Jane Austen, was astounded. Yes, he knew that his great-grandfather, Admiral Francis Austen, and his sailor brother, Charles, had both been assigned to the North American and Jamaica Stations during the heady days of war with France and her allies in the early and mid-1800s. But he had no idea of the Bermuda connection.
And so began Francis Austen’s ‘Bermuda Journey,’ leading him to discover that the Admiral was stationed at Dockyard in 1845, patrolling the Atlantic with his flagship Vindictive. But the most interesting discovery for Francis was Charles’ posting to Bermuda in 1804 to be the commander of Indian.
Francis Austen’s ‘journey’ led to the decision to hold the Jane Austen Society’s Millennium Conference in Bermuda next year, May 2 – 9. A naval and military theme will predominate, with an exciting line-up of speakers. Editor and author Brian Southam will be presenting a lecture “Jane Austen and the Navy.” Deirdre Le Faye, whose recent, updated edition of Jane Austen’s Letters has become indispensable to all serious Austen scholars and researchers, has titled her lecture “She Gloried in being a Sailor’s Wife.” Of particular interest to the local community may be Helen Lefroy’s presentation on the brilliant career of John Henry Lefroy, who was governor of Bermuda from 1871 to 1877. One of Jane’s nieces, Anna, was married to an uncle of the Governor.
Lending support to the visit will be the Bermuda National Gallery’s exhibition of a fine collection of topographical drawings of Bermuda, executed by some of the officers of the Admiral’s ship Vindictive. The Austen family will also be contributing to the exhibit with several watercolours by Herbert Grey, the Admiral’s son, and his flag-lieutenant. Says Francis: “We look happily upon this Gallery exhibition as a connecting centerpiece to our conference.”
Brian Southam, when asked the significance of this Millennium visit in Bermuda, says: “It is a wonderful opportunity to bring the Austens together.”