Frances Fitzwilliam “Fanny” Palmer Austen
The Wife of Captain Charles Austen
23 June marks the 244th birthday of Captain Charles Austen, Jane Austen’s youngest brother.
Charles married his first wife Fanny Palmer in Bermuda on 19 May 1807. Fanny bravely lived onboard the warship HMS Namur alongside her husband from 1811 to around 1814.
Fanny was the youngest daughter of the late Attorney-General of Bermuda and together they had three children.
Fanny had a close relationship with her sister-in-law Jane, and was an inspiration for Jane’s novel Persuasion. in the novel, Jane describes how the heroine’s love interest’s sister is married to a senior Navy officer who lived with him aboard some of the ships he commanded.
Officer’s wives rarely lived aboard their husband’s ships, and Fanny was seen as one of the outliers, and it is thought that she inspired the character Sophie Croft in Persuasion.
Fanny’s first child, Cassandra Esten, was born on 22 December 1808, when Charles was in command of HMS Indian, on the North American and Caribean Station. Her second child, Harriet Jane, was born on 19 February 1810.
Fanny came to England in 1811 and found that she and Jane had many things in common, including a love of the sea. During 1812 and 1813, John Grove Palmer, Fanny’s father, arranged a holiday at Southend in Essex.
It was during the 1813 visit that Fanny spent July to September with her family, and the following month she and Charles with two of their children visited brother Edward’s house at Godmersham Park in Kent.
Jane Austen was also staying at Godmersham at the same time, and they got on well, both having a love of the sea. Fanny’s descriptions of Southend may have inspired Jane’s novel Sanditon.
Fanny’s third child, born on 1 December 1812, when Charles was in command of the much larger HMS Namur, was named after her, Frances, Palmer. Fanny gave birth to her fourth child, Elizabeth, on board the Namur, on 31 August 1814.
She developed post-natal complications, and died six days after the birth. Elizabeth also died, before she was a month old.
Charles was devastated and he sent his daughters home to be cared for by their Aunt Harriet.
Charles later married Fanny’s sister in 1820 which was contrary to the law at the time. They had four children together, and one of their sons followed in Charles footsteps and joined the Navy.
Another Wonderful Letter Writer
Fanny wrote many letters in her lifetime, like Jane, and they reveal a rare and honest account of the challenges she faced, and describes what it was like to be a naval wife and mother living at sea during the later years of the Napoleonic Wars.
They also show a glimpse into day to day life, and how she undertook the unusual task of making a family home for Charles and their young daughters on board a warship.
Dedication to a Wonderful Wife
Fanny’s burial stone reads:
Sacred to the Memory of
FRANCES FITZWILLIAMS AUSTEN,
Capt. Charles John Austen, (of the Royal Navy),
who Died in Child Bed, Sept 6th, 1814,
Aged 24 years.
Stop, Passenger and Contemplate!
A Child whom Nature’s God had taught the Way,
Her Parents’ dictates ne’er to disobey;
A Sister in whom Center’d every Love,
To Charm the Angels in the Realms above,
A Loving Wife, a Parent Truly dear,
A Pious Christian and a Friend sincere,
Reader! Example take, let you and I
Live as She liv’d, and like Her learn to Die.
Sleep on dear fair One, wait the Almighty’s will,
Then rise unchang’d and be an Angel Still.
Also their infant Daughter ELIZABETH,
who Died 20th September, 1814. Age 21 days.
Fanny Palmer Austen is buried at Kentish Town St John the Baptist
Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister: The Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen by Sheila Johnson Kindred.
Based largely on correspondence from 1810-1814, and on Fanny’s diary, Sheila concludes that Fanny, who spent two and a half years living aboard ship with her husband, Captain of HMS Namur, was the basis for Mrs Croft, the wife of Admiral Croft in her novel Persuasion.
Sheila has a wonderful website that features a blog post – Fanny, Jane and Seaside Watering Places
See the wonderful video put together by Chatham Dockyard that features Fanny as part of their Hidden Heroins at Sea series.