Books of the month: March and April – Persuasion and Mansfield Park

Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen

For some reason, although I had read the other five main Austen books, and all sorts of naval fiction, I had never read Persuasion, which in a way is both. Having finally got round to it, I did enjoy it very much, although I ended up feeling that I didn’t know nearly as much about the main characters, or their relationship, as I did about the many minor characters, all of whom seemed to be sketched in far more vividly.

From the Age of Sail point of view, I enjoyed seeing the busy, friendly, competent world of the naval officers and their families – the Harvilles and Captain Benwick and their open hospitality – ‘so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display’ – and the network of naval acquaintances in Bath, which is quite clearly the inspiration for the similar naval world of the Patrick O’Brian novels.

I hadn’t set out to read an Age of Sail book in April, but Persuasion having sent me off on an Austen kick again, I realised that I’d forgotten how much of the navy there was in Mansfield Park.

As with so many things in this book, this includes the darker side of the navy – Fanny’s rough Marine lieutenant father, and the Crawfords’ Admiral uncle who takes his mistress to live with him – but the navy still manages to produce one of the kinder and more effective characters of the book, in Fanny’s lieutenant brother, and the most promising of her younger brothers is also going to sea. And it’s interesting to get a comtemporary view of Portsmouth.