The Endymion came into Portsmouth on Sunday, & I have sent Charles a short letter by this day’s post…He has received 30£ for his share of the privateer & expects 10£ more – but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters. He has been buying Gold chains & Topaze Crosses for us; – he must be well scolded…I shall write again by this post to thank and reproach him. We shall be unbearably fine. Jane Austen to Cassandra, 27 May 1801
Charles Austen was one of two of Jane’s brother’s who chose the Royal Navy as a profession when Britain was at the height of its naval power during the Napoleonic wars, and global expansion during the 19th-century. He and his elder brother Sir Francis William Austen would both enter the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth at the tender age of twelve, continue up the ranks, sail the world in his Majesties service, and achieve considerable success; Charles attaining Rear Admiral and Francis Admiral of the Fleet. Reading about their naval exploits and adventures in the book Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by John Henry Hubback and Edith Hubback (1906), one could easily conclude that they could have inspired events in C.S. Forester’s books on the career of dashing naval officer Horatio Hornblower.
In 1801 the HMS Endymion made port at Portsmouth and the considerate Lieutenant Charles Austen arrived bearing gifts for his two sisters; – the famous topaze crosses and gold chains purchased in Gibraltar from his share of prize money from the capture of a French vessel, the Scipio, in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. They now reside at the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton for all to admire. In Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, readers will recognize the similarity of Jane’s real life events to her characters when Fanny Price receives an amber cross from her sailor brother William.
The ball was now a settled thing, and before the evening a proclaimed thing to all whom it concerned. Invitations were sent with despatch, and many a young lady went to bed that night with her head full of happy cares as well as Fanny. To her the cares were sometimes almost beyond the happiness; for young and inexperienced, with small means of choice and no confidence in her own taste, the “how she should be dressed” was a point of painful solicitude; and the almost solitary ornament in her possession, a very pretty amber cross which William had brought her from Sicily, was the greatest distress of all, for she had nothing but a bit of ribbon to fasten it to; and though she had worn it in that manner once, would it be allowable at such a time in the midst of all the rich ornaments which she supposed all the other young ladies would appear in? And yet not to wear it! William had wanted to buy her a gold chain too, but the purchase had been beyond his means, and therefore not to wear the cross might be mortifying him. These were anxious considerations; enough to sober her spirits even under the prospect of a ball given principally for her gratification. Chapter 26, Mansfield Park
A testament to their affection for one another, her ‘own particular little brother’ Charles Austen is mentioned quite frequently in Jane Austen’s letters as she follows his career during the Napoleonic wars, his marriage and his children. It is believed that the character of William Price in Mansfield Park is based upon him. After her death, Jane Austen’s topaze cross and chain was bequeathed to her dearest friend Martha Lloyd who treasured it for the rest of her life. Charles Austen kept daily journals and diaries during his life that now reside at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, but unfortunately, no letters written to him from his sister survive.
Significant life events
1779 – Charles John was the seventh child born to George and Cassandra Austen on 23rd of June at Steventon rectory, Hampshire
1791 – Entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth age 12
1794 – Appointed as Midshipman to HMS Daedalus under the command of Capt Thomas Williams (husband of his cousin Jane Cooper). Later served with him on the Unicorn and Endymion three years
1797 – Promoted to lieutenant and appointed to HMS Scorpion.
1801 – Returned to Portsmouth on HMS Endymion with two topaze crosses and gold chains for his sisters Jane and Cassandra
1802 – Peace of Amiens demobilizes British military. Charles takes a holiday with the Austen’s to Devon
1803 – Returned to active service after war with France is renewed
1804 – Promoted to commander and given sloop HMS Indian. Serves at the North American Station out of Bermuda until 1811
1807 – Married Frances Fitzwilliam Palmer on 19th of May in Bermuda (the youngest daughter of the late Attorney-General of Bermuda), children: Cassandra Esten (1808), Harriet Jane (1810), Frances Palmer (1812), Elizabeth (1814)
1810 – Promoted to captain and given command of the 74-gun HMS Swiftsure
1814– Death of Charles’ wife Fanny aboard the HMS Namur following the birth of her fourth child
1816 – Wreck of his ship Phoenix off Smyrna through the ignorance of her pilots. Ten year gap before given another ship.
1817 – Visits his sister Jane on June 19th in Winchester for the last time. Receives news on July 20th of her death two days prior on the 18th.
1820 – Married Harriet Ebel Palmer on 7th August in London (elder sister of his first wife Frances), children: Charles John (1821), George (1822), Jane (1824), Henry (1826)
1826 – Appointed to the 46-gun HMS Aurora and sent to the Jamaica Station as the second in command actively combating the slave trade with considerable success
1840 – Awarded a Companion of the Order of the Bath for good service during the bombardment of Acre in the Mediterranean
1846 – Advanced to rear-admiral on 9th of November
1850 – Appointed commander-in-chief in the East Indies
1852 – Died off Prome, Burma board HMS Flute on the 7th of October of cholera, age 73.
To a very remarkable sweetness of temper, & benevolence of character he joined great personal advantages, and that even to the last. When the Admiral left England in February (though in the 71st year of his age) his tall, erect figure, his bright eye & animated countenance would have given the impression of a much younger man; had it not been for the rather remarkable contrast with his hair, which, originally dark, had become of a snowy white. Anna Le Froy
Gentle Reader: In honor of JASNA’s annual meeting in Philadelphia this week, this blog, Jane Austen’s World, and Jane Austen Today will be devoting posts to Jane Austen and her siblings. Look for new links each day.
- Cassandra Austen: Jane’ confidante, supporter and helpmate
- Jane Austen’s Siblings – Rev. James Austen 1765-1819
- Jane Austen’s Siblings – Rev. Henry Thomas Austen 1771-1850
- Edward Austen Knight: A tightwad or a man with heavy responsibilities?
- Sir Francis William Austen: Glimpses of Jane’s sailor brother in letters
- George Austen: Jane Austen’s almost forgotten, invisible brother
- Jane Austen Biographies – Guided by Reason
- Illustrated Books About Jane Austen and Her Milieu