Friday, May 16, 2008

Logbook poetry

At the Guardian, Veronica Horwell has a lovely piece on Margarette Lincoln's Naval Wives & Mistresses:
True, the upper strata of society and the service were habitual letter-writers in the period of her book, the mid 18th century to the end of the Napoleonic wars; although what survives tends to be incomplete correspondence, a single voice of a duet and not always private, since the gold-braided classes jostled in social networking. Lady Amelia Calder, wife to a rear admiral, fluttered at the Admiralty: "I do desire that you will not be such Savages tomorrow as you have been hitherto, and let us have proper letters by Tuesday's Post." How Lady Elizabeth Collins badgered for her son's advancement can be deduced from the First Lord of the Admiralty's reply: "Madam, It would be very gratifying to me if I had the power to comply with the innumerable applications that are made to me for promotion, and particularly so with your Ladyships . . ." It wasn't that the spouses of the grandest had little to do but chivvy for glory, since many had to manage estates while their husbands were on the far side of the world and the furthest end of a fouled chain of mail deliveries for years at a time. Admiral Codrington dispatched what sound like Post-it notes to his wife instructing her when to paint the garret floors; Mrs Admiral Boscawen filed business reports to her husband (her barley was the best in the parish) and remembered to send a framed print of him to the Corporation of Truro. This was the Penelope side of being "a hero's wife", interrupted on no notice when she had to set out in a chaise in hope of a short port rendezvous. Often enough, the beloved had already heaved off with the tide and the hamper of tender provisions never reached him.

But aside from Admiral Rodney, whose financial worries were legendary, status and money were not the nagging concern in the highest echelons that they were among the middling sort, for whom going to sea as an officer in this period was one of the few possible fast tracks not just to income but prize money, everything that Sir Walter Elliot sneered at in Persuasion as "the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction and raising men to honours which their father and grandfathers never dreamt of". Fictional Captain Wentworth came back from the wars with £25,000 to rescue Anne Elliot and Jane Austen's plot, but nonfictional rewards were less sure; Austen's brother Charles didn't do that well from prizes and he shipped his family aboard to live economically, which likely caused the death of his wife after childbirth. Finance niggles through the middling stories, the prospect of reduction to half-pay come peace or illness; even in fighting-fit years, a man's shipboard expenses could absorb so much income that a couple might not be able to afford to meet or to pay postage. William Wilkinson, ship's master, told his Sally that everything he owned was hers, and sold his flute for two and a half guineas to settle their bills until the Copenhagen prize money should be paid out.


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  2. The picture of naval lives (and the lives of naval families) painted by Patrick O'Brian in his long series of historical novels is about as accurate as one can get. O'Brian put in a lot of time pouring over innumerable letters from that period.