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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History


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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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Portsmouth: Reliving Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ June 27, 2019

In my series following in the footsteps of Jane Austen at the seashore I have presented the resorts as they are situated geographically from west to east. Actually, though, I started my adventure right in the middle, at Portsmouth. That’s appropriate because Portsmouth comes rather in the middle of Jane’s own story since she lived in nearby Southampton before moving to Chawton, and her novel Mansfield Park, with its centerpiece visit to Portsmouth, is near the middle of her literary output.

Portsmouth MysteryFest

My first attempt to attend MysteryFest, a new addition to Portsmouth’s long-standing BookFest celebration every February and March, was cancelled last year when “The Beast from the East” struck with a vengeance. So I was delighted to be invited back this year for a great day at the Portsmouth Central Library.

The day covered every aspect of mystery writing, including the panel I was on with such luminaries as Carol Westron, Leigh Russell and Diana Bretherick as we were questioned by reviewers Dorothy Marshall-Gent and Dr. Jennifer Palmer.

The delightful Simon Brett was our featured speaker.

And the lovely Lizzie Hayes from Mystery People was there to cheer us on.

It was especially fun to share my Jane Austen titles : A Jane Austen Encounter and A Most Singular Venture on the book table since my next in that series will include Jane’s time in Portsmouth.


After the festivities I turned my attention to Regency Portsmouth, which, of course, focused on the Royal Navy, including Jane’s sailor brothers Francis and Charles. Walking the Nelson Trail was first on my list for discovering what Portsmouth would have been like in Jane’s day and scouting out the places she used for scenes in Mansfield Park.

Portsmouth in Jane’s Letters

Jane’s letters are full of references to Portsmouth such as, “I heard from Portsmouth yesterday.”

 She often wrote about her brothers’ visits there: Frank “cannot get some necessary business of his own attended to while Portsmouth is in such a bustle,” Or, “Charles hoped to reach Portsmouth by Monday or Tuesday.”

Later, she was pleased to learn that the means of conveying her letter to Charles in Halifax would be at hand because their mother read in the paper that “the ‘Urania’ was waiting at Portsmouth for the convoy for Halifax.”

She also noted the comings and goings of other visitors to the city, such as her enigmatic comments: “Miss Curling is actually at Portsmouth, which I was always in hopes would not happen.” And later, “I dare not hope that Mary and Miss Curling may be detained at Portsmouth so long or half so long; but it would be worth twopence to have it so.”

Likewise, she teased Cassandra, “Take care of yourself, and do not be trampled to death in running after the Emperor. The report in Alton yesterday was that they would certainly travel this road either to or from Portsmouth.” (Tsar Alexander I of Russia was to be honored in a Naval Review in Portsmouth.)

And it was to Portsmouth she sent the painful letter announcing their father’s death: “the probability of your being by this time at Portsmouth, obliges me to write to you again. . . We have lost an excellent father. . .”

Francis Austen in Portsmouth

Portsmouth was England’s primary naval port because it faced the enemy France. So it was important to both of Jane’s naval brothers. Francis, however, was the one who actually made it his home. In 1830 Francis was promoted to Rear-Admiral. About that time he purchased Portsdown Lodge, where he lived for the rest of his life. While he was still living there the government bought the property to include within the lines of forts for the defense of Portsmouth.

In 1854, at the outbreak of the Crimean War, Francis was offered the command of Portsmouth, but declined it as being “too onerous for an octogenarian.”

 Portsmouth in Mansfield Park

Portsmouth actually permeates Mansfield Park more than a casual reader might realize. It makes its appearance early in the novel as Jane uses the problem of getting the young Fanny Price to Mansfield Park as means of allowing the odious Mrs. Norris to show her colors with her proposal for fetching the young girl from her Portsmouth home: “They may easily get her from Portsmouth to town by the coach, under the care of any creditable person that may chance to be going. I dare say there is always some reputable tradesman’s wife or other going up.”

Jane well knew the value of letters from a brother in Portsmouth. She wrote, “Twice every day I think of a letter from Portsmouth.” And she assigned this “degree of happiness” to Fanny when she receives a letter from her beloved brother William in Mansfield Park: “She had a letter from him herself, a few hurried happy lines, written as the ship came up Channel, and sent into Portsmouth with the first boat that left the Antwerp at anchor in Spithead;”

But, oh, the joy, it was not merely a letter. It was a letter announcing the imminent arrival of William at Mansfield Park. William is to spend his brief period of shore leave from the navy with his sister. While with Fanny, the subject of Portsmouth arises:

“This is the assembly night,” said William. “If I were at Portsmouth I should be at it, perhaps.”

“But you do not wish yourself at Portsmouth, William?”

“No, Fanny, that I do not. I shall have enough of Portsmouth and of dancing too, when I cannot have you. And I do not know that there would be any good in going to the assembly, for I might not get a partner. The Portsmouth girls turn up their noses at anybody who has not a commission.”

The visit, though, was all too short. “William was required to be at Portsmouth on the 24th; the 22nd would therefore be the last day of his visit.”

William’s departure gave rise to the scheme that Fanny “should accompany her brother back to Portsmouth, and spend a little time with her own family.” Fanny has been obstinate in refusing offers from Henry Crawford. Perhaps, Sir Thomas thinks, a time experiencing the inconveniences of her former home would make her appreciate the refinements of Mansfield Park.

She has mixed emotions when they arrive “in the environs of Portsmouth while there was yet daylight for Fanny to look around her, and wonder at the new buildings. They passed the drawbridge, and entered the town; and the light was only beginning to fail as, guided by William’s powerful voice, they were rattled into a narrow street, leading from the High Street, and drawn up before the door of a small house now inhabited by Mr. Price.”

There was once a moat with a drawbridge that soldiers raised in the evenings to close off the less salubrious part of town. That is long gone, but I thought of Fanny when I crossed this bridge on the Nelson Trail.

The High Street now contains many historic buildings, including the Dolphin, the oldest pub in Portsmouth.

Fanny is not there long before Sir Thomas’s ulterior motives gain success in Fanny’s mind: “In a review of the two houses, as they appeared to her before the end of a week, Fanny was tempted to apply to them Dr. Johnson’s celebrated judgment as to matrimony and celibacy, and say, that though Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures.”

“As for any society in Portsmouth, that could at all make amends for deficiencies at home, there were none within the circle of her father’s and mother’s acquaintance to afford her the smallest satisfaction: she saw nobody in whose favour she could wish to overcome her own shyness and reserve. The men appeared to her all coarse, the women all pert, everybody underbred.” (It sounds like sufficient evidence to give credence to Sir Walter Eliot’s judgement on the navy coarsening officers’ looks in Persuasion.)

Fortunately, my time in Portsmouth was much more congenial, even though the rain was so drenching I found it impossible to take notes while walking the Nelson Trail. My walk on the ramparts was not on a “fine day” such as Mrs. Price would have favored:

“Mrs. Price took her weekly walk on the ramparts every fine Sunday throughout the year, always going directly after morning service and staying till dinner-time. It was her public place: there she met her acquaintance, heard a little news, talked over the badness of the Portsmouth servants, and wound up her spirits for the six days ensuing.”

The roof of the Royal Garrison Church, which the Price family would have attended, was destroyed by bombs during World War II. It remains open to the sky today as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the war.

Portsmouth apparently had its share in the Regency rage for visiting the seashore for health, as bathing machines feature in this picture of Regency Portsmouth from a board on the Nelson Trail.

Fanny’s sojourn there, however, was anything but healthy. Henry Crawford tells Fanny’s sister Susan, “I am considering your sister’s health. . .which I think the confinement of Portsmouth unfavourable to. She requires constant air and exercise. When you know her as well as I do, I am sure you will agree that she does, and that she ought never to be long banished from the free air and liberty of the country.”

Mary Crawford, who was apparently not a believer in the healthful benefits of sea-bathing, sought to reinforce her brother’s theory in a letter to Fanny. “My dear little creature, do not stay at Portsmouth to lose your pretty looks. Those vile sea-breezes are the ruin of beauty and health. My poor aunt always felt affected if within ten miles of the sea, which the Admiral of course never believed, but I know it was so.”

And so Fanny was to return to Mansfield Park: “To-morrow! to leave Portsmouth to-morrow! She was, she felt she was, in the greatest danger of being exquisitely happy. . . How her heart swelled with joy and gratitude as she passed the barriers of Portsmouth.”

One feels that Fanny did not leave Portsmouth with the warm memories I carry with me.

Our tour will continue next week as we explore Jane in Bognor Regis, one of the many contenders for the title of “The Real Sanditon.” We began this series with an overview, then visited Teignmouth,  Dawlish and Sidmouth. We spent 2 weeks in Lyme Regis with Part 1 and Part 2, then Southampton. Please return each week as we continue with Bognor Regis, Worthing, Brighton, Ramsgate, and finally, move inland to Chawton.

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

Read More: Jane Austen Seashore Tour

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