Mansfield Park was published in May 1814. This was one of two naval novels that Jane Austen wrote – both Mansfield Park and Persuasion have significant naval themes and characters.
Her inspiration and knowledge came from two of her brothers, Frank and Charles, who were in the Royal Navy, and also from those officers who were her neighbours or within her social circle. One of those neighbours was Benjamin Clement.
THE CLEMENT MEMORIAL
The chancel of the church of St Nicholas in the village of Chawton in Hampshire has a stained glass window commemorating Benjamin Clement and his wife. The dedication within the glass at the bottom of the window reads: ‘In memory of Benjamin Clement, Captain RN. Born March 29th 1785. Died Nov. 5th 1835. Also of Ann Mary his wife. Born Septr. 22nd 1787. Died Aug. 30th 1858.’
It is thought that this couple, along with Ann-Mary’s sister, Catherine-Ann Prowting, are referred to in perhaps the very last letter written at Winchester by Jane Austen. Only fragments of this letter are known, which were included in a biographical note added to the first edition of her novel Northanger Abbey. This was published soon after Jane’s death in 1817, by her brother Henry, and he chose to omit names. The relevant fragment reads: “You will find Captain ––– a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner, his wife and sister all good humour and obligingness, and I hope (since the fashion allows it) with rather longer petticoats than last year.”
THE AUSTEN CONNECTION
Jane Austen, with her mother and sister, moved to Chawton in July 1809, into a cottage (now a museum) that was part of her brother Edward’s estate. The Prowtings, an old Chawton family, lived close by, and the Austens came to know them well. In October 1811 Ann-Mary Prowting married Benjamin Clement, who was born in the nearby Hampshire town of Alton in 1785, the son of a solicitor, Thomas Clement.
After their marriage, Captain and Mrs Clement moved into another Chawton cottage, and Jane Austen socialised with them. Ann-Mary became the “Mrs Clement” who appears in some of her letters, and we even have a description of Ann-Mary’s dress from a letter that Jane wrote in November 1814: “Mrs Clement walks about in a new black velvet pelisse lined with yellow, and a white bobbin net veil, and looks remarkably well in them.” There are only a few brief mentions of Benjamin Clement in her surviving letters, apart from the probable description of him as “a very respectable, well-meaning man, without much manner”.
THE TRAFALGAR HERO
Benjamin Clement did not follow his father into the law, but in 1794, at just 9 years of age, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, the lowest commissioned officer rank. In 1801 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, having already been wounded in action several times. In 1803 he was posted to HMS Tonnant and was still on board at the Battle of Trafalgar, off the Spanish coast, on 21st October 1805.
At the height of the battle, in the confused mass of manoeuvring ships, the Tonnant came across the Spanish ship San Juan Nepomuceno, which had already been damaged by broadsides from HMS Dreadnought. After a short exchange of fire, the Spanish ship surrendered, and Lieutenant Clement described what happened next in a letter to his father: “I came aft and informed the first Lieutenant. When he ordered me to board her, we had no boat but what was shot, but he told me I must try; so I went away in the jolly boat with two men, and had not got above a quarter of the way, when the boat swampt.” Like many seamen, he was unable to swim, as he told his father:
“the two men that were with me could, one a black man, the other a quarter-master: He was the last man in her, when a shot struck her and knocked her quarter off, and she was turned bottom up. Macnamara, the black man, staid by me on one side, and Maclay the quarter-master on the other, until I got hold of the jolly boat’s fall [rigging to raise and lower the boat between the deck and the water] that was hanging overboard. I got my leg between the fall, and as the ship lifted by the sea so was I, and as she descended I was ducked. I found myself weak, and thought I was not long for this world. Macnamara swam to the ship, and got a rope and [swam] to me again, and made it fast under my arms, when I swung off, and was hauled into the stern port.”
Shortly afterwards the Dreadnought sent a boat and took possession of the Spanish ship, and Lieutenant Clement soon recovered. Lieutenant Hoffman had witnessed the rescue and thought that Clement “was nearly drowned, and had it not been for a black man, who took him on his back, he must have sunk. This man he never lost sight of, and left him a handsome legacy when he died.” Charles Macnamara was a seaman originally from Barbados who had joined the Tonnant from an East Indiaman merchant ship. No legacy to him was mentioned in Clement’s will, though one of the executors was John Chippendale, Clement’s navy agent, who may have had separate instructions.
Benjamin Clement went on to a distinguished but hardly famous career as a naval captain. It was six years after Trafalgar that he married Ann-Mary Prowting, and the couple raised two sons and a daughter at Chawton. Some commentators have thought that the references to the Clement family in her letters show that Jane Austen was rather cool towards them. This may be true, though very few of her letters actually survive to be certain. She must have been well aware of the strange twist of fate whereby the young captain living nearby was known as a ‘hero of Trafalgar’, whereas her own brother Frank had narrowly missed the battle. He had been a flag captain in Nelson’s fleet, but before the battle Nelson ordered his ship to fetch water and supplies. To his dismay, the battle was fought before they returned. Frank did rise further through the ranks and eventually gained the highest rank in the navy, Admiral of the Fleet, but could never claim the distinction of being a Trafalgar hero.
A SMALL WORLD
With the hindsight afforded by history, there is one more link that demonstrates just how closely the people of Jane Austen’s world were connected with each other – Benjamin Clement was the great-nephew of Gilbert White who is now famous for his Natural History of Selborne. Jane Austen was originally from Steventon, Benjamin Clement from Alton, his wife Ann-Mary from Chawton, and of course Gilbert White came to live at Selborne – all places within a small area of north Hampshire. At a time of moderate population size, where there was a great deal of interaction between the members of the upper classes and gentry, such connections were the norm rather than the exception.