By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 28 2020 02:00PM
Fifty-ninth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.
When Jane Austen sat down to write a letter to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 222 years ago today, she wasted no time on preliminaries before communicating a momentous bit of family news.
“Frank is made,” Jane began her letter (#16 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “He was yesterday raised to the Rank of Commander, & appointed to the Petterel Sloop, now at Gibraltar.—A Letter from [George] Daysh [a clerk in the Navy Office] has just announced this, & as it is confirmed by a very friendly one from Mr Mathew to the same effect transcribing one from Admiral Gambier to the General, We have no reason to suspect the truth of it.”
A world of Austen family social history is contained in these brief lines.
Twenty-four-year-old Frank Austen, the brother who fell between Cassandra and Jane in age, had joined the Royal Navy at barely twelve years old. His promotion to commander – a commissioned officer rank one step below captain -- was a promising sign for his future naval career. Indeed, after distinguishing himself in the naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars, the middle-aged Frank would eventually win promotion to admiral, although his doting sister Jane would not live long enough to enjoy that milestone.
Frank was by all accounts an able officer, but his promotion was not due to merit alone, as Austen’s letter makes clear. “Mr Mathew,” “Admiral Gambier,” and “the General” were all relations of Anne Mathew, the by-then-deceased first wife of the oldest Austen brother, James: Her father was General Edward Mathew, his brother was Mr. Daniel Mathew, and Daniel Mathew’s daughter Louisa was married to Admiral James Gambier, later to be made a baron. By the time Jane informed Cassandra of Frank’s promotion, the Austen family had been expecting the news for weeks, because this in-law patronage network had assured them that wheels were turning on his behalf.
For a genteel but not-rich clan like the Austens, cultivating and deploying such useful bonds of kinship played a necessary part in ensuring each family member’s future – a strategy so completely expected that Jane felt no need to comment on it to Cassandra, let alone to deplore the way this second-hand nepotism tarnished the Navy’s supposed meritocracy. No wonder Lady Russell, in Persuasion, disapproves of Captain Wentworth, a man with no private fortune who is seeking advancement in a dangerous profession while possessing “no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession.”
Cassandra Austen undoubtedly shared her sister’s joy in Frank’s good news. Why wasn’t Cassandra home to join in the celebrations? Because she was in Kent, on one of her frequent visits to the third-oldest Austen brother, Edward, at the stately home he had inherited from the childless cousins who adopted him. In Jane Austen’s era, for women and men alike, cultivating kinship networks was a never-ending job – but a potentially profitable one.