Jane Austen's Forgotten Muse: A review of Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister, by Sheila Johnson Kindred

Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister: The Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen, by Sheila Johnson Kindred McGill-Queen’s University Press, 291 pages

 Reviewed by Dean Jobb

Jane Austen considered her a sister. Fanny Palmer, the wife of her younger brother, Captain Charles Austen of the Royal Navy, spent seven years in the beloved novelist’s circle. And if the author of a new book on Palmer’s short life and tragic death is correct, she is a forgotten inspiration for some Jane’s memorable characters.

In Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister, Canadian author Sheila Johnson Kindred makes a compelling case that Mrs. Croft, the admiral’s wife, and other female characters in Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, were modeled on Fanny’s experiences as the wife of a naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars.

“Fanny has not been seriously considered in any detailed way as a source for Jane’s fiction,” Kindred writes, because “the full details of her naval life simply were not known” and the connections could not be made. Until now.

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Kindred, a university instructor and Austen scholar, scoured archives and museums in Britain, Canada, the United States and Bermuda to assemble the scattered fragments of Fanny’s life – her surviving letters, references in Jane Austen’s correspondence with other family members, even the leather-bound journal Fanny used to jot down shopping lists. While much about Fanny’s life remains unknown, and unknowable, Kindred weaves these threads into a surprisingly detailed narrative.

Fanny, the daughter of Bermuda’s attorney general, was seventeen when she married Charles Austen in 1807, and followed him as he shuttled between the island and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the summer base of the navy’s North American Station.

By the time the couple moved to England in 1811, Jane already knew Fanny, through an exchange of letters, as “an engaging transatlantic sister.” Visits to the Austen family at Chawton and Godmersham brought them closer, and they shared passions for needlework and letter writing. 

Jane’s sister, Cassandra, described Fanny as “a very pleasing little woman … gentle & amiable in her manners,” who appeared to make their brother “very happy.” Jane affectionately called her “Mrs. Fanny.”

Not long before Jane began writing Persuasion, tragedy struck. Fanny died in 1814, days after the birth of her fourth daughter. She was only 24. The child died three weeks later, and the losses were almost more than Charles Austen could bear. 

Jane expressed the family’s shock and sadness – and her brother’s grief – in the novel. After a naval captain’s wife dies, a character observes that it was “impossible for man to be more attached to woman … or to be more deeply afflicted” by her death. The fictional wife’s name? Fanny.

Traces of her lost “sister” can be found elsewhere in the novel, Kindred argues. Mrs. Croft accompanied her husband on some of his voyages, just as Fanny Palmer did. Like Fanny, Croft was capable, assertive and valued her independence. Another Persuasioncharacter, Anne Elliot, “gloried in being a sailor’s wife,” and so did Fanny.

“We do not and cannot know exactly how Jane Austen came to construct the wonderful characters in her novels,” Kindred concludes. “But we can enjoy speculating how Jane’s knowledge of Fanny, both as a person and as a naval wife, influenced her creative genius.”

Thanks to Kindred’s meticulous research, Jane Austen fans can enjoy exploring how one remarkable and no-longer-forgotten woman influenced the work of her famous sister-in-law.

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Dean Jobb teaches creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is completing a book on Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a serial killer who preyed on prostitutes in 1890s London.