Summer is here! Time for days at the beach with lots of sun, sand, and romance. That’s our theme in June, so grab your sunblock and join your favourite Austen characters in their adventures at the sea.
The Austen family, during their years in Bath, spent summer holidays at seaside locations. This exclusive excerpt from The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen, depicts scenes from their trip to Sidmouth in 1802, when Jane’s brother Charles joined them. Also present in this version of events, Jane’s friend Bernadette Cumphries and the intriguing Captain Devereaux. Was he Austen’s inspiration for Captain Wentworth and the story of Persuasion? Shannon Winslow gives us a view through Jane’s own eyes and in her own words.
Daily, the sea drew us like a powerful magnet, with not one amongst us able to resist its hypnotic attractions. Bernadette, however, was perhaps the most susceptible. Whereas for the rest of us the devotion was of longstanding duration, she was still in the throes of first passion. After captivating her when she initially laid eyes on it the day after our arrival, the sea continued to hold her fast, drawing her back time and again like an unrelenting lover who will not be denied. Whatever else was planned, Bernadette was sure to insist that at least half an hour be reserved every afternoon for paying homage at the shore.
We were thus occupied again late on the fourth day of our stay. Cassandra and I happened to be walking with Bernadette along the esplanade at the time when she burst out with, “I must live always by the seashore, for surely, there can be no felicity equal to this!”
Her rapture was understandable. Indeed, my own heart had been straining to shout out something of the kind as I felt the sun’s warmth on my shoulders and watched its rays dance across the water. Waves rushed boldly in at us and then retreated from the beach once more, creating a tinkling music as they tumbled the stones forward and back each time. The perpetual breeze was only freshening that day, not at all cold. And bright gulls hung suspended in the friendly currents aloft. In short, every natural advantage combined to frame a picture of perfect harmony and delight.
The crowning touch to all this grandeur was the fine prospect of Charles and Captain Devereaux, arrayed in uniformed splendour and walking on a way ahead of us women. Bernadette’s maritime appreciation soon expanded to include them. “And I so admire the navy. There cannot be a better collection of men than these anywhere in the world. Do not you agree, Miss Austen?”
Cassandra politely did so, and Bernadette was sufficiently encouraged to continue.
“All uprightness and honour as they seem to possess, and such a warm brotherhood exists between them. These are men who know how to live. How I envy them that they should have found a way to remain always close to the sea. A woman cannot hope for such a thing… unless, of course, she is the wife of the man who commands a ship. What a life that must be, to live aboard a man-of-war as the captain’s lady! Mrs. Crowe speaks of its comforts in the most glowing terms.”
“She has exactly the right temperament for it,” I contributed, speaking my thoughts aloud. “Not every lady does, surely. One would need to be able to cope with the confined quarters, the lack of female companionship, the constant motion of the water, and the nomadic lifestyle. And consider the danger, should the ship and crew unexpectedly be called upon to engage in battle! No, I am convinced that it would not suit most women at all.”
“I collect that you have given the idea extensive thought,” Bernadette observed, with a curious sidelong glance at me. “Do you think yourself cut out for a captain’s wife, then, Jane?” she teased.
I felt the heat instantly rise to my cheeks, and I cursed my carelessness in not having been more guarded. Yes, I had often considered what my life must have been had I married Captain Devereaux. But that possibility was long past now and could scarcely be admitted to, especially to my unwitting successor in his affections.
Cassandra came to my rescue once again. “I should think it is a subject talked of in every naval family,” said she. “Our own is no exception. And now, more recently, we have all had the information of Mrs. Crowe to feed our imaginations. One cannot help but think about it, but that hardly means we would choose a life at sea, even if we could.”
“Exactly,” I agreed, shooting Cassandra a grateful look.
The moment passed, and Bernadette none the wiser for it. It had, however, served to shed some light on my friend’s line of thinking. Clearly, I was not the only one who had entertained the idea of a life as a navy wife. But there were currently two candidates vying for the office of her husband, for Charles continued his efforts to please her as well. For more than one reason, I desired that his gentle attentions to my good friend would carry the day in the end, although I had no very high hopes that they would. A week into our stay at Sidmouth, I took opportunity to test the waters on his behalf.
“It seems you have acquired not one but two devoted suitors,” I observed to Bernadette in a neutral tone. “What a lucky girl you are.”
We sat together on an accommodating rock high above the town, admiring the impressive view from the cliffs of Peak Hill and resting from our long ascent. I had taken care that the others had wandered out of hearing before initiating this conversation.
“I daresay they are only being kind to me on account of my ankle,” said she in return, blushing with a pleasure that belied her self-deprecating words. “Who would have thought that my being clumsy would work so much to my advantage?”
“Dear Bernadette, you are too modest. I think there may be more in their special attentions than mere kindness.”
“To own the truth,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. “I would not be displeased if there were, at least on Captain Devereaux’s side. He is a gentleman well worth catching, I should think! Oh, and I mean no slight to your brother by saying so. No doubt he is equally worthy, only… only still a little young.”
“Perhaps by some estimations, but he is of an age with you – two and twenty.”
“Really?” She paused in thought before continuing. “To be sure, twenty-two is a fine age for a woman to be married, but your brother seems little more than a boy. I prefer a man who is well established, do not you? One who has lived a little more in the world.”
I nodded in comprehension. “One who has had time to collect a little wealth about him. Yes, that would be ideal. My brother cannot compete with Captain Devereaux there, sadly.”
Bernadette squeezed my hand with affection. “Much as I would adore being your true sister, Jane, I could not consider marrying Charles if he should ask me.”
“Yes, I see that now. You will be kindest, then, in not encouraging him. Allowing him to hope falsely would only lead to grief.”
“You are quite right, and so I now resolve it.”
“And what of Captain Devereaux? Do you intend to accept him, should he ask? Are you in fact in love with him?”
Bernadette’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Well, you do not lose any time, do you, Jane?”
“Why should I mince words with you, dear friend? But you need not answer if you think my questions officious. I should take no umbrage, I assure you, even were you to tell me to mind my own business. I would certainly make free to do so in your place.”
“I could not for the world say any such thing to you, Jane! I love and esteem you like my own sister, or perhaps more. You may ask me anything you like. I only hesitate because I have as yet no definite answer to give you. After all, I have known Captain Devereaux no more than a week. Ask me again when another fortnight is gone.”
I said nothing, but it struck me that I had not required three weeks to determine if I loved the man… or even one. I had known the answer to that question within minutes.
The seashore is a magical place, ripe for romance and adventure! Comment on the excerpt above or a surf-side intrigue of your own.
The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen was written for and dedicated to every fan who has wished Jane Austen herself might have enjoyed the romance and happy ending she so carefully crafted for all her heroines… Perhaps she did after all. Shannon Winslow gives us a plausible alternative.
“The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen is one of the most moving, soul-filling, and beautiful stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.” (Austenprose)
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