Monday, June 13, 2011

A Fine Naval Fervour: Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House

One of the great indulgences in the life of an Austen fan is a trip designed to follow in her footsteps.  I've naturally had to travel in Austen country a number of times in order to research the various books in this detective series, but oddly enough, I never find the terrain tedious.  One of my favorites stops is Portsmouth--blasted nearly to oblivion in the second World War, but home nonetheless to a replica of Nelson's flagship, Victory, and the Royal Navy's fabulous maritime museum.  This is pure jam for anybody who cut her literary eyeteeth on C.S. Forestor's Horatio, or Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey--or anyone who finds Captain Frank Austen one of the more interesting of Jane's brothers.

Frank was on shore leave during the course of the sixth Jane Austen mystery, Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House, living with his young wife, Mary, his future wife, Martha, and the female members of his family in hired lodgings in Southampton, a short sail up the Solent from Portsmouth.  Although Southampton suffered terribly from German bombing runs on the docks, vestiges of the old walled city Jane knew can still be found--a sort of treasure hunt for any Austen fan with a copy of In the Footsteps of Jane Austen tucked into her purse.  There's Castle Square (although the house is gone) where Jane lived and the Dolphin Inn, with its bow window, where she danced at the Assembly despite her advancing spinsterhood.

I stayed at the Dolphin while I was in town--and although it has since been smartly renovated, the arched carriage entrance to the inner courtyard still gives a sense of  the coaching inn it must have been two hundred years ago.  One imagines all sorts of people hastening from London to take ship in Southampton, and stopping the night at the Dolphin; I would use it again in the next novel, Jane and the  Ghosts of Netley, when Lord Harold Trowbridge gave Jane a lesson in the use of his dueling pistols in the Dolphin's yard.

And of course, there is the Wool House still sitting as it has for seven hundred years facing the quay, a square, utilitarian, medieval building erected by Cistercian monks--the same ones who were housed at Netley Abbey across the Solent in the 14th century.  It was once a center of the English wool trade, most recently it housed Southampton's Maritime Museum, and is currently up for redevelopment by the town council--but in Jane's day, the Wool House served as a temporary prison for French seamen.  She must have passed it often as she walked briskly down the High and turned left, toward the little theatre where she enjoyed attending plays.

The French sailors kept in the Wool House would have been held only temporarily, awaiting exchange for English sailors taken in battle with the French.  The notion of exchange is a strange one for most of us moderns; we assume that once taken prisoner, a seaman would be sidelined for the duration of the war.  But in Jane's day, POW camps were unheard of.  Officers taken prisoner were often housed by their Enemy brethren, and treated with the respect demanded by rank, dining at table with their former combatants and attempting to converse in each other's language.  In a matter of days or weeks they returned cordially to the business of killing each other.  The process seems almost civilized, in retrospect--an honourable approach to the notion of warfare that probably ended decades later somewhere in the Crimea.

Standing in front of Wool House one July day, however, I felt a shiver as I imagined the men held within, and Jane walking by.  The Wool House's windows would have offered glimpses of unknown French faces, or snatches of French song drifting to the street.  Or perhaps a plea for aid, from a French prisoner to an unknown Enlishwoman, whose brother was a naval officer...

The cover of this particular novel is my favorite of all the Jane books.  It so perfectly captures the color of the sea, the sense of wind off the Solent, even the possibility of hope--as Jane gazes out at the horizon.  Enjoy!