Portsmouth is a county borough of Hampshire, on Portsea Island, on the English Channel, and is situated about 15 miles S.E. of Southampton. The Royal Naval Base at Portsmouth is one of the most important and largest naval bases in the world.
A town was built at Portsmouth in 1194 and it became a county borough in 1888. The dockyard, dating from 1496, provides the main source of employment in Portsmouth in all avenues of industry, shipping, breweries, processed foods etc.
Portsmouth’s historical attractions are many — the 12th-century Cathedral of Saint Thomas a Becket, the H.M.S. Victory (the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar), and the house in which Charles Dickens was born.
Of course, the Portsmouth we know is through the eyes of Jane Austen – in Mansfield Park of course, and her two sailor brothers, Charles and Frank, spent a lot of time there during training and their naval careers, as referred to in many of Jane’s letters.
Portsmouth was far from being the ideal training ground for young boys and men – it had a squalid face, drunken sailors, prostitutes, ferocious press-gangs, brutality, riot and debauchery. Hardly the type of atmosphere the Austen boys were brought up in!
Portsmouth Point by Thomas Rowlandson,
The Naval Dockyard referred to in Mansfield Park was located in the neighbouring town of Portsea. It was heavily fortified and separated from Portsmouth by the Mill Pond, an inlet from the sea. The fortification has now mostly gone and has become a naval sports field, and the two towns have merged into a much larger Portsmouth. Portsea has retained its name, but Portsmouth is now called Old Portsmouth.
The entrance to the harbour has remained so narrow that large sailing ships rarely entered it except for major repairs or to be ‘laid up’.
Five miles from Portsmouth, and protecting it from the English Channel, is the Isle of Wight. In the stretch of water bet-ween, called Spithead, the ships of the Royal Navy moored to await orders. When sailors came ashore they landed in Portsmouth and it was there that Jane would have come to visit her sailor brothers.
If Jane kept to the neighbourhood of the High Street she would have seen a town of handsome Georgian houses with shops catering to the affluent.
Had she ventured off the main thoroughfare she would have met filthy streets, appalling slums and abject poverty. The town had no water mains until 1811, no drainage of any sort except gutters which ran into the moat and into which everything, including sewerage, was emptied.
For Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, ‘The men [of Portsmouth] appeared to her all coarse, the women all pert, everybody under-bred’. Is this how Jane saw the people of Portsmouth?
In her letters Jane makes a number of references to the town but they chiefly refer to the anticipated arrival of her brothers’ ships or to friends either living there or passing through.
Portsmouth was a military town as well as a naval one.
It was in Portsmouth that Jane’s brother Frank received a most moving letter from her dated Tuesday 22 January 1805, on the sudden death of their father:
A letter to Cassandra on Friday 9 December 1808 (No.62) gives a definite indication of her poor opinion of the town.
Fanny Price left Portsmouth to live with her aunt and her family at Mansfield Park when she was ten years old, leaving behind her a household in poor financial straits, a disorganised mother, and a father who ...
Her return many years later, accompanied by her brother William, showed the town had developed, and she ‘wonder[ed] at the new buildings’.
Jane used Fanny’s walk along the ramparts with Henry Crawford when he visited her, for a rare descriptive passage, which shows a real appreciation of – even affection for – the seaside port – different from the tone of her letters:
05 July 2003