Sophie Croft in Persuasion is one of my favourite of all Jane Austen’s characters. Intelligent, kind, humorous, a woman of sense, in love with her husband the Admiral, she is widely travelled and has an admirably positive attitude to life:
“And I do assure you, ma’am,” pursued Mrs. Croft, “that nothing can exceed the accommodations of a man-of-war; I speak, you know, of the higher rates. When you come to a frigate, of course, you are more confined; though any reasonable woman may be perfectly happy in one of them; and I can safely say, that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship. While we were together, you know, there was nothing to be feared. Thank God! I have always been blessed with excellent health, and no climate disagrees with me. A little disordered always the first twenty-four hours of going to sea, but never knew what sickness was afterwards. The only time that I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal, when the Admiral (Captain Croft then) was in the North Seas. I lived in perpetual fright at that time, and had all manner of imaginary complaints from not knowing what to do with myself, or when I should hear from him next; but as long as we could be together, nothing ever ailed me, and I never met with the smallest inconvenience.”
Did women like Sophie Croft really exist? Well, yes, they did….
Elizabeth “Besty“ Fremantle nee Wynne (pictured above) was a real life Mrs Croft. For some years now, I have been advocating that people read her diaries to understand what life was like for an elite woman, married to an officer, on board a ship of Nelson’s navy while on active service.
Though now out of print, above is the frontispiece of the 1935 edition of Betsey’s diaries- which combined extracts from Betsey’s diaries with those written by Betsey’s sister Eugenia, shown below- edited by Anne Fremantle, are a fascinating read and you can still find secondhand copies easily enough.
( Source: Andy Boddington at dukesofbuckingham.org.uk on 17.9.10)
The daughter of a Lincolnshire squire, Richard Wynne of Folkingham,( see below for a picture of the parish church)
Betsey began her diary writing habit at the age of 11 ,and continued until her death in 1857. A Catholic family, the Wynnes lived mostly in Europe, visiting England only briefly partially due to pressing money troubles- Betsey’s father sold his Lincolnshire estate in 1786. Betsey was born in Venice, brought up mainly on the continent, and her family moved in courtly circles. She vividly describes her life amongst the glitterati of the Naples court and her diaries are full if very detailed information. Which makes them a delight to read.
(Source: Andy Boddington at dukesofbuckingham.org.uk on 17.9.10)
She met her husband, Captain Thomas Fremantle, shown above, when she was evacuated from Naples in 1796. Her marriage ceremony was arranged with the help of Emma Hamilton and she began life as an officer’s wife on board HMS Inconstant in 1797. Here are some extracts from her diaries (complete with her idiosyncratic spelling) to give you an idea of what she experienced:
Monday January 15th 1797 ( the day after her marriage to Captain Fremantle-jfw):
We sailed last night , had fair weather and pretty good wind all day. I find it quite odd to be alone here. I dare not think on those I left at Naples for it makes my heart swell with anguish , however I can make no complaints for I am as happy in my situation as it is possible to be. Freemantle is all attention and kindness.I have got a comfortable little cabin where I can do what I like.The Vice Roy and Colonel drinkwater are pleasant society for us.
Sunday 22nd January 1797:
We had a long and tedious passage. Very blowing weather …it did not affect me, it increased my appetite and I laughed at everybody else. We only came to anchor this morning at three o’ clock. I begin to get accustomed to the life I lead and find myself comfortable and happy….I spent the evening alone and amused myself very well with my Harpsichord and books.
Friday 27th January 1797:
I was quite miserable all the morning as the three Mariners were punished and flogged along side of every ship, some men flogged likewise on board.
Tuesday March 21st 1797:
We took a prize in the night a small Spanish ship with 9000 dollars who was going to Cicely (Sicily-jfw) for corn.
Eventually, Betsey’s life on board became rather more serious: she had to nurse both her husband and Nelson who had both been wounded in the disastrous Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Nelson had his arm partially amputated, and caring for him and her husband while returning to England on HMS Seahorse- Captain Fremantle appears from her entries in the diary , in my opinion, to have been suffering from what we would now term shell shock- could not have been an easy task for the newly pregnant Betsey. Her characteristically frank entry in her diary for 24th August 1797 indicates her feelings:
A foul wind which make the Admiral fret. He is a very bad patient
They returned to England where eventually Fremantle recovered. Betsey ran their estate while he was at sea-he served at Trafalgar and produced a family of children. Keeping her diary all the time.
And now to some very interesting news. Dr Elaine Chalus of Bath Spa University has recently been awarded a grant of £100,000 to write Betsey’s biography. She has,as I understand it, been granted access to Betsey’s papers by her descendants. I simply can’t wait . The original diary is wonderful to have and to hold but was crying out for more detailed annotation and furthermore, rather frustratingly ends in 1820. Betsey’s life as wife, on board ship and on land, as a mother, capably managing the family estate, and then after the wars as a well-connected elite woman of the early 19th century is fascinating and deserves to be explained and brought to a wider audience. I’m so pleased that Dr Chalus-whose interest in Betsey was sparked when she found a second-hand paperback copy of her diaries at a village fair- has the funding needed to provide us with a full and detailed biography of one of my favourite diarists of this era.
I shall keep an eye on publication dates etc and will of course review the book here when it is available. But in the meantime, do try and get hold of a copy of the out of print diaries: fans of Persuasion and Mrs Croft will not regret it.