Monday, August 22, 2022

Thoughts of Persuasion: Touring the USS Constellation

Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds in Persuasion, 1995

"If you had been a week later at Lisbon, last spring, Frederick, you would have been asked to give a passage to Lady Mary Grierson and her daughters."

"Should I? I am glad I was not a week later then."

The Admiral abused him for his want of gallantry. He defended himself; though professing that he would never willingly admit any ladies on board a ship of his, excepting for a ball, or a visit, which a few hours might comprehend.

"But, if I know myself," said he, "this is from no want of gallantry towards them. It is rather from feeling how impossible it is, with all one's efforts, and all one's sacrifices, to make the accommodations on board such as women ought to have. There can be no want of gallantry, Admiral, in rating the claims of women to every personal comfort high, and this is what I do. I hate to hear of women on board, or to see them on board; and no ship under my command shall ever convey a family of ladies anywhere, if I can help it."

This brought his sister upon him.

"Oh! Frederick! But I cannot believe it of you. --All idle refinement! --Women may be as comfortable on board, as in the best house in England. I believe I have lived as much on board as most women, and I know nothing superior to the accommodations of a man-of-war. I declare I have not a comfort or an indulgence about me, even at Kellynch Hall," (with a kind bow to Anne), "beyond what I always had in most of the ships I have lived in; and they have been five altogether." - Persuasion
USS Constellation, Baltimore Harbor, Maryland

We had an adventure! After three years away, my family spent a month in the United States this summer. It was a whirlwind trip, despite its length, and while we got to see an enormous number of relations (I've counted 95), I am still recovering a week after our return. One of our side jaunts was to Baltimore Harbor, an old stomping ground, where we toured the USS Constellation, a sloop-of-war built in 1854. Yes, this is a US ship, and yes, it is more modern than the ships Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft would have captained, but it gave me a wonderful notion of what life at sea might have been like in the early 19th century (the Constellation was the last sail-only warship crafted by the US Navy). The conversations about life at sea held at Uppercross weighed on my mind as I drifted between the decks. Could Mrs. Croft be so comfortable as she declares onboard? Is Wentworth simple misogynistic, or might the presence of women and children be legitimately challenging?

Captain's Quarters, facing the stern
Captain's Quarters, facing the bow

Captain's Berth
I always admired Mrs. Croft's spirit, and while similarly non-fussy ladies might indeed make the most of life at sea, I imagine many more would find the circumstances trying. The captain's quarters, which film and story suggest would be ceded to traveling ladies, are reasonably spacious. Located in the aft of the gun deck, a large and inviting dining/conference area has small rooms along each side, which include a bedroom, a washroom, an office, a pantry, and a guest berth. Lady Mary Grierson and daughters, however many they number, would surely have filled the space to capacity. They might have a great deal of privacy and comfort, unless the ship suddenly saw action. Those 18 cannons right outside this oasis surely made a terrifying racket, even without considering the larger ramifications and possible consequences to their being manned. And where would this leave a displaced captain? Down a deck in the berth, where everyone else slept. Here each officer and the doctor had their own small closet for quarters, while everyone else slept in hammocks hung from the ceiling. The Constellation could house up to 265 enlisted men and 21 officers (the modern tour does not attempt to replicate what this must have smelled like). 

Captain's Study
Even with their sleeping quarters on different decks, your typical english lady traveling on a warship would be thrust into very close proximity to exactly the kind of man (i.e. ungentlemanly, with all that term's classist trappings) from which their entire upbringings had been designed to shield them. Discipline in the Navy was strict, and Lady Mary would have had little to fear for her daughters' vaunted "purity," but the experience would have to be educational, to say the least. 

Is this "idle refinement?" I'm not sure. Note that Mrs. Croft is childless and makes no claims regarding the
presence of a larger family onboard (just touring the ship with two kids was a challenge). And what of women who did not have the gentility to be deemed "ladies?" I doubt anything but the most extraordinary of circumstances would land one aboard. Should such a thing occur, perhaps a gallant captain would still provide her with those protections granted to a female of higher class, otherwise she would be in for a harrowing experience, indeed, and perhaps would have even preferred to remain marooned on an island, or wherever she came from, than endure it.

These dark musings aside, I highly recommend a visit to the USS Constellation, if possible. It has definitely given me a hunger for more old ships. I'm not sure the kids feel the same way, but I'd love to go to Portsmouth, walk in Fanny Price's footsteps, and visit Nelson's HMS Victory. It's on my bucket list. If I ever make, I will surely regale readers with an account of the experience here.

And of Baltimore is not one of your upcoming destinations, or if you just want more information about the Constellation, go ahead and check out the virtual tour: There are also interactive images of each deck to explore. Enjoy!

No comments:

Post a Comment