British Columbia in Jane Austen's Time

Article excerpt

THE NORTHWEST COAST OF NORTH AMERICA, which extends from today's British Columbia south through Washington and Oregon, was one of the last areas of the world to be visited by outsiders. It was only during Jane Austen's lifetime, 1775-1817, that this far edge of North America became known in Britain. As far as I can determine, Jane Austen had no direct knowledge of British Columbia. Her lack of awareness is, however, less important than her familiarity with other areas of the world where Britain was similarly engaged. After introducing Jane Austen's outlook and events during her lifetime in Britain and British Columbia, I highlight four aspects of contact that, given the understandings present in her correspondence and writing, she may have found intriguing. I do each through an encounter story based in maritime journals published in England during her lifetime. My intention is to encourage reflection on how Jane Austen might have viewed British Columbia, had she been so aware.

JANE AUSTEN'S OUTLOOK

Jane Austen had two principal means of understanding comparable areas of the world to the future British Columbia. The first was two seafaring brothers whose activities in the Royal Navy she closely followed; the second, published accounts of maritime exploits.

Jane was just a year younger than her brother Francis and four years older than Charles, to both of whom she was, her letters attest, intensely devoted all of her life. (1) Their Anglican cleric father looked to the Royal Navy to ensure his two youngest sons' social and economic security, and dispatched them at the age of twelve to the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth, intended to give the best possible preparation for successful naval careers. Francis Austen's grandson and great-granddaughter explain that "the Navy was a profession in which it was possible to get on very last" (Hubback 37). Francis rose to be the Admiral of the Fleet and Charles Rear-Admiral.

Jane Austen's surviving correspondence gives no indication she read about the northwest coast, but it does attest to her curiosity about events abroad linked to family and friends. Her brother Henry recalled how "her reading was very extensive in history and belles lettres" (7). In line with expectations for women of her class and circumstances, her wider interests radiated out from her life experiences, as opposed to originating with the larger world in and of itself. A relative or acquaintance departing for the West or East Indies, for Gibraltar or Egypt, engaged her attention, as did writing on related topics. (2)

Among Jane Austen's reading was Charles William Pasley's Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire, which she described to her sister Cassandra at the beginning of 1813 as "a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining" (24 January 1813). The recently published 533-page volume focused on Britain's conflict with France and also, "when we throw our eyes across the Atlantic," to the hostility of the young United States, which would culminate in the War of 1812 (Pasley 437). Amidst considerable attention to past, present, and potential colonies, the single reference to the west coast of North America speaks to its irrelevance not just to Jane Austen but also to her contemporaries: "There is no country in the world to which, however unlikely it may not appear, we may not be induced to send a British army hereafter. We ought therefore to have the best maps of them all, from California and Chili to the deserts of Tartary" (Pasley 184 n).

THE BRITISH EMPIRE

To understand the lack of interest in British Columbia that existed in Jane Austen's time, we need to remind ourselves of the larger British Empire to which both she and this far corner of the world were linked. Her birth in 1775 coincided with the first great challenge to two centuries of British economic and colonial expansion around the world. …