In the Naval Chronicle for July-December 1805, we can read the despatch received by their Lordships of the Admiralty at 1 o’clock a.m. on 6 November. This was written by Vice-Admiral Collingwood on 22 October, and begins,
‘Sir, The ever to be lamented death of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, who, in the late conflict with the enemy, fell in the hour of victory, leaves to me the duty of informing my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty that, on the 19th instant …’
Collingwood’s account of the battle of Trafalgar, which is followed a few pages later by the official returns of the killed and wounded in the battle, and then by pages of anecdotes about the ‘ever to be lamented hero’, make this volume one of the most fascinating of the forty published in the series. The final pages include the ‘ordinary’ reports of deaths, including that of Lieutenant Forster ‘at Gibraltar, of the wounds he received at the battle of Trafalgar’; Mr G. Taylor (presumably a midshipman), lately drowned at Jersey, nephew of his ship’s commander, and son of Mr Taylor of Portsea, ‘a youth whose amiable disposition, and affectionate piety to his parents, render him deeply regretted’; and Miss Anne Elizabeth Hanmer, daughter of Lieutenant E.D. Hanmer, ‘in the 4th year of her age’.
These books, which we will be publishing in September 2010, are a wonderful resource, not only for those studying the Napoleonic Wars, but for anyone with an interest in the social history of the period. And there are other resonances too: it is difficult not to speculate whether Jane Austen had heard (perhaps from her sailor brothers) of William Bentinck, appointed Flag Captain in 1805, whose name chimes with that of Captain Benwick in Persuasion; and indeed whether the sad death of young Mr Taylor (and the many others like him) prompted the incident of the scapegrace Dick Musgrove, the dead midshipman, through which Austen shows the generosity and thoughtfulness of Captain Wentworth’s character: he ‘entered into conversation with [Mrs Musgrove], in a low voice, about her son, doing it with so much sympathy and natural grace, as shewed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent’s feelings’. (‘Captain Wentworth is vastly superior as a hero to Mr Darcy’ – discuss, with reference to Jane Austen’s Letters and the first and second editions of the Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew J. E. Austen Leigh.)