Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen.  Jocelyn Harris.  2017

Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen. Jocelyn Harris. 2017

Harris, Jocelyn. 
Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen.
Bucknell University Press and Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. 
ISBN 978-1-61148-839-5. 
349 pages.

At first glance, it might appear curious that Captain Cook enthusiasts might be interested in a study of the late 18th century literary figure Jane Austen (1775-1817).  However, there are at least three reasons for them to want to read this book.  One chapter deals with the likelihood that Austen based one of her characters in Mansfield Park (1814) on Lieutenant Molesworth Phillips (1755-1832), who sailed in Resolution during Captain Cook’s Third Voyage.  A second reason is that Phillips married Susanna Burney,1 a close friend of Jane Austen.  Why this marital connection is important is explored below.  The third reason is that the Austen family regarded Cook as a mentor through Isaac Smith,2 Cook’s nephew, who sponsored entry into the Royal Navy for two of Jane Austen’s brothers. 


The book’s author, Jocelyn Harris, is a professor emerita at the University of Otago, who has published other studies on Jane Austen.  This book consists of seven chapters, a conclusion, and several appendices. 


Harris contends that “Jane Austen was a satirist, a celebrity watcher, and a politician in the historical sense of one keenly interested in practical politics...  I argue that specific satirical allusions to celebrities, scandals, and controversies were... significant for her creativity”.



Harris explains that “celebrity” was a “new-fangled” concept in Austen’s day.  Celebrities included the Prince Regent (1811–1820, thereafter, George IV, 1820-1830), “writers, actors, politicians, naval men, heiresses, and ‘exotic’ individuals”.  The “cult of celebrity” was promoted by “the explosion of print culture, which made possible the endless circulation of images and stories through newspapers, prints, letters, and gossip.  Sexual scandal was a heady addition to the mix”. 


Jocelyn Harris emphasises the gossipy, exotic mix of people through clever chapter titles.  For example, the chapter on the Prince Regent is headed “Carried Home, Dead Drunk: Satires on the Royal Family”.  The chapter title for Molesworth Phillips is “He Swore and he Drank, He was Dirty and Gross: Lieutenant Price and Lieutenant Phillips.” 


This review will focus on the chapter about Molesworth Phillips, and offer very brief passing comments on some of the other sections.


Mansfield Park


For those people not familiar with Mansfield Park, Austen’s third published novel, here is a summary. 


It is the story of Fanny Price, who was from a somewhat impoverished family.  At the age of ten, she was sent to live with a more prosperous aunt and uncle, the Bertrams of Mansfield Park.  Fanny undergoes many relationship entanglements as she grows older, is at times shabbily mistreated, and is at times befriended through the extended family and other people with whom she comes into contact.  Various flirtations, romantic relationships, proposals, liaisons, and scandals are chronicled, which are typical of Austen’s novels.  Fanny rejects a marriage proposal from Henry Crawford, the son of a Mansfield Park clergyman who, after trying to force Fanny to fall in love, elopes with another Bertram.  Fanny eventually marries Edmund Bertram, six years older than her.  He is a clergy­man, who had often befriended her as she grew up.  They move into the Mansfield parsonage, where they apparently live happily thereafter, associated with supportive friends and proper society. 


One of the characters in Mansfield Park is Lieutenant William Price, Fanny Price’s father.3  William Price is savaged in Mansfield Park, with his daughter Fanny exclaiming,

He was more negligent of his family; his habits were worse, and his manners coarser, than she had been prepared for.  He did not want abilities; but he had no curiosity and no information beyond his profession, he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dockyard, the harbour, Spithead, and the Mother-bank;4 he swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross.


The moving of Fanny to Mansfield Park removes her from being near her father, a somewhat unsavoury character.


Molesworth Phillips


To help me review Harris’s book and the way it deals with Molesworth Phillips, I read the article about him by John Robson.5  Phillips was in charge of the Marines in Resolution.  In that role he was present at Kealakekua Bay on 14 February, 1779, when Cook was killed.  Lieutenant James Burney, who started the Third Voyage in Resolution, remained acquainted with Phillips after the latter’s marriage to Susannah Burney failed in the mid-1790s. 


Harris provides an extremely detailed review of the various accounts of the events that took place when Cook died.  She focuses on Molesworth Phillips’s actions, or inactions, the way the events at the time were explained by those present and how they later come under intense scrutiny. 


As William Bligh, Master of Resolution, observed, the events surrounding Cook’s death occurred over not more than ten minutes.  Harris makes this point well, drawing upon notes made by Bligh in the margins of a copy of the official account of the Third Voyage.  Her observations reminded me that not everyone who wrote accounts of Cook’s death actually witnessed what occurred, not least because so many were a long way off in the ships. 


Harris draws upon accounts of Cook’s death written by Captains James King and Charles Clerke printed in the early editions of the official accounts of Cook’s journals, and the accounts of others that were published elsewhere.  She notes that these official accounts had to pass the scrutiny of the First Lord of the Admiralty (Sandwich).  Harris is also familiar with many other contemporary accounts (such as those of David Samwell and Andrew Kippis), as well as modern evaluations (by Glyn Williams, Anne Salmond, and JC Beaglehole, and others).6


Harris writes that after Molesworth Phillips returned to England, he was often portrayed as an “avenger” of Cook’s death.  For example, the well-known painting by John Webber, The Death of Captain Cook (included as a plate in this book), shows Phillips firing a weapon at a Hawaiian, who was attacking Cook.  Phillips is also credited with saving the life of another marine during the fracas.  It is said Phillips fought a duel with Lt. John Williamson over the latter’s inaction in coming to Cook’s aid.  Harris suggests Phillips did so to draw attention to Williamson and away from himself.  She describes Phillips and his detachment of marines as undisciplined and often drunk—did this contribute to their actions/inactions?


Harris moves on to explore what happened shortly after Cook’s death.  She draws upon comments by Scott Ashley regarding the “micro­history” of Cook’s death, which he terms “a series of partisan, self-interested accounts written by the British sailors”.7  Harris asks many questions, including: Can contemporary accounts be relied upon?  Did Phillips or Cook fire first?  Was it “Cook’s humanity” that caused his death when he (apparently) waved off the boat so close to him, or was he signalling the marines to fire on his attackers?  Was John Williamson, commanding a cutter of potential rescuers, to blame for not coming to Cook’s aid?  Why did Captain King and Andrew Kippis “obliterate” Williamson’s name from the record?  Why were the bodies of Cook and others not retrieved?  Did Phillips carry on a feud after the voyage with Williamson to cast blame? 


In the end we might ask ourselves, was Moles­worth Phillips a hero, or did he not do enough to save Cook?  Did he falsely suggest himself as a hero?  Harris asserts that after the voyage Phillips “led the charge against Williamson to draw attention away from himself”.


William Bligh was almost alone in criticising the actions and inactions surrounding Cook’s death.  Bligh asserted that the frightened marines did not fix their bayonets and fled from the scene.  He suggested they could have won the day.  Jocelyn Harris considers Bligh’s observations, and also points out he did not receive a promotion in the immediate years after Resolution returned to England.  Was he “paid back” for not going along with the official interpretation?


In the face of so many accounts of these events Harris performs the admirable task of considering the varying circumstances surrounding Cook’s death.  Molesworth Phillips does not come off well in Harris’s writing.  She describes him as a cad and a thoroughly unsavoury person, who was satirized in Mansfield Park.  But does that mean he contributed to Cook’s death?  The question, I con­clude, is unresolved.


Jocelyn Harris suggests that Jane Austen satirized Molesworth Phillips for failing to save Captain Cook, for suggesting that Cook alone (and not his officers) was responsible for his own death.  Moreover, Phillips falsely claimed to have shot the Hawaiian who murdered Cook.  Why?  Because Molesworth Philips mistreated Susanna Burney, “a soul sister to the author she so ardently admired”.  The Austen family regarded Cook as a mentor to Austen’s brothers, Francis and Charles, because astronomer/mathematician William Bayly (who had sailed in Resolution) was their tutor at Portsmouth Academy, thereby implying a very close tie to the entire Austen family.  It is likely they endorsed the view that Cook was a “martyr-hero”, a victim to his own humanity in wanting to stem further bloodshed at Kealakekua Bay.  Molesworth Phillips, however, was no hero for the Austens.


The other chapters and the appendices


The other chapters in this book also show Jane-Austen-as-satirist, whether writing in Northanger Abbey, Emma, or Pride and Prejudice, by drawing information from Fanny Burney’s diaries.  Austen satirises the amateur theatricals in Mansfield Park, tied to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Austen was also acquainted with con­temporary novelists, such as Maria Edgeworth and Mary Wollenscraft, and drew upon their characters in her own writing.  In her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Austen satirizes the royal family, especially the Prince-Regent George and his brother, the Duke of Clarence. 


One of the book’s appendices considers Jane Austen, the celebrity-watcher.  She was not herself a celebrity in her lifetime.  Harris writes, ‘I re­construct Jane Austen’s creative process by means of the newspapers she perused, the gossip she heard, the streets she walked upon, and the sights she saw”.  Harris’s approach provides an unusual, interesting, new approach to Austen’s writings.




This book is an enjoyable one for anyone who has read Austen’s novels or watched productions of them on television.  I know some have been broadcast in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  In the United States, adaptations of a series of her novels ran on Masterpiece Theatre for several years.


Jocelyn Harris is an excellent writer. 


For an academic study, the usual jargon and allusions to various post-modern theories are happily absent in this book.  It is packed with detail and citations.  It’s is valuable for Cook enthusiasts because of its chapter on Molesworth Phillips, and the broader considerations surrounding the death of Captain Cook.


James C. Hamilton



  1. Susanna was a sister of James Burney, a lieutenant in Adventure (Second Voyage) and in Resolution and Discovery (Third Voyage), and a friend of Phillips. 
  2. Isaac Smith sailed as Master’s Mate in Endeavour (First Voyage) and in Resolution (Second Voyage), and rose to become an Admiral. 
  3. There is another William Price in the book, the brother of Fanny Price.  He is a midshipman.
  4. The mother-bank is a shallow sandbank in the English Channel, near the ports of Southampton, Spithead, and Portsmouth.  It served as an anchorage for merchant vessels and for Royal Navy ships.
  5. Cook’s Log, page 13, vol. 37, no. 3 (2014). 
  6. Fitzpatrick, Martin, Thomas, Nicholas and Newell, Jennifer (eds).  The Death of Captain Cook and other writings by David Samwell.  University of Wales Press.  2007.  Kippis, Andrew.  The Life of Captain James Cook.  G. Nichol and G. J. and J. Robinson.  1778. Williams Glyn.  The Death of Captain Cook.  A Hero Made and Unmade.  Harvard University Press.  2008.  Salmond, Anne.  The Trial of the Cannibal Dog.  The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas.  Yale University Press.  2003. Beaglehole, J. C.  The Journals of Captain James Cook.  Three volumes.  Hakluyt Society.  1961-1968. 
  7. Ashley, Scott.  “How Navigators Think: The death of Captain Cook” in Past and Present.  2007.  Vol. 194, no. 1.  Pages 107-137. 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 40, number 4 (2017).

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