How did Jane Austen’s wartime context affect her literature? Seema Syeda investigates.
War and violence are the last things one would associate with that 19th-century doyenne of English literature, Jane Austen. Ambles in the countryside, flirtatious glances, frocks with lace and frills, and the relentless pursuit of wealthy bachelors are the more likely images conjured by her name.
Yet conventional interpretations of the novelist’s work lack reference to a crucial context – that of war. For most of Jane Austen’s life, Britain was involved in conflicts of varying existential significance across the globe.
WAR OF ALL AGAINST ALL
In her childhood years, Austen would hear tell of the American Revolutionary War, the rumbles of which – distant and far-off as they may have seemed – reverberated back across the European continent. When Austen was just 14 years old, the cataclysmic events of the French Revolution occurred – leaving an indelible impression on England’s landed gentry and aristocracy, at the pinnacle of which sat the limited monarchy.
Though young, Austen was not left unscarred. In 1797, she met her cousin (and future sister-in-law) Eliza de Feuillide, a French aristocrat whose first husband the Comte de Feuillide had been guillotined in 1974. Hearing of the execution of the Comte de Feuillide in lurid detail left Austen with an intense horror of the French Revolution.
The Napoleonic Wars came soon after, ending only in 1815, just two and a half years before Austen died. Throughout this period, Britain was involved in multiple colonial conflicts worldwide. There was barely a moment in Austen’s life when her home country was not at war.
Jane Austen hailed from a military family. Her elder brother Henry Austen joined the Oxfordshire militia in 1793. Her younger brother, Francis Austen, enjoyed a mercurial career in the Royal Navy – serving in the East Indies for five years, and the French Revolutionary Wars, during which he captured some 40 French ships as commanding officer of the sloop HMS Peterel.
He also fought in key colonial conflicts, including the Battle of San Domingo, and served as Commander-in-Chief of the North America and West Indies Station. By 1863, he had been promoted to Admiral of the Fleet.
Jane Austen’s youngest brother Charles was another graduate of the Royal Naval Academy, going on to fight in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, rising to the rank of Rear-Admiral, and eventually dying of cholera while in command of the British expedition during the Second Anglo-Burmese War.
Thus Jane was in the thick of military life in Georgian Britain. With intimate ties to the navy and militia, she would have socialised among their ranks. She kept well abreast of foreign affairs, reading martial treatises, and drawing on her familial connections for information about the state of the British armed forces and their overseas campaigns.
REDCOATS AND REGIMENTALS
This personal connection to the military infuses her writing. Rarely did an Austen novel see publication without a spattering of dashing young regimental officers in redcoats. From Captain Wentworth to Colonel Fitzwilliam and, perhaps most famous of all, the scurrilous George Wickham – by whom even the wily Elizabeth Bennet was momentarily enthralled – these characters serve to highlight more than just the extent to which officers were eye candy for local ladies.
The end of the 18th century was a time of social upheaval in Britain. Republican ideologies emanating from America and France threatened the existing social order. The political atmosphere was marked by the heated, bitter, factional in-fighting of Fox and Pitt during the unstable reign of George III. The threat of foreign invasion was palpable. This sense of danger is exemplified in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney teases his sister and love-interest Catherine Morland for their wartime fears, saying:
And you, Miss Morland… My stupid sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London, and instead of instantly conceiving… that such words could only relate to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the 12th Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northamptonshire, to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney… knocked off his horse by a brickbat!
This passage reflects the deep-seated anxieties that afflicted the British elite during a moment of existential dread. Not only was a Napoleonic invasion anticipated, but the possibility of a home-made, violent revolution struck terror into the hearts of the landed gentry. Jane Austen was in tune with the public mood.
These exigencies required the expansion of the home guard. But since the days of the English Civil War, standing armies had been viewed with suspicion by the populace.
To placate fears surrounding the enlargement of the standing army, the ranks of the militia were filled predominantly by men of ‘respectable’ social status, hailing from the landed gentry – such men as Jane Austen’s brother Henry.
However, also among the ranks were newly wealthy officers of questionable provenance and limited property, who were able to buy commissions. This was a reflection of the transformation taking place in Britain at the time, as the Industrial Revolution (fed by wealth appropriated from Britain’s colonial acquisitions) spawned a newly affluent bourgeois class eager for the social status of the old landed families, and able to afford its trappings.
The anxieties this upheaval raised appear as strong undercurrents in Jane Austen’s work. Take, for example, the scandalous relations between George Wickham and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Wickham, a militia man of dubious wealth and background, appears with all the charms of a titled officer and gentleman, only to whisk Lydia Bennet away in the most improper of circumstances – with no clear intention of marrying her. It is only after the intervention of Mr Darcy – an upright gentleman of high social standing and secure wealth, whose own younger sister was also threatened by the upstart Wickham – that proper order is restored, with Darcy pressuring Lydia and Wickham into holy matrimony.
This fictional escapade clearly reflects the popular concerns of the time, encapsulated by the socially ambiguous role of the expanding militia. In the tête-à-tête between Wickham and Darcy, Austen addresses the uneasiness stirred up by social change through a cathartic return to norms – the propertied gentleman puts the upstart commoner in his place, restoring the status quo. It is through such creative devices that Austen’s real-life wartime context shines through. Violent national dramas are expiated through fiction.
To be a gentlewoman in Georgian Britain – bombarded with stories of terror on the Continent, waiting for absent men to return home from the wars, and sensing the palpable fears that the revolution would spread and overturn the existing hierarchical structures of society – was far from the tranquil domesticity conventionally associated with female life in that era. It was no different for Jane Austen.