War in the Life and Works of Jane Austen
On the surface, Austen’s books reflect a life of country pleasures, where the greatest danger lies in losing one’s heart to an unscrupulous character, or, equally unthinkable, to a person of low status or income. The themes seem frivolous. And war is a distant echo, serving as an opportunity for second sons to find meaningful employment and for daughters to meet dashing men in uniform.
Despite the light-hearted fare with which her characters amuse themselves, Austen is known for her layered work, slipping the pea under the reader-princess’s mattresses, giving moments of discomfort among hours of restful enjoyment.
If this is true, where, then, is the “pea” of war in her books? Why is the topic of war so far in the background as to be all but invisible? To understand her approach, we need to understand her personal experience of war.
In the year that Austen was born, Britain was involved in two wars: one with India (the First Anglo-Maratha War) and the other with America (the American Revolutionary War, called the War of Independence by the colony). During Austen's formative years, British citizens in America were declaring themselves no longer British. Not only did the secession of the colony impact both countries' economies, it also affected Britain's influence in the New World.
While Austen's first thoughts were being shaped, they would have been touched by topics involving worldwide politics, the economy, and even identity. What did it mean to be a true Englishman? When did you die for your country, and when did you sever ties with it?
It was only when she turned 8 years old that Britain was at peace. However, in the background, unrest with France still simmered.
When Austen entered her teens, the French Revolution began. Austen’s cousin Eliza was married to a French aristocrat who was guillotined, making the violence of that time very real for the Austen family.
The British viewed France as a threat at the best of times, but the revolution's extreme upheaval of society was far more dangerous. For Britain, the costs of maintaining distant colonies — and the wars that resulted — had strained the coffers of government and worsened circumstances for the struggling working class. It was not unthinkable that the revolution in France might repeat itself on British soil.
Austen refers to this undercurrent of fear in Northanger Abbey. When Catherine Morland mentions “expected horrors in England” (meaning a new Gothic novel), Miss Tilney “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…” In short, Jane Austen, through her character, Miss Tilney, imagines the effects of the French Revolution spilling over into England.
When young Jane was coming out into society, military conflict swept across Europe in the form of the French Revolutionary Wars. These were followed immediately and simultaneously by the Second Anglo-Maratha War and the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, it is accurate to say that three-quarters of Austen’s life was experienced through the lens of war.
It is worth noting that, until the Napoleonic Wars, none of the international conflict actually occurred in the British homeland. Certainly, civil unrest occurred locally as a result of social and economic hardships, but the actual battles were all fought on enemy turf. However, from 1803 to 1805, Britain was under constant threat of invasion by France. The reality of war was brought to Austen's doorstep.
“Brighton had been sacked by the French in 1514 and attacked regularly afterward. In Austen’s time as now, a major highway led north just fifty miles to London. If Napoleon landed with sufficient force, he could take the capital before the army could respond. Newhaven, where [Austen’s brother] Henry’s Oxfordshire militia was stationed in 1795, was only six miles west of Brighton …” (http://jasna.org/publications-2/persuasions-online/volume-39-no-1/how-the-long-war-affected-jane-austens-family-and-her-novels/)
Jane herself was not hidden away in the idyllic countryside. From 1806-1809 she lived in Southampton, a naval dockyard, heavily fortified, and a point of embarkation for soldiers headed to sea. The house where she stayed belonged to her brother Frank, a naval officer who was later promoted to Admiral of the Fleet. Frank had asked his sisters, Jane and Cassandra, to stay with his new bride as support to her while he was away at war.
In Persuasion, Captain Harville expresses the pain of parting for men like Frank.
“Ah! . . . if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!’”
We know that “Frank left his new wife, Mary, for year-long convoy duty just at the birth of their first child, after a very difficult pregnancy; he was also away for the birth of at least one other child. [Their younger brother] Charles, just weeks after the deaths of his wife and new baby from delivery complications, had to leave his three other grieving young children for an extended tour in the Mediterranean.”
So we see that war was very real and very personal for Miss Austen. It affected her immediate family in ways that put their lives at risk and kept them separated from their loved ones. Meanwhile, the whole country was in upheaval, its population living in fear of invasion while experiencing civil unrest within its borders.
Austen was very aware of this when she wrote. And it is the reason why she did not speak of it much in her books. With war such a consistent reality, even a subtle reminder of it would have been painful for her readers. Her books do acknowledge elements of war, but mostly offer distraction from it.
On a small scale, it is comparable to the overwhelming experience of a pandemic. We can imagine - as readers who struggle with “pandemic fatigue” after only one year of limited freedom and hovering insecurity - how little we would wish to be reminded of these elements in our few recreational activities. Reading is one of the rare pleasures we can currently enjoy safely. The last thing we'd want is a book that harped on the pandemic difficulties when we are seeking escape from such things.
Jane Austen understood this. Even today, though we find wisdom in her works, she mostly offers relief from the weight of the world bearing down on us. It is not an indication that her writing lacks depth, or that she herself lacked sufficient life experience to write deeply. No, it is a gift to her readers, both then and now, that we can lose ourselves in her pages even while the world spins wildly around us.
To acknowledge that the world does, indeed, spin wildly, and then discuss why it does so, is material for journalists and philosophers. Instead, Miss Austen sips tea with us, holds our hands, because she understands what it is to live in trying times. But she also knows that we retain a capacity to laugh and love, and offers us an opportunity to do just that.