The Curious Connection Between Jane Austen and Military History

Though Jane Austen spent nearly her entire life in the shadow of war, from the time just before the American Revolution through the Napoleonic Wars, the relationship of Jane Austen to military history is something that is rather unexamined.  After all, what sort of insights about warfare can one gain from the author of romance novels concerning the gentry?  Even those who know that Jane Austen herself had two brothers who served as career naval officers (ending up as Admirals) during the Napoleonic Wars, and had a cousin who was widely recognized as the illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings (the man in charge of the East India Company), who later married her favorite brother after her first husband died during the French Revolution, may underestimate the subtle and profound way in which the relationship between war and society permeated Austen’s novels.

Though this note is not a scholarly paper (though I may write such a paper in the future), I would like to take a little bit of time to reveal the way in which Jane Austen’s work serves to provide a bit of insight into concerns of war and society for the Napoleonic War among the gentry of England.  I would like to examine those concerns by looking at the five novels of Jane Austen’s that deal explicitly with the military (Emma, to my knowledge, does not) in some fashion, to demonstrate precisely how Jane Austen’s novels shine a light on civil-military relations and the often-neglected importance of military matters to Jane Austen’s novels [1].

Northanger Abbey

Taking the novels in the order in which they were (presumably) written, let us begin with Northanger Abbey.  Let us in particular examine two of the ways in which military affairs seep into even this early novel.  First, let us look at how both General Tilney and his eldest son are identified by their military titles.  Then, let us examine the way in which Henry Tileny categorizes how the people in his brother’s regiment will view the faithless Isabella Thrope, Catherine’s former (and false) friend.

First, Northanger Abbey (like several of Jane Austen’s novels) shows the close relationship of the upper gentry with the hierarchy of the militia through the possession of titles.  Militaries, after all, defend the social systems of their realms, and reflect the social system they protect.  General, is, after all, an immensely high rank, and General Tilney himself is proud of his rank and station, and tends to be somewhat of a martinet with his children [2].  Captain Tilney, Henry’s elder brother, is an irresponsible bad boy, who deliberately plays with Isabella’s heart and lets her take the fall [3], even while he considers himself too good to marry any woman[4], which does not prevent his carousing and scandalous ways at any rate.  It is notable, though, that despite any apparent martial ability that both of the elder Tilneys are officers (presumably in their local militias) demonstrating the relationship of gentry status and officer position, regardless of actual military ability.  Elite status transferred between the civil and military realms in the England of Jane Austen’s time, as her novels accurately reflect.

Northanger Abbey, as it is mostly concerned with non-military figures, does not delve first-hand into the male-dominated space of a military barracks (where, of course, Jane Austen was unwelcome anyway), but the viewpoint of Captain Tilney’s fellow officers towards women is adequately presented by Henry Tileny:  “The mess-room will drink Isabella Thorpe a fortnight [5].”  It appears that the officers of the regiment were not particularly socially responsible, but were young men (of wealthy families) behaving badly and without any kind of desire to settle down and start a family.  That is, at any rate, the sort of rootless frat-boy mindset we get from Northanger Abbey’s portrayal of the military.

Sense & Sensibility

Sense & Sensibility only tangentially deals with the military, and again in the context of the role of the prominent gentry in England during Jane Austen’s time.  The one prominent military character in this novel is Colonel Brandon, of whom no military behavior is seen.  Nonetheless, his romantic (even melodramatic) history within the novel gives some indication of his military service in the East Indies with his regiment, which kept him away as a young adult from his beloved Eliza and was a punishment for his undesirable attachment [6].  Nonetheless, as an older, sadder, and wiser gentleman of the gentry himself, he uses his power to benefit his friends, giving Edward Ferrars the living at Delaford (his estate) after he is disinherited for making a foolish attachment of his own [7].  Brandon’s experiences further the depth of the connection between being an officer and of the gentry class and show how the military was a way of seeking to reform or get rid of troublesome members of that class.

Pride & Prejudice

The elements of class and moral reformation for which the military was intended is only furthered in Pride & Prejudice, where the aspect of morality and civil-military relations is a major point of the structure of the plot.  Let us examine a few aspects of military history that are key to understanding Pride & Prejudice, as there are several.  First, let us look at the feminine attraction to “regimentals” as displayed by Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs. Bennet.  Second, let us look at the social distance between the officers and enlisted men, displayed prominently in terms of discipline as well as their social invitations.  Third, let us examine the questionable relationship between military men and the wives they choose.  Fourth, let us examine the distinction made between the militia and the regulars.  Finally, let us briefly comment on the way in which the Jane Austen envisions the end of the Napoleonic Wars within Pride & Prejudice, though it was written and published before either of his abdications.

Anyone who reads (or sees an adaptation of) Pride & Prejudice should recognize that Jane Austen sends up the feminine attraction to military men as part of the commentary about the silliness and boy-crazy nature of Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs. Bennet.  This is particularly obvious because it is mentioned so many times throughout the novel that this short note cannot do full justice to its frequent mention and demonstration.  For one, Lydia is well-recognized as being pretty eager to flirt with any officer willing to give her attention [8].  Additionally, Mrs. Bennet herself openly admits to having had in her youth an over-infatuation with regimentals like her silly younger daughters [9].  This leads the sensible Elizabeth to hope that the War Office avoids posting any other regiments in her hometown again, given the trouble it has caused [10].  However, even Elizabeth is shown as not being immune to the charms and flirations of a handsome military gentleman, such as Colonel Fitzwilliam, even after her experiences with Wickham [11].  A major element of Pride & Prejudice is the attractiveness of military men to available young women–something as true now as it was in 1813.

Second, let us examine the social distance between the officers and the enlisted soldiers with Pride & Prejudice, which mirrored the social gulf between gentry and commoners within England at the time.  For example, a gentry young woman like Lydia could visit the officers and note that while they got to enjoy social occasions with her uncle (a country barrister), the common soldiers were under harsh discipline, including flogging [12].  While this was being done the officers were treated in the status they belonged as members of the gentry invited to parties like the Netherfield Ball [13], though no mention (of course) of enlisted soldiers is made at such events.  Again, social class was reflected in the military ranks and in the treatment of soldiers by society.

One of the more subtle criticisms made of the military men by Jane Austen  in Pride & Prejudice is in the sorts of wives they choose.  The fact that Lydia reflected a poor choice on the part of Wickham is something recognized quickly by Wickham himself, and even, eventually, Lydia [14].  Likewise, Colonel Foster is said to have chosen a wife poorly, given that his wife is a silly and intimate friend of Lydia’s, and presumably much younger than he is [15].  Even Colonel Fitzwilliam is teased by Elizabeth for desiring a wealthy wife due to the station of life that he has become accustomed to [16].  As a whole, the military men shown by Jane Austen in this novel are themselves as seeking women for mercenarial or superficial reasons.

Another curious distinction is made between the militia and the regulars.  The militia, guarding small towns like Meryton, is a much less rigorous sort of task.  Those who were unable to control themselves and keep their behavior within check, like Wickham, were forced into more dangerous regular regiments in more out-of-the-way places [17], with the possibility of being shot up in Europe in Wellington’s Army, a task which men like Wickham took when no better options were available.  Unsurprisingly, most of the gentry we come into contact with are in the militia rather than the regulars, as the militia were in much closer contact with the young ladies around whom Jane Austen’s novels revolve.

Finally, let us remember that though Pride & Prejudice was written during the Napoleonic Wars, Jane Austen envisioned within the novel the end of war and a lasting peace in her ending, something noticed astutely by fantasy author Lawrence Watt-Evans, in an essay on the subtle and often neglected military background of Pride & Prejudice.  At the very end of the novel, Wickham and Lydia’s living situation is said to be very irregular even after “the restoration of peace [18].”  As Watt-Evans notices, this ability to foresee an end to war even after warfare has taken up almost her entire adult life is a remarkable sign of optimism, even though he half-jokingly cautions that Austen never says who won the war [19].  Austen’s ability to foresee the end of war and its failure to reform Wickham and Lydia’s behavior is itself a telling moral statement, though, and shows that war is an often neglected aspect of her work.

Mansfield Park

The role of the military in Mansfield Park is itself very prominent, and (unsurprisingly) like the rest of her works, deeply reflective of the social system of the time.  Instead of the army, though, this novel and Persuasion focus on the relationship between the gentry and the navy.  Two prominent elements of the military are represented in Mansfield Park.  The first is the corruption of morals that afflicts Mary Crawford as a result of spending too much time around naval officers.  The second is the way in which the military serves explicitly as an opportunity for the wealthy Mr. Bertram to show his power as a patron for brave young William Price.

The moral corruption of Mary Crawford given her background, and the snobbery it involves as well, is made plain early on in Mansfield Park, as Austen has her making a pun on Rear and Vice Admirals just after saying that her family was too high to associate even with post-Captains [20].  There is some question as to whether the pun refers to sodomy or the whipping of sailors in the fleet by officers, but in either case it was improper conversation for a lady, with shades of Lydia’s comment about the discipline of soldiers in Meryton (see note 12 below).  I happen to agree with some commentators that both references are meant [21], and the joke seems to be in very poor taste in context of speaking of Fanny’s beloved brother.  Nonetheless, Mary’s moral sense (despite whatever child abuse she is likely to have suffered as a result of growing up with lecherous naval officers), is not so debased that she is unable to recognize the account of the adultery of Maria Bertram as scandalous [22], which shows that despite her own cynicism she has some awareness of social mores.

A second important aspect of civil-military relations in Mansfield Park is the way in which the advance of William Price is undertaken by Mr. Bertram, foster father, uncle, and later father-in-law (!) of Fanny Price in part as a way of showing his own power as a member of the respected upper gentry to advance his clients [23].  William shows himself to be both a grateful relative and a dashing figure, accustomed to danger and brave [24].  Indeed, Mr. Bertram’s help is directly responsible for William’s rise to Lieutenant, as the social connections the Bertrams provided gave additional prestige to their poorer relatives, the Prices, and provided plenty of opportunities for demanding and receiving the gratitude of those who received such benefits [25].  Undoubtedly, one of the appeals of having great power and position was the ability to serve as a patron and have devoted clients, and this is especially true of a man whose wealth depended in part on slavery in the West Indies, as Mr. Bertram’s was [26], which required paying close attention to naval affairs.

Persuasion

Just as Mansfield Park shows the role of the gentry in promoting the positions of their naval clients, Persuasion shows the threat of naval officers to the existing social structure through their conversion of prize money into landed wealth and socially advantageous marriages.  Let us first examine how the rise of naval officers threatens the social prestige of Walter Eliot through the ties of leasing out his estate.  Then, let us examine the perils and bravery of the navy wife portrayed in Persuasion, which serves to provide the virtuous side of the navy establishment that Mansfield Park generally overlooks.  Let us not forget, after all, that Austen’s own brothers were naval officers for their entire adult lives.

In Persuasion we see clearly the threat of rising naval officers to the existing social order in several ways.  First, there is the way in which a retired Admiral, like Admiral Croft, leases Kellynich Estate from the Eliots as a sign of his rise in status and the corresponding loss of status of the Eliots [27].  Despite his economic situation, the broke baronet still would rather fawn on his dowager Viscountess relative [28] than be greatly hospitable to his tenant when Admiral Croft [29].  Another sign of how things have changed is the way that Captain Wentworth, who was previously unfit for Anne’s hand in marriage, is seen as much more desirable after having a substantial amount of prize money to bring into a marriage [30].  A rising status due to military service abroad meant a rise in status at home, so just as status often led to rank, an increased rank led in turn to increased status, whatever the established gentry thought about the upwardly mobile.  Ironically enough, this increased status allowed navy officers like Captain Wentworth to become patrons of others themselves [31] instead of merely the recipients of patronage from others, quite the drastic change of affairs.

Persuasion also reveals through Anne Eliot and Mrs. Croft the perils and solid character of such patriotic navy wives.  For example, Anne’s only dread upon marrying Captain Wentworth was the thought of a resumption of hostilities that would threaten her happy home life [32].  Additionally, the navy is seen, in the person of the Crofts, as a way of providing women with respect as rational creatures and an opportunity to see the world, something some navy men (like Captain Wentworth) were still too traditional in mindset to accept [33].  The egalitarian pressures of the military threatened to equalize the gender just as it threatened to level the social system, which made military success in the navy doubly threatening to the existing social system of England.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is important to tie some of the threads discussed together concerning Jane Austen’s portrayal of civil-military relations that serve as consistent threads throughout her writing.  The relationship between manliness and military service, as well as the question of morality, is a major concern of Jane Austen’s throughout her literature.  Whether as officers in the navy or army, Austen’s female characters are consistently attracted to the handsomeness, bravery, and social standing of officers.  The other consistent concern of Austen’s regarding the military is the relationship between social standing and military rank.  The novels of Jane Austen show that while gentry status meant high rank in the militia, that a rise in military rank as a result of service in war meant a higher standing in England after the peace, changes that not all of the English gentry class found easy to accept.  Nonetheless, ironic and prophetic as it may seem, Jane Austen’s novels are deeply concerned with aspects of gender in the military as well as war and society.  Modern military historians would do well to examine Jane Austen’s work in the context of war in a more profound way than has often been done in the past.

[1] See Jane Austen, The Complete Novels of Jane Austen, Volumes I-IV (New York, NY:  Black Dog & Levanthal Publishers, Inc., 2006).

[2] Ibid, Volume III, page 326.

[3] Ibid, Volume III, page 324-325.

[4] Ibid, Volume III, page 357.

[5] Ibid, Volume III, page 325.

[6] Ibid, Volume III, page 127.

[7] Ibid, Volume III, page 227-228.

[8] Ibid, Volume II, page 175.

[9] Ibid, Volume II, page 145.

[10] Ibid, Volume II, page 151.

[11] Ibid, Volume II, page 109.

[12] Ibid, Volume II, page 40.

[13] Ibid, Volume II, page 58.

[14] Ibid, Volume II, page 245.

[15] Ibid, Volume II, page 145.

[16] Ibid, Volume II, page 117.

[17] Ibid, Volume II, page 196.

[18] Ibid, Volume II, pages 244-245.

[19] Lawrence Watt-Evans, “A World At War,” Flirting With Pride & Prejudice:  Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece (Dallas, Texas:  BenBella Books, 2005), 27-32.

[20] See Austen, Volume IV, pages 39-40.

[21] http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2009/08/rears-and-vices-redux.html

[22] See Austen, Volume IV, page 277.

[23] Volume IV, page 147.

[24] Volume IV, page 149.

[25] Volume IV, pages 189-195.

[26] Volume IV, pages 124-125.

[27] Volume II, page 277.

[28] Volume II, page 339.

[29] Volume II,page 351.

[30] Volume II, pages 403-404.

[31] Volume II, page 406.

[32] Volume II, page 406.

[33] Volume II, pages 290-291.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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38 Responses to The Curious Connection Between Jane Austen and Military History

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