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|MT: Jane Austen and the Wars, Part 1
Written by Captain Everett
(3/3/2003 10:34 p.m.)
(This is intended as the first in a series of short articles examining what was going on, in terms of the French Revolution and Napoleon Wars, at the time Jane Austen was writing her novels and other works. They will discuss events in a general way, what her "military" brothers were doing, and what works she is recorded as writing or revising at that time. Bear in mind that news of events could take weeks or months to reach Jane Austen, or may have provided fodder for a story element that appeared several years later. Readers who see errors, omissions, or can add further details are invited to add them to the discussion. Please remember, the purpose of the Board is Jane Austen and her works, not European political history.)
JANE AUSTEN AND THE WARS: 1775 – 1796
It has often been commented that although her country was fighting a major war, and seeing great social changes, such events rarely appear in Jane Austen’s writings. Often, where they do, it seems to be part of the past -- a vulgar interruption into an otherwise well ordered world. However, a listing of events and her writing at the time is rarely seen, or becomes buried amongst the minutiae of lesser occasions concerning her family and friends.
War was a backdrop for much of Austen’s life. For roughly the first seven years, the American Revolution was being fought, although it’s unlikely it would have been more than mere stories of far off lands to a child of that age, no matter how bright.
Even if there are no open conflicts, nations need to maintain at least part of their fighting forces. The Royal Navy, if much reduced, still needed new officers entering the system. In April 1786, just prior to his twelfth birthday, Francis-William Austen (sometimes referred to as ‘Frank’) entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth. Cassandra and Jane had already left home to attend the "Abby School" in Reading, returning in December of 1786. Jane is recorded as having begun writing her Juvenilia sometime in 1787.
Francis graduated in 1788, and was posted to the frigate Perseverance, where he would spend the next year in training to become a Midshipman. In December he sailed for the East Indies, where he would spend his next five years. On December 22, 1789, Francis became Midshipman. (The short story "Jack and Alice" is dedicated to Midshipman Austen.)
Meanwhile, long simmering tensions in France boiled over in the summer of 1789 with the Storming of the Bastille. In England, reactions varied. Some saw it as a long overdue reform (and hoped France might model her government more in line with the British model), others feared the spread of disorder, and many viewed it with a degree of "schadenfreude," relishing the suffering of an ancient foe. In April of 1790, France declared war on Austria, and fell into further anarchy.
In July 1791 Charles John Austen joined the Naval Academy. In November, Francis, still in the East Indies, was transferred to the Minerva. At the end of 1792 he was promoted to Lieutenant. Meanwhile, France fell further into anarchy, highlighted by the September Massacres (1792), and the beginning large public executions. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined, with the "Terror" growing in bloodthirsty intensity. On February 1, France declared war on England.
The United Kingdom at this time was ill prepared for a major conflict. There were only 15,000 effective Army Regulars, many being little more than cadres of Battalions. Another 30,000 troops were posted elsewhere in the world. The Government authorised an increase in the Army of 25,000. Unfortunately, while there was great enthusiasm in the response, the results were very uneven. The entire war effort developed in a typically haphazard British way. The overall strategy lacked any real focus, and most operations lacked the planning and backing necessary. Material, discipline and leadership were lacking. It was far too easy for the untrained, or even incompetent, to purchase a Commission, putting them in positions of making life and death decisions far beyond their capabilities. This would have tragic consequences later.
The Government also authorised embodying of 19,000 Militia. England had a distrust of Standing Armies that dated from the days of Cromwell. In its place, it was felt that the Militia, commanded by "country gentlemen - men of property, of family of domestic connections, of personal influence, whose arms were in consequence unlikely to be turned against the country', would be the true defenders of Britain. Each county was expected to provide a quota of men to serve in the ranks for a period of five years. In addition to protecting the nation against any foes who managed to get past the Royal Navy and land on British soil, the Militia was also expected to quell disorders, and aid civil power. To prevent a conflict of interests, the rank and file were usually posted to other parts of the Kingdom, so that they would not be tempted to fall into sympathy with the local populace.
Officers were to be selected by the Lord Lieutenant of the County, with set property requirements for each rank. (That is, income derived from the land, rather than commercial or other sources.) For example: £20 for an ensign, £50 for a Lieutenant, on up to £1000 for a Colonel. However, the rapid expansion of the Militia led to a shortage of men with the legislated Property Requirements. Henry-Thomas Austen had been studying for the ministry at St. John’s College, Oxford, since July 1788. In February 1793, he took leave from school and joined the Oxfordshire Militia Regiment. Although Henry had no land, being the son of a respectable clergyman, he was accepted as a "Gentleman to be Lieutenant." That is, he would do duty as a subaltern although he would not formally hold a rank until such time as he was deemed fit for the role. He joined the Regiment at Southampton, but also did duty at East Anglia, Yarmouth, Norwich and Ipswich, and other places. He would serve seven years with the Oxfords.
Henry, was not, of course, the only individual who achieved rank within the Militia without holding the requisite real estate. This provided an opening for George Wickham to appear as a Lieutenant in the ___shire Militia in Jane’s "First Impression" (begun in the autumn of 1796) which later became "Pride and Prejudice". She well may have met with some of Henry’s fellow officers, who along with his recollections of characters he met, providing fodder for the various Army and Militia officers who populate her novels.
Despite the expansion of the Army and Militia, along with the Navy, achieving any proficiency took time and effort. The Sea Service saw much more success, in the first year of the war fifty-three enemy frigates and lesser vessels were captured, along with eighty-nine privateers. This made the sailor, of all ranks, very popular amongst the general public and would continue through most of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Jane did not need a direct family connection to portray Navy officers amongst her heroes.
In the summer of 1793 Austen finished the last of her "Juvenilia". At the end of that year Francis returned home from the East Indies. His tales would have added to the already existing family connection with the East. (Later, various characters in her novels would reveal a connection with the East: Colonel Brandon and Sir John Middleton in "S&S", Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft in "Persuasion".)
In early 1794, disturbing news reached the Austen household. M. de Feullide (the husband of Eliza Hancock, a cousin) had lands in France. Eliza and her son had come to England, while he remained behind to manage, and protect, his estate. In February 1794 he was arrested for attempting to bribe one of the Secretaries of Public Safety in the case of a friend. The official took the money and than betrayed him, and he went to the guillotine.
In March, Charles was transferred to the sloop Lark which was assigned to Home Waters. His father tried to use family connections, which included Warren Hastings, to influence a promotion for Charles, or at least a posting to a larger vessel.
The British Army returned to the Lowlands. The campaign, although initially successful, foundered to a standstill, and then a retreat when the French renewed the offensive. These events were the inspiration for the children’s song. "The Rare Old Duke of York." Some of the French troops captured were sent to England, where the Oxfordshire Militia was engaged in guarding some of them at Portsmouth. Henry also spent time at Petersfield, which allowed for some trips home. Another naval victory on the "Glorious First of June" netted twelve French vessels.
The harvests of 1794 were very poor, which were to lead to shortages and high prices for foodstuffs. It is likely that Austen began writing "Lady Susan". The winter that followed was prolonged and severe. The expeditionary force to the Lowlands suffered greatly before being withdrawn in the spring. Those events, the civil unrest of 1795, the beginning of the writing of "Elinor and Marianne" her first major work (which later became "Sense and Sensibility") and subsequent events will be covered in the next instalment.
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