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|The changing political atmosphere
Written by Linden
(3/15/2003 6:52 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, MT: Political Jane, penned by Jack Cerf
While I think that's an excellent and informative article, on second reading there seems to be something a bit missing: namely a link between the changing political atmosphere in JA's lifetime and her works. So here is a quick sketch to flesh things out a bit. I could go into detail if people want more two-hundred-year-old politics, and I have certainly over-simplified things. Corrections and comments welcome.
Starting with the late 1780s, when Jane would have been old enough (as a teenager) to take an interest.
English reactions to the French Revolution changed over time. Before the FR started (late 1780s) there was a general reformist air throughout English politics: even the Tory Pitt was no enemy to reform. This continued for the first period of the FR: the Whigs supported the FR principles, and the Tories were happy to see the Old Enemy preoccupied.
These are the years when Jane wrote much of the Juvenilia, which are often very anarchic and might even be considered subversive at a pinch.
Burke published `Reflections on the Revolution in France' attacking the FR, in 1790, and started an immense debate in England on whether the FR was a Good Thing. Opinion was divided, and anti-FR sentiment grew in England, especially after the Prison Massacres in September 1792. By the time that Britain and France went to war in early 1793, the only people who defended the FR in any way were the Foxite Whigs and the radicals.
The most relevant and dominating theme during the 1780s and early 1790s, apart from the French Revolution, was the trial of Warren Hastings, from 1788 to 1795. Southam mentions that the Austens took an interest, but doesn't make much of the fact that Burke was the leading figure in the attack on Hastings: it may be that the Austens were less well-disposed to Burke's attack on the French Revolution than they might have been from their Tory political views.
From about 1793, a number of repressive measures were introduced to stop revolutionary principles spreading across the channel: Fox put up a valiant fight against them, but in general lost. The atmosphere changed, so that the mildest reform was considered potentially subversive. Even Pitt's friend William Wilberforce, the least subversive of politicians, was forced to tone down his anti-slavery campaign.
The only reformist movement that escaped the general trend for a few years (up until the late 1790s) was a sort of soft feminism: nothing like as radical as Mary Wollstonecraft, but merely the notion that women were rational creatures.
These were the years that Jane wrote the first drafts of what were to become Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. I see Elizabeth Bennet as very much a product of this time. She demands that Mr Collins treats her as a rational creature (the soft feminism). However, her defence of herself against Lady C is one of equality within the gentry class: she is not attacking the system, but merely demanding her place in it.
From about 1800, when Napoleon came to the fore, even the radicals were for the most part English patriots, though Fox persisted in his notion that peace was possible. A brief period of non-Pittite views during 1806-7 and the Talents Ministry saw the abolition of the British slave trade, about the only reformist measure that went through and continued to grow. From this point on, anti-slave trade feeling increased throughout the country, including among those who had previously defended it, on the grounds that if they weren't going to make any money, then no other country should (see my post below on British public opinion in 1814).
Up until the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, and his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, apart from the slave trade there wasn't much of a reform movement, except to some extent in the armed forces when they proved wildly inefficient.
The other exception was the Luddite movement of 1811-12, brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Historians are still divided over whether Luddism can be accounted a reformist movement looking forward to the trade unionism of a later period, or a reactionary movement wanting to hark back to the good old days before machines replaced skilled work. There isn't much of a link to JA here, except (as I have obsessively pointed out before) her curious fascination with the Fitzwilliam family, since Earl Fitz was in charge of putting down Luddism in Yorkshire.
These were the years when Jane's earlier novels were rewritten and published, and Mansfield Park and Emma were written. I think these are her two most conservative novels: the first featuring the Evangelical Edmund and Fanny, and the second giving us a model large landowner in Mr Knightley.
Southam is wrong when she describes Mary Crawford as representing modern and progressive views as against Fanny's conservative ones. By the time MP was written, the Evangelical movement, inspired by Wilberforce, was the modern and progressive one, a humane Toryism. Mary Crawford's is an older view, a leftover from the dissolute and sophisticated Whiggism of the previous century.
With the coming of the peace in 1814 and 1815, radicalism no longer seemed so unpatriotic. The Tory government still continued with its attempts to put it down, but there was a lot more to put down.
This is when Jane wrote Persuasion, with its clear implication that the new men, represented by Croft and Wentworth, were much more worthy to run affairs than the old minor nobility of the Elliots.
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