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|JA & the Wars, Part 4 (1801-1805)
Written by Captain Everett
(3/16/2003 5:56 p.m.)
The Napoleonic Wars raged through much of Jane Austen's life, but rarely appear in her works. This is the four installment of a series of posts looking at those events, what her "military" brothers were doing at the time, and the major events and works in progress in JA;s life. This segment covers the time between the announcement of the Austens’ move to Bath, and the death of the Reverend Mr. Austen.
JA & the Wars, Part 4 - 1801-1805
At the end of 1800, Napoleon wielded great power upon the Continent. Only Turkey and Portugal were not under his sway. Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia formed the Armed Neutrality League, which in effect, established a blockade of England. A great fleet was outfitting in the Baltic, a further threat. In February 1801, Austria made peace with France.
In war-weary England, wheat was four times what it was at the start of the war; the 6d loaf had risen to 17d. However, that nation remained Napoleon’s most irksome opponent. Within a few months, half of the shipping in the Baltic had been taken by British. Pitt authorised an army of 220,000 regulars and Fencibles, and 80,000 Militia, plus a fleet of 220 ships of the line and 250 frigates. The cost was estimated at 68 million pounds. A few days later, King showing signs of old madness and by month’s end his health was despaired of.
On January 1st, the Union with Ireland was proclaimed, despite opposition of the more fanatic elements of the Protestant minority, and the dissolute aristocracy. This welded Britain and Ireland into a single kingdom, abolished the Dublin parliament, established the Anglican church, and allowed Ireland to kept its own Courts of Justice and civil laws. The Union "Jack" (a term that really only applies when flown from a ship), the United Kingdom’s current flag was adopted. However, no Catholics allowed to hold public office, and there was no Catholic Emancipation. At best, it was a temporary expedient, buying a breathing space during a troubled time. It settled nothing in the long term.
That January, Henry resigned his commission in the Oxfordshire Militia, to become an Army Agent. Along with Henry Maunde (a fellow ex-officer of the Oxfords), he established "H.T. Austen & Co." About a month later they became the official Agent for their old Regiment. In February, the Austens were preparing to for their move to Bath. A message came that Charles, expected home, was becalmed off Plymouth.
In March the King was reported much improved. On the 14th, Pitt resigned as Prime Minister, replaced by Henry Addington. On April 2, Nelson attacked Copenhagen, sparking the "telescope to the blind eye" myth. British gunnery overwhelmed the Danish defences and smashed much of their fleet. The Danes soon after withdrew from the Northern Convention, dissolving that alliance.
In May, news of victories in Egypt reached England. (In March the British had landed and had some initial successes, the situation was sealed by the appearance of the British fleet – this was the first real defeat of French arms since 1793.) Despite these military successes, the outlook on the home front continued bleak. The sixth bad harvest in a row, plus the stoppage of Baltic grain, led to continued shortages which drove the price of foodstuffs even higher. This sparked even greater discontent, strikes and demonstrations. (Fortunately, in mid-May, Russia raised the embargo on British ships.)
The Austens moved to Bath in May. At the end of the month they went for a holiday in the West Country. In September they visited Steventon and Ashe, before returning to Bath in early October. In a letter dated May 26, "The Endymion came into Portsmouth on Sunday, and I have sent Charles a short note…. He has received £30 from his share of the privateer and expects £10 more, but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaz crosses for us; he must be well scolded…." [These crosses and chains found their way into "Mansfield Park" written about ten years later.]
While England, and the Austens were enjoying their summer, Napoleon was forming a sham invasion force. Troops were assembled and boats built and moved to locations along the Channel coast that were a potential threat to Essex and Kent. This alarmed some, but most Englishmen went on about their daily lives as best they could (even with one eye aimed ever southward). By the end of the year, even if they were not fighting a hot war, both France and Britain were plainly exhausted.
On 27 March 1802, the Peace of Amiens was declared. Britain recognised French hegemony on Continent, and returned the West Indian islands captured from the French (Trinidad and Ceylon), and returned the Cape to the Dutch. France recognised the Republic of the Seven Ionian Islands, and restored Malta to the Order of the Knights of Malta. Some British leaders ashamed of the Treaty, but the majority accepted it as less costly than a continued conflict. The breathing space it gave England was seen as its greatest benefit. For most it was simply welcomed as a chance to get back to normal.
In England, news of the Peace was greeted with illuminations, fireworks, feasts, sermons and other expressions of joy. Addington abolished the income tax, and other levies. Within weeks the military establishment was reduced, the army was almost halved to 95,000, plus 18,000 in Ireland. The Militia was reduced to about 50,000, plus half that number in reserve. Henry’s business was, of course, substantially reduced. Charles left the Endymion and visited the family in Bath and accompanied them on their summer holidays. Frank, who had been appointed Captain of the Neptune (88), stationed at Portsmouth, was preparing to be paid off. While there, his parents (without his sisters) visited the ship.
The end of war brought everything French back in fashion. Thousands crossed the Channel to tour France and the Continent. Many travellers found conditions in France better than before the Revolution, and the populace surprisingly friendly. Order and prosperity were slowly returning. Only the old estates and churches failed to show signs of repair. Most travellers were charmed and exited by what they saw, a few found France lacked taste and refinement. Thousands of exiles returned. Many, hoping to regain some of their property and set up home again. Amongst the returnees were Henry and Eliza hoping to recover at least part of the de Feuillide estate.
On August 2, Napoleon was named Consul For Life. Many in England saw this as an incidence of growing absolutism in France. This, and other incidents lead to a rise in anti-French sentiments. Behind the facade, France was perceived as a military culture where political power held at the point of the bayonet, and the ability to criticise the Government was prohibited, very unlike England. It became increasingly clear another war coming. Addington, reinstituted the income tax (although at a lower rate), and the naval establishment was increased. Pitt, meanwhile, gave the impression of cooling his heels and staying out of public life.
On the evening of December 2, Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to Jane, and she accepted. By the following morning she had changed her mind. Jane and Cassandra returned to Steventon, and then off to Bath immediately. Over the winter, Jane revised "Susan" (NA), selling it that spring to the publisher Crosby of London. (Who failed to use it.)
By the spring of 1803, it was patently clear that Napoleon was not living up to his agreement. His behind the scenes machinations could prove a dire threat. Britain also realised that, in many respects, they were stronger than France, although that lead could soon disappear. On May 1, 1803, Britain declared war. Within days British ships were off Brest, and capturing French vessels in the Channel. Napoleon was furious. He immediately ordered the arrest of all British travellers. Henry and Eliza were nearly trapped in France. Fortunately, Eliza’s French was good enough to pass for a national (Henry undoubtedly keeping his mouth shut), and they made a rapid escape to England. Many more were not so lucky. It is estimated ten thousand were interned, many for eleven years.
Britain’s insolence spurred Napoleon into a characteristic burst of energy. He massed 160,000 troops on coast and built several hundred barges to carry them across the Channel. From 1803 though to late 1805, the United Kingdom was never entirely free of the fear of invasion. From time to time, amongst the more excitable, it bordered upon waves of hysteria. On a more whimsical note, English parents frequently used "Boney" as a bogeyman to frighten small children into obedience.
The British Government now had to enlarge the military power of the nation. However, government parsimony hampered any real effectiveness. Great faith continued to be placed upon the Militia and Volunteers. Militia quotas were increased, to be part of Addington’s proposed "Army of Reserve." The Militia was expended to 100,000 (half to be selected by ballot) who would serve a five year compulsory term. (The "Army of Reserve" never became a reality.)
The projected number of Volunteers was 300,000. Within a few weeks this figure was achieved. Volunteering was immensely popular. Young men could don fine uniforms and engage in interesting activities, while being exempt from the militia ballot. It had the additional attraction of an opportunity to thrash a foreigner, and a French one at that. However, numbers were not enough. Clothing these numbers was a fairly minor difficulty, merely transferring civilian talents to a new purpose. Arms were an entirely different matter. A proposal to issue pikes was sneered upon. So popular were the Volunteers that in August the government put a stop to the creation of new units in areas where the numbers were six times that of the Militia. Contemporary records frequently mention bodies of men drilling on the various greens and commons, and of earthworks being thrown up at various points deemed of tactical importance.
Despite these fears, the majority of Englishmen enjoyed the summer, and treated the threat of invasion with a sense of detachment, even if they occasionally cast one nervous eye towards the Channel. The Austens visited Dorset. Brother Henry expanded his business, obtaining the Agency of the Nottinghamshire Militia and the North Devon Militia. Lieutenant Charles returned to the Endymion until he was promoted in October and transferring to the sloop, Indian (built in Bermuda), serving on the North Atlantic.
Frank received orders as well,
On the other side of the Atlantic, France lost the possession, or at least the control of, several Caribbean islands, due to British sea power. As winter approached, maintaining an absolute blockade of the Continent became impossible (largely due to storms). This heightened the fears of Napoleon attempting the "jump the ditch" (as he so boasted) while the Royal Navy was temporarily dispersed or in port.
That spring of 1804, Frank returned to the sea aboard the Leopard (50) stationed off Boulonge.. About that same time Mrs. Austen became seriously ill. It is believed that sometime during this year Jane began work on the "Watsons".
On December 2 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. In May of 1804, Pitt returns as Prime Minister. He formed a scheme to raise 80,000 effective militia, as well as the construction of defensive works. However, Pitt’s main focus was upon forging of new Continental alliances. That summer the Austens visited Lyme Regis (which featured prominently in "Persuasion", written about eleven years later). Meanwhile, Charles continued to serve aboard the in Indian, and Frank on the Leopard, stationed at Dungeness. The autumn brought a renewed increase in invasion fears.
The winter brought two tragedies to the Austens. On December 16, Jane’s good friend Mrs. Anne Lefroy was killed in a fall from her horse, and on January 21, with the death of her father.
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