Whatever you do, don’t mention the war

Whatever you do, don’t mention the war

Note: Sorry to return to the former topic of What’s Not in Austen Novels, but …

I’m reading Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815, which is a very good night-time read (short chapters). The book revisits the same people throughout the wars, so we get to see how it affected them during this long period of uncertainty. A generation spanned this period (made even longer if we include the French Revolution) and it must have informed every aspect of daily life.

uglowThe impact on ordinary people of the Napoleonic Wars must have exceeded even the impact of our decade long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These 21st-century conflicts have seeped into every television show and movie. You can’t read, watch or listen to the news without learning of some terrible event and we’ve all been moved by the plight of wounded warriors or the displacement of thousands of refugees. And yet most of us can go about our daily routines with this as background noise. Unless you have a family member in the service, we live our lives relatively unaffected by the conflicts.

This was hardly the situation for most of the people in the British Isles during the Napoleonic Wars. War affected people directly on a daily basis in the most ordinary ways (switching to port instead of sherry because of the Peninsular campaign). We see the beginnings of total war during this time, meaning all the resources of the state are being devoted to war-time efforts, meaning the citizenry are taxed to support the war effort, meaning able-bodied men are conscripted into the fight. The Royal Navy needed seamen and few men were safe from the press gangs. Even sailors on commercial vessels or those who sailed on foreign-owned ships could be impressed. The American War of 1812 was partly fought because of impressment.

Until the Battle of Trafalgar, most of the channel coast feared invasion. Napoleon had earlier planned landings in Ireland, hoping to ally with Irish discontents. The British built Martello towers along the coast, essentially unadorned pillars with a massive gun pointed out to sea. The Royal Military Canal was dug in order to flood Romney Marsh should the French invade. It’s near Hastings, where the Normans had invaded in 1066. Jane Austen, her mother and sister Cassandra, lived for a time in Portsmouth, where is found the great naval base that figures prominently in Mansfield Park. Admittedly the heavily fortified port was adequately defended against invasion, but still it must have been a concern for those living there.

Austen, of course, also had two brothers who served in the Royal Navy, and both eventually became admirals. Francis Austen almost took part in the Battle of Trafalgar and lamented his absence when his ship, which was escorting a convoy, could not join battle because of opposing gales. He wrote to his future wife: “… I do not profess to like fighting for its own sake, but if there have been an action with the combined Fleets, I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the Squadron as the most inauspicious of my life …” The Austen brothers were involved in numerous ship actions and their safety must have been a concern to Jane and her family.

The wars also forced the government to institute an income tax at the end of the 18th century. I don’t know how much it might have affected Jane’s immediate family, but it must have been a shock to the wider populace and I’m sured it played into the calculus that her brothers later used when they supported the Austen women after the death of Jane’s father. In fact the wars, coupled with bad weather, led to food shortages and even famine, ever increasing taxes and general unrest. The tax on hair powder even made men and women give up that look we associate with the Georgian period and led to fashions that seem a little less foreign to our modern tastes.

The war even led to the rise of Henry Austen as a prominent banker. He had been a captain with the Oxfordshire militia before the Treaty of Amiens and afterwards with friends he opened a bank and became very successful, but it was very apparent that success was tied to the war. After Napoleon was defeated, his bank collapsed in the economic uncertainty that followed.

It’s also amazing to consider how much the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 must have affected everyone. For one year, France and England were at peace and tourists and speculators were practically strolling the boulevards of Paris before the ink was dry. All across the country, illuminations (fireworks and bonfires) marked the treaty and instantly Napoleon was praised as being an honorable foe. How devastating it must have been when hostilities renewed to the extent that an invasion was deemed imminent.

Why then is none of this in Austen’s novels? So much so that Winston Churchill, writing during World War II, observed of Austen’s novels: “What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars.”

There are, of course, Austen’s two nautical novels, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, in which admirals and captains and lieutenants figure so prominently. There is Anne Elliot’s Captain Wentworth and Fanny Price’s brother William, promoted to lieutenant after languishing as a midshipman. There’s talk of ship action and prize money and the infamous “vices and rears.” There are the red coats of Pride and Prejudice and the unfortunate private that was flogged, but overall, where is the war? Consider that since she was born in 1775, with very little gap, her country was always at war with someone.

I have no real answer to this. It’s been argued that someone writing a romance today probably wouldn’t mention this century’s wars unless it were pivotal to the plot, but I don’t think you can compare 1815 and 2015 in the same way. Yes, there are the economic indicators that you can find in Austen that speak of the wars, but not the reality of living with war. Her books are very much set in the time she was living and yet there is very little of what must have been a pre-occupation of the time. People would meet in coffee houses to discuss the news of the war, poring over maps especially as each coalition crumbled (up to seven I think). At the time of the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1811, it was not a foregone conclusion that England would prevail and how alarming it must have been when Napoleon, like a crazed killer in a horror movie, escaped Elba to attack again.

I can’t say whether I would have liked Austen to have made more of the war in her novels. She would never have written some sort of Aubrey-Maturin potboiler or A Tale of Two Cities melodrama because she only wrote what she knew. But what she did know about was living in a time of war, when economic uncertainties dogged her family, when her brothers’ lives were in constant peril and when the newspapers she read must have reported on Napoleon daily.

Did she deliberately keep the war out of her books? I know there’s much academic discussion about this, but I wonder about this as a writer. When I read Austen’s novels, I am transported to a very real time and place. I get no sense that she wrote her books to be timeless. In fact in the preface to Northanger Abbey she notes that some parts of the work are “obsolete,” it having been written thirteen years previous.

Again, I have no answers and maybe I make too much of it. I’m hardly going to start mentioning Afghanistan and Iraq in everything I write, but maybe I will appreciate a little more the time in which I live.

12 Responses to Whatever you do, don’t mention the war

  1. Fascinating post. Thanks, Jennifer. I love history, and although delving into heavy stuff like war and politics isn’t my favorite subject, it is important.

    I suppose people will be speculating as to why Jane made her writing choices for decades to come. I tend to agree with Stephanie L and others, in that Jane wrote cheery stories (for the most part) dealing with human interaction and love. She never expected that people 200 years later would be reading her novels, let alone inspecting every line for some deep meaning or historical fact! I figure she was writing to entertain and offer escapism, not unlike the “fluffy” novels or popcorn movies of today….. just written better. LOL!

  2. Since she was writing for her contemporaries and not “timeless” novels, my thought is that she was striving for light and comedic and left the war out because little about Napoleon was comedic. Like someone else said, she wouldn’t have had much first hand knowledge either, but I like to think that she was striving for a lighter, funnier fare than the dreariness of war.

  3. Jane Austen never does cover subjects she felt she knew nothing about. We rarely hear two men speaking together without a female present, for instance. She limits herself to what she as a female, and what most females, would know about or hear the men mention. It wasn’t a matter of what was proper, so much as a matter of writing of something she knew about. Most of the other authors — male and female — did the same. They didn’t mention battles and fighting because they had no intimate knowledge of it.

  4. I imagine that such heavy topics as war were not considered appropriate fodder for the female pen in that day. Of course, Austen considered her works to be comedic, more than romantic, so perhaps even she didn’t want to weigh them down with too much of the reality of wartime. It would be interesting to delve into any cultural taboos that may have existed at the time — as your title suggests — as well as superstitions, rules of etiquette, etc. that would influence exactly how much war talk was too much. Fascinating topic!

  5. The taxes, the impressment of sailors the threat of invasion before 1805 for those who lived near the water, the requirement to belong to the militia or to pay a substitute would have all been known by Austen’s readers. .Those who lived on the southern coast would have seen the various defenses but I don’t get the impression that those who lived more inland or to the north felt the effects of the war as much. Those who had family members in danger paid attention to the war news but I imagine that whole months could go by without other people thinking about the war.
    Few of the authors of sequels or Austen influenced books seem to involve Wickham in the war at all. Austen has him in the militia at first and then sent to a regular army encampment in the north, but I think all those units did go fight on the continent.– Do we look at P & P as being written before 1800 which would be before the war really got going on England’s part or as revised and published in the midst of the war? If the story is set pre 1800 that would account for little mention of the war– the militia was a constant. If she set it right before publication, Austen probably didn’t include more about the affect of the war either because there wasn’t that much to see in her corner of the world, or they all knew about the deprivations and such and didn’t need to read about them. The war is rarely mentioned in the fiction of the time which I have seen.
    Austen doesn’t mention the war much kin her letters except in relation to her brothers and the battle in which Gen. Moore was killed. That was a rather harsh– lots of people killed. Too bad but we didn’t know any one them so are OK>

  6. Jennifer, this is a fascinating and informative post. Just a thought, but perhaps mentioning the war would have made it even more challenging to get the books published at the time.

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