Jane Austen and the Casualties of War

Jane Austen and the Casualties of War

Jane Austen had two brothers who served in the navy, Frank and Charles, and two who served in the militia, Edward and Henry. Father George Austen and brother James, as clergymen, were discouraged from bearing arms but recruited soldiers and militiamen from the local population.

It was the women in Jane’s close orbit, however, who suffered most directly from the horrors of war itself.

Jane’s sister, Cassandra, lost her fiancé, Tom Fowle, who went on a military expedition to the West Indies as the chaplain of his cousin’s ship. There, Tom died of yellow fever–as did half of all the British serving there. The cousin later said that, if he had known Tom was engaged, he would not have taken him. Tom’s generous £1,000 financial legacy to Cassandra, yielding about £50 annually, proved providential when the family income plummeted after the elder Mr. Austen died.

The other woman suffering a casualty from the war was Elizabeth, the wife of Jane’s wealthy brother Edward. In August 1807, Edward and Elizabeth learned that Elizabeth’s youngest brother, George, had been wounded in naval action, taken prisoner and brought ashore, and died.

Fanny Austen, Jane’s niece, would have been a young teenager when she wrote in her diary about the death in a naval battle of George Bridges, her uncle on the other side of the family.

The only surviving reference to the death of “poor Uncle George” comes on August 27, 1807, in the diary of Fanny Austen, Edward and Elizabeth’s oldest child and Jane Austen’s favorite niece. The death of the twenty-three-year-old lieutenant was confirmed about a week later.

Only nine years older than Fanny, George likely was more of a brother to Fanny and Edward’s other eldest children than an uncle. Though he came from the wealthy Bridges family, George had no wealth of his own. He lacked the inheritance of the oldest son or the clerical calling of the other three surviving sons. Like the two youngest Austen males, he sought to make a career of the Royal Navy. In fact, being five years younger than Charles, he might well have been emulating their careers. Both families came and went at Edward’s Godmersham estate; it’s likely that young George might have met at least Frank, who honeymooned there in 1806 while Charles spent 1805-1811 on duty in North America.

Jane’s reaction is unknown—the year 1807 is nearly blank insofar as her letters go. But the equivalence of the two situations—two women whose favorite young brother faced the fury of battle—must have struck Jane deeply.

Still more shocking, George was mortally wounded on Frank’s old ship, the Canopus (above, by headline), which he had captained to victory at San Domingo the previous year. The Austens lacked the connections to be given command of the newest ships, and Frank had complained about how slow and clumsy the old vessel was. Jane must have shuddered to realize that Frank himself had walked the same quarterdeck—it could have easily been his blood spilled on the oaken planks as George’s.

George Wickham’s scarlet uniform from the militia serves as a lure for young women in “Pride and Prejudice”–a major subplot.

The war with France ran most of Austen’s adult life, and she wove elements of it into her works. The bad-boy militia is an important subplot in “Pride and Prejudice”; the courage and open-heartedness of young naval officer William Price provides a counterpoint to the several dubious male characters in “Mansfield Park”; and the return of the conquering navy is the heart of “Persuasion.”

In addition to serving as a meaningful backdrop in these Jane Austen novels, the war also comes up subtly elsewhere as a plot device or character marker. In “Emma,” Jane Fairfax needs to be an orphan, so her father has been killed in action. In “Sense and Sensibility,” Colonel Brandon’s earlier service in India illustrates his sturdy character and reliability, while in “Northanger Abbey” Frederick Tilney’s captaincy in the dragoons serves as a flag for his hell-bent-for-leather recklessness.

Nowhere, however, does the war itself truly come to the forefront or serve as a major part of the storyline. Even in the most military book, “Persuasion,” the theme is not the horrors of war but the contrast after the war between self-made naval heroes entering society and the lazy, self-indulgent gentry who will be displaced by them.

Austen kept the war at a distance in her novels, but not because she was uninterested or uninformed. Instead, as the losses to Cass and Elizabeth show, its dangers struck far too close to home.

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9 Responses to Jane Austen and the Casualties of War

  1. The thing that horrifies me most is the young age at which some boys (sons) were sent off to serve in the navy. I have an uncle who made a career of the navy plus my brother did some underwater demolition in Viet Nam back when. The PTSD we read about is as serious an “injury” as a lost limb, IMHO.

    Thanks for sharing this history from Jane’s family.

    • Sheila, you’re absolutely right about young boys serving on ships. Frank and Charles were both kids when they went off to the newly established naval academy in Portsmouth–before then, they would have gone directly onboard. They were mid-teens when they did go to sea after two years in school. As a captain in Nov. 1808, Charles captured a French schooner and put a crew of 12 onboard to take the prize back to Bermuda. Instead, the prize was lost in a storm, and Charles wrote a poignant letter home to his sister Cassandra lamenting the loss of the lives of his crew, including two “mids”–midshipmen who would have been only 13-15 years of age.

  2. Great post!! Life was hard then for younger sons. I know the sailors were anxious to take prize money and make their fortunes but at what cost. No matter how descriptive the books we read, I think we can’t begin to imagine the horror of those early wars and what the men went through.

    • Teresa, yes, I don’t think anyone who has not seen combat can really appreciate it. The injuries were particularly horrendous. Especially at a time w/o antiseptics–or even clean hands! As we usually see in Austen, the younger sons had the choice of clergy, law, or military. To serve in the army, one normally had to buy a commission, which many younger sons could not afford. The navy did not allow purchase of a commission or promotion, but to obtain good assignments and promotions, one had to be well-connected, which meant the younger son of someone wealthy or close to a wealthy person. Frank, Jane’s older naval brother, was fortunate to catch the eye of Admiral Nelson, but when Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, Frank’s prospects for promotion dimmed. Partly, too, because Nelson had sent him off on a resupply run and Frank missed the famous battle, causing him effectively to drop below the 20 or so captains who were there.

  3. I admit, I didn’t know much of that. I never thought her uninformed. I simply assume it was because her writing is generally satirical, often out right comedic, and war wasn’t a topic she wished to satirize or laugh about. It didn’t occur to me to look for a personal connection as to why. Sensitivity to others is a likely component, too. Most people of that time would have a personal connection to war, wouldn’t they?

    • Summer, yes, the British army had about 250,000 men out of a population of under 10M, and the Navy had nearly 1,000 ships w/several hundred men each. Plus the militia and volunteers, who comprised another half-million. Almost everyone would have had a family member in some kind of service, as Jane did, though the militia and volunteers would not have gone overseas–they would have gone into action only in case of an invasion, which was a constant threat until the Battle of Trafalgar wiped out most of the French fleet. Wickham and the militia were in Brighton not just to party but because that was an expected point of invasion! The almost nonstop war with France was the single biggest political and economic issue during Jane’s life–as contentious w/in England as Vietnam was for the U.S. There were protests and riots on a regular basis, about food and other scarcities, about military recruitment/conscription, about high taxes–even the military mutinied a couple of times over pay. Henry’s militia regiment on the south coast mutinied–while he was away, thankfully–but he and every other soldier had to watch as the ringleaders were executed!

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