Jane Austen: Wartime Writer

Professor Kathryn Sutherland examines the effect of war on Jane Austen's life and its influence on her novels.

England was at war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France from 1793 to 1815, with only a brief respite in 1802-3. It was a world war, fought on land and sea, across Europe and extending to America in the west and India in the east. Jane Austen and Napoleon were near contemporaries: her dates, 1775-1817; his dates 1769-1821. War raged for most of Austen’s adult life. It used to be said that she showed no awareness in her writings of these momentous events.

For example:

‘Austen maintained the same outward silence toward England’s military struggle with France as toward the great political events of the day.’ Warren Roberts, Jane Austen and the French Revolution (1979).

Even her own writings appear to support this view:

‘history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in … wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all’ (Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, ch. 14).

But wartime was the ordinary, everyday time of Jane Austen’s adult life. Just how ignorant was she really? And what about her novels?


Austen family history

War touched closely on the private lives of several members of Jane Austen’s remarkable family.  Living in Paris in the 1780s, her glamorous cousin Eliza Hancock met and married the Comte de Feuillide, a captain in Marie Antoinette’s Regiment of Dragoons.  A frequent visitor to her Austen cousins, Eliza was in England only days before the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Though she escaped the excesses of the Revolution, her husband was guillotined in 1794. Settled in London, and married to Jane’s brother Henry, Eliza’s life remained entwined with those of the exiled French refugee community. Eliza was a major influence on her cousin Jane’s writing.

Two of Jane Austen’s brothers, Frank and Charles, were sailors who saw action and engaged the enemy in North American waters, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the East Indies. Both had long and distinguished naval careers and eventually attained the rank of admiral. They sent home gifts to their sisters bought with prize money, realized by the capture of enemy ships. They sent letters, from the East and West Indies, the Middle East and Mediterranean and North American waters; and Jane Austen posted replies: from Chawton to ‘Captain Austen, HMS Elephant, Baltic’, and to China. Frank Austen, flag captain of HMS Canopus, one of six ships-of-the-line sent by Nelson to re-provision, missed the action at Trafalgar on 21 October but recorded the victory and Nelson’s death in Canopus’s logbook:

‘Great and important as must be the victory, it is alas! dearly purchased at the price paid for it.—Never could England boast a naval Commander so eminently qualified for maintaining her superiority on the seas, as was her Nelson.—To the soundest judgement he united the most prompt decision and active energy, and possessed the happy talent of conciliating the regards of all ranks of Officers and Men under his command.’

In wartime, even home may no longer feel secure.  Chawton is now a sleepy village but in 1809, when Jane Austen moved here, it lay at a strategic junction on the roads to Winchester, Gosport, and London. Crossing the Channel and making land on the south coast, Napoleon might well have marched his army past her front door.


Wartime in the novels

Austen’s first three novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, were published by Thomas Egerton who ran a ‘Military Library’ in Whitehall, London, just across from the Admiralty Office.  Egerton’s list was mainly composed of military treatises, maps, and training manuals, works designed to feed Britain’s war effort against Napoleon. He hardly ever published novels, and Jane Austen was his first female novelist. Her brother Henry’s career as militia officer and army agent probably provided the connection. Take a look at the original title page of Pride and Prejudice (reproduced in many modern paperbacks) and you will see at the foot of the page ‘Printed for T. Egerton, Military Library, Whitehall’.

War provides the rhythm to which Austen’s novels unfold.  It is time to reclaim Jane Austen as one of the first English novelists to explore the effect of contemporary war on the home front.

Even small details matter to Austen, as we know. In Emma (1816), Jane Fairfax is a war orphan, her father an infantry officer who died ‘in action abroad’ (ch. 20). In Persuasion (1818) there is the following conversation: ‘“And who is Admiral Croft?” was Sir Walter’s cold suspicious inquiry … Anne, after the little pause which followed, added—“He is rear admiral of the white. He was in the Trafalgar action, and has been in the East Indies since …”’ (ch. 3). Perhaps Admiral Croft provides some fictional recompense for Frank Austen’s missed engagement at Trafalgar?


Wartime in Pride and Prejudice (1813)

‘In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possible happiness … She saw all the glories of the camp; its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet … herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.’ (Pride and Prejudice, ch. 41)

Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s second novel, describes the disruptive effects of the militia (the equivalent of the Territorial Army) on civilian life and morality. The novel’s love story may centre on Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but it is only resolved after George Wickham, an officer in the militia, absconds with the giddy teenager Lydia Bennet. By 1813, the south of England resembled a military camp: in 1793 there had been only 17 permanent infantry barracks; within twelve years there were 168. Soldiers overran the smallest towns, drinking and womanizing.


Wartime in Mansfield Park (1814)

‘Once fairly in the dock-yard, [Henry Crawford] began to reckon upon some happy intercourse with Fanny … the young people sat down upon some timbers in the yard, or found a seat on board a vessel in the stocks, which they all went to look at.’ (Mansfield Park, ch. 41)

While writing Mansfield Park Austen was reading Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire (1810), by Charles Pasley, Captain in the Royal Engineers. The book is a detailed critique of the British government’s failure to invest in a modern army to oppose Napoleon. She described it in a letter to her sister Cassandra as ‘a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining’ (24 January 1813).

Mansfield Park’s central theme is the place of family in the defence of the nation. By 1814, Austen pinned her hopes for victory over France on Britain’s religious and moral renewal. Fanny Price is her most devout heroine.

During walks around Portsmouth’s naval defences, the sophisticated rake Henry Crawford makes his assault on Fanny’s heart. Was he likely to succeed?

Portsmouth was a city dedicated to war in the 1810s. Its dockyards were the most modern in Europe thanks to the new blocking machinery, designed by the French engineer, Marc Isambard Brunel (father to I. K. Brunel). There is a guidebook flavour to Mansfield Park’s Portsmouth chapters. Unusually, for she is not a descriptive writer, Austen is at pains to point out various defensive landmarks as witnessed by Fanny – Spithead, the Platform, the Garrison chapel, the Ramparts.

HMS Canopus, HMS Endymion, HMS Cleopatra, HMS Elephant, four of the ships on which her brothers Frank and Charles served, are all named in Mansfield Park. Fanny’s brother William Price is modelled on Jane’s own sailor brother Charles.

Wartime in Persuasion (1818)

‘His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish [Anne’s] tenderness less; the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.’ (Persuasion, ch. 24)

Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel, published in 1818, six months after her death, is her most precisely dated in terms of its story. She began writing it on 8 August 1815 but set its events one year earlier, in the autumn of 1814. After eight years of fighting and promotion, and flush with prize money, Captain Frederick Wentworth has returned from sea, looking for a bride. Summer 1814-early 1815, before Napoleon’s escape from exile on Elba, came to be known as the ‘false peace’.  Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, July 1815.

Persuasion’s story closes months before Waterloo, when once again the future of Europe hung in the balance. Austen’s earliest readers, might well have understood, as we cannot, the fragility of its ending: Captain Wentworth may be called once more to risk his life, and Anne, as the narrator warns, ‘must pay the tax of quick alarm’.

In its opening chapters, the narrator has been at pains to link her heroine Anne Eliot’s lost love and diminished existence to the years of separation that war traditionally has enforced on women: women’s role in wartime was to wait and worry.  Anne, we are told ‘had only navy lists and newspapers’ to sustain her (ch. 4).

News from battle zones is a cause for anxiety or congratulation. With two brothers in the Navy this was familiar territory to Jane Austen. Austen’s second publisher, John Murray, issued regularly updated Navy Lists, notices of men killed and officers promoted. Jane would have been proud to read the entry for ‘F. William Austen’, her brother Frank, showing the date (13 May 1800) when he was posted Captain.


Sanditon, a post-war novel

Where in Mansfield Park and Persuasion, Austen figured the national through the personal perspective on war, in Sanditon, begun in January 1817 but left unfinished at her death a few months later, she described a traumatized post-war society opening to change after decades of confinement yet bearing conflict’s mental and emotional scars. Sanditon is precisely contemporary, set only eighteen months after the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s final defeat. Anxiously defended in Mansfield Park against the threat of invasion, England’s Channel coast is now the scene of keen seaside ‘resort wars’ and an eagerly anticipated invasion, this time from holiday-makers. Mr Parker, who abandons his family estate to invest in the new leisure industry, is a type of modern man, dislocated by recent events and wishing to make the world anew. The mood in Sanditon is not just optimistic; it is frenetic and reckless. Among war’s aftershocks is its effect on language and identity. Miss Diana Parker’s post-war profiteering takes the form of officious acts of charity. Her crazy interference in other people’s business is expressed in paramilitary terms: ‘[Miss Diana Parker] was now regaling in the delight of opening the first Trenches of an acquaintance with such a powerful discharge of unexpected Obligation’ (ch. 10).

The novel is filled with topical allusion: Mr Parker’s regret that his new-built house, Trafalgar House, is not named Waterloo (‘for Waterloo is more the thing now’ (ch. 4)) invokes the contemporary craze for naming buildings after national wartime victories: London’s Strand Bridge, begun in 1811, had been renamed Waterloo Bridge just one year earlier in 1816. Even the reference to ‘blue shoes’ (ch. 4), spotted in a Sanditon shop window is not without significance: several contemporary commentators noting the craze for blue garments, in the shade known as Waterloo blue, after the dye in common use in Flanders.

Within weeks of the battle, trophy-hunting marked the field of Waterloo as a tourist destination. Almost overnight, Waterloo shifted from history into myth. A relatively recent equivalent would be the tourist onslaught following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Already in Sanditon, Waterloo has been commodified and packaged.

Throughout the twentieth century, Austen’s domestic negotiations with history were conscripted to serve a narrative of English identity. Her high reputation was tightly bound to a particular view of culture that her novels were understood to embody. She was safe to read because she was disengaged from public events. At the same time, her social vision gained traction because it appeared to represent an England worth defending and even fighting for: England imagined as the timeless village clustered around the great house and the church. As Philip Davis remarks in Reading and the Reader (2013), ‘literature is something going on within [the] outside world’ (p. 108), and life is raw data in search of form. Throughout the twentieth century, her novels were required to carry within them the history of their reading and to reproduce it: in reading Austen, the wartime writer, we are cleansed of war.



Kathryn Sutherland is Professor of English and Senior Research Fellow at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Her publications include Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: from Aeschylus to Bollywood (2005), Jane Austen: Writer in the World (2017), and Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts (2018). Her latest book is Why Modern Manuscripts Matter (2022), a study of the politics, commerce, and aesthetics of heritage culture in the shape of authors’ manuscripts, including those of Jane Austen.

Professor Kathryn Sutherland looks at a manuscript book