By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
The last decades of the 18th and those of the early 19th centuries were among the most transformative in Western history. These years witnessed profound changes in social structures and ways of life. This period of great progress and great chaos lines up with Jane Austen’s life, leaving a lasting impact on her writings, too.
Austen Was Ignorant of World Affairs?
Critics have often faulted Jane Austen’s fiction for supposedly ignoring the wider world. One late 19th century critic complained that Austen’s books weren’t great because she didn’t describe great global events or narrate scenes of war. A few critics even implied that Austen must have been ignorant of the history and politics of her own day.
Yet when we look more closely at Austen’s fiction, we see that global strife and the perils of war are deeply embedded in her work. She was influenced by the French Revolution’s calls for the rights of men and women.
France: Sociopolitical Milieu
The French population was divided into three estates: the First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate was the nobility, and the Third Estate was made up of commoners. The average worker was already spending half of his daily earnings to buy bread, but prices shot up higher after grain crops failed in 1788 and 1789.
Amidst a military and political crisis, newly formed municipal militias responded by raiding an arsenal and taking its muskets. A search for arms and ammunition is said to have led them to the stores at the Bastille, an old Parisian fortress that had long served as a prison. After rising dissent, and political upheaval, the monarchs were guillotined. France was going through a Reign of Terror that led to mass guillotining. Later, the nation also saw Napoleon rising to tyrannical power.
Subtle Political Implications in Austen’s Works
It was during this time that a young Jane Austen began writing, producing short works of fiction, drama, and history. In her comic play “The Visit”, probably written in the year 1789, eight people try to find a way to sit in six chairs. The blame for the furniture shortage is placed on a grandmother, who “did not think it necessary to buy more chairs than were sufficient for her own family and two of her particular friends”.
The play includes this line: “The more free, the more Wellcome”. The political resonances of these lines, echoing the greed of those who don’t provide for others, and the privileges afforded to those of rank, may or may not be intended. The comic content of this play points to a young author who was familiar with conversations about generations, traditions, nepotism, shortages, sharing, tyranny, and liberty.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s Influence on Austen
The revolutionary English writer who may have influenced Austen, even more than Burke or Paine, was female philosopher and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft and her works like A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Places in which that influence may be traced more directly include Pride and Prejudice’s uses of the word “equal” and Persuasion’s description of women as “rational creatures”. These sections have distinct Wollstonecraftian, revolutionary, and rights-oriented overtones, using some of the same words and phrases found in her Vindications.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Tragedy Reflected in Austen’s Letters
British families lost fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers to their wars against France. In 1811, Austen jokes privately in a letter, “How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!”
In this callous joke, Austen wasn’t speaking solely from a place of privilege. She and her family were among the first to experience a loss in Revolutionary France when her cousin lost her husband to the guillotine.
War and Death in Austen’s Novels
Austen did put tragedy and war deaths into her fiction, too. In her novel Emma, the orphan Jane Fairfax is said to have lost her father in wartime. Even though we’re not told about this action, it is clearly understood that Lieutenant Fairfax was a casualty of the war in a battle with French forces. All of the action in the novel is predicated on action abroad, against an emergent Napoleon.
The Austen novel that’s most directly structured by the Napoleonic wars is Persuasion. Its hero, Frederick Wentworth, first proposed marriage to its protagonist Anne Elliot in 1806. Anne’s family persuaded Anne to reject him because of his lack of fortune. Then he went off to war against Napoleon, where he rose through the ranks of the Royal Navy and became wealthy in war, amassing 20,000 pounds.
Persuasion and the War
Even the end of Austen’s Persuasion is structured by war. The novel is set in 1814 when it seemed Napoleon had been defeated at last. But what Austen knew, writing Persuasion, was that Napoleon would soon escape from his exile on the island of Elba.
At the end of Persuasion, the narrator reports that Anne Elliot gloried in being a sailor’s wife and that only “the dread of a future war” could “dim her sunshine”. What both the author and the readers know is that the war between France and Britain would restart, before Napoleon would be finally defeated the next year, at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
But whatever Austen meant to have us imagine with this line at the end of Persuasion, she didn’t compose the novel thoughtlessly. Austen knew the Royal Navy’s practices and movements from the naval careers of her two brothers, Charles and Francis Austen.
Austen’s fiction doesn’t advocate for institutions and systems to be abolished. At the same time, she doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for the royalty and aristocracy, or with dictators and despots. She didn’t like tyrants, whether among the French or the British.
Common Questions about How the French Revolution Influenced Jane Austen’s Works
The revolutionary English writer who may have influenced Austen was female philosopher and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft and her works like A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Austen talks about the Napoleonic wars in her novels Emma and Persuasion.
Critics have often faulted Austen’s fiction for supposedly ignoring the wider world. One late 19th century critic complained that Austen’s books weren’t great because she didn’t describe great global events or narrate scenes of war.