Jane Austen and the French Revolution


By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

The French Revolution was a period of great progress as well as great chaos. This period lines up almost perfectly with Jane Austen’s life. This great historical event left a significant impact on not just her life, but also on her family. It, in fact, had a great impact on her literary works.

motto of liberty, equality, fraternity
The French Revolution and its ideals left an indelible stamp on Austen and her writings, finding a mention in many of her works. (Image: Andersphoto/Shutterstock)

Living in a War-stricken Country

Jane Austen, born in 1775, was just an infant when Great Britain went to war with the American colonies. Then, as she came of age, Britain was pulled into war with a transformed France. The two countries were at war almost continuously over the next two decades.

When Austen died in 1817, it was just two years after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo and exile to St. Helena. What this means is that Austen lived in a country that was at war across almost all of her 41 years. The young Jane began writing around the time when the Bastille fell, producing short works of fiction, drama, and history.

While some observed the events with enthusiasm and some with fear, Austen family’s stance at this confusing time is difficult to pin down. What’s clear is that King Louis XVI was by no means a family favorite. In February 1789, Jane Austen’s brothers published in their periodical, The Loiterer, a fictional news update from several months in the future, the month of May, in Paris. As seen in this work, some members of the Austen family found the King of France fully tyrannical.

Mary Wollstonecraft: An Inspiration

The revolutionary English writer who may have influenced Austen was a female philosopher and novelist: Mary Wollstonecraft. She wrote a response to Edmund Burke, titled A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in 1790, as well as a later work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792.

Wollstonecraft is known today as a pioneering women’s rights activist, supporting the ideals of the French Revolution. There is an extensive critical commentary on Wollstonecraft’s probable impact on Austen’s fiction.

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.

Austen’s Personal Thoughts

The first surviving correspondence from Austen’s hand dates to 1796. One of the things it describes is her brother Henry’s service in the Oxfordshire militia, a part-time national guard securing the country.

Even without an invasion, British families lost fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers to its wars against France. In 1811, Austen jokes privately in a letter—a very callous joke—“How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!” But 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.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Austen’s Familial Loss in the Revolution

Jane Austen’s first cousin Eliza had married a Frenchman, a count, the Comte de Feuillide, in 1781. Eliza sometimes stayed with the Austens at Steventon, and she became close to the sisters Jane and Cassandra. Jane even dedicated one of the most important works of her juvenilia, Love and Friendship, to her worldly cousin Eliza.

Over the next several years, Eliza and her husband the Count tried to navigate the cataclysmic changes in his home country. The count was in England when he learned that his property in France would be forfeited to the nation unless he returned. So he left his wife and their son behind in England and traveled home.

The count had wanted to return to England, but he found it was impossible to get away. He was tried and executed by guillotine in 1794. What his death tells us is that Austen would have understood perfectly well that revolutions and wars could devastate families.

War and Death in Austen’s Works

Austen puts 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. That father, Lieutenant Fairfax, was serving in an infantry regiment when he died in action abroad. It’s true that we’re not told about this action. But every reader would have understood that Lieutenant Fairfax was a casualty of the war in a battle with French forces.

An opened book and a quill
Jane Austen takes a humorous dig at the war and its tragedies in her works. (Image: Triff/Shutterstock)

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 her 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.

Austen’s Brothers in the Navy

Austen’s two brothers, Charles and Francis Austen, found their calling in the navy. Charles served on a number of ships and saw action against the French in Italy and the Mediterranean. Francis helped organize military defense on the coast of Britain. Both Austen brothers became successful, lifelong naval men. There are books devoted to describing all that these brothers did and faced.

Anyone who claims Austen was ignorant of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, or that she ignored it, would themselves have to ignore her close family connections to revolution and war.

Common Questions about Jane Austen and the French Revolution

Q: When was Jane Austen born?

Jane Austen was born in 1775, when Great Britain went to war with the American colonies. Then, as she came of age, Britain was pulled into war with a transformed France.

Q: Which revolutionary writer influenced Austen’s writings?

The revolutionary English writer who may have influenced Austen was philosopher and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Q: Which of Austen’s works have references to war and tragedy?

Austen‘s references to war-induced tragedies can be evidently seen in her novels Emma and Persuasion.

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