In the early 19th century, one of the most acceptable high-status profession for genteel men, after the clergy, was the military. Most of Jane Austen’s military men are officers, in the upper ranks of the military pecking order, from generals and colonels in the army, to admirals, vice admirals, and rear admirals in the navy, on down to majors, captains, and lieutenants.
Jane Austen’s Military Characters
In the novels, Jane Austen’s military characters are rarely described in active duty, except if they serve in the militia, which were like a regional national guard that travelled across the country in the course of their duties. We see these movements in Pride and Prejudice, with the militia coming and going, much to Lydia and Kitty’s happiness and dismay.
Austen’s characters who serve in the army include the cruel General Tilney, in Northanger Abbey, and the hero, Colonel Brandon, in Sense and Sensibility. George Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, is merely an ensign, the lowest rank of army officer, which may be meant to signal his lack of ability, as well as income.
Jane Austen’s naval characters include the admirable Admiral Croft and the hero, Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion, and the many naval men in Mansfield Park.
A Rigid Hierarchy
In the early 19th century, the British army was divided into infantry and cavalry. Other branches included artillery and engineers. All had different, colorful, recognizable uniforms. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia Bennet and her mother are particularly taken with men in uniform, with Lydia having little else but flirting with officers filling her head.
A career in the army had many challenges, even beyond the risks in wartime. The hierarchy was rigid. Most of the officers bought their way in, through some form of patronage. For a lower-ranking army officer’s commission, no military training was required. An officer then received a salary based on rank, at regular pay, or full pay, while on duty. He received a half-pay salary when not on active duty.
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Because of the cost of entering this career, commissioned army officers were largely drawn from the upper classes. A commission might be purchased for, say, 2000 pounds, to take up a position that paid 200 pounds a year. Thus, it might pay off after 10 years of service, depending on tours of action and active duty.
Officers could request permission to be on half-pay. Unless some crisis necessitated a regiment’s call to active duty, individual requests were routinely approved, especially with the right connections, as favors. Some officers used this route, the leave of absence, to avoid going abroad with their regiments.
When, in Sanditon, Lady Denham refers with such disdain to half-pay officers coming to their resort town, that’s what she’s talking about. These were often officers on hiatus, or even on vacation, at reduced pay. Her complaint is both that they have lesser social status and less money to spend.
Purchasing Military Commission
Payment for purchasing the military commission usually went to the retiring officer, not to the government. Military commissions could be bought, sold, and exchanged, and might provide a good long-term investment, with full and half-pay salaries.
An officer’s position might be purchased up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. However, promotion above that rank needed to be earned.
Like the army, the navy also had its system of prize money. It was awarded when an enemy ship was captured. The military rewarded victories with money. Enlisted soldiers and officers alike might be paid a share of whatever spoils were taken after a successful battle. That served as a motivator, too, for risking one’s life.
However, being an officer also came with its own fixed expenses. Each officer had to pay for his own uniform, furniture, weapons, and possibly a horse, not to mention the salaries of a groom and a manservant. This is another reason why having a private income, or a wealthy patron, was useful and necessary.
The navy operated differently. It required more training, but its practices made it easier for men to rise by merit. It was more possible in the navy than in the army to be promoted through achievement, rather than wealth or status.
Naval life was also different because it might include a few women. We see this in Persuasion, when Admiral Croft’s wife, Mrs. Croft, describes what it’s like to live on board ship with her husband. This wasn’t an anomaly but a regular practice among officers in charge of ships. Mrs. Croft says that the happiest part of her life has been spent on board a ship and touts its comfort and safety.
How Austen Saw the Military Men
Interestingly, Austen’s attitudes toward the military were not uncomplicated. In Persuasion, when Anne Elliot marries Captain Wentworth, we’re told that she gloried in being a sailor’s wife. It seems something the reader is expected to endorse.
Yet, not all naval men are admirable in Austen’s fiction. In Mansfield Park, flirtatious Mary Crawford’s uncle, the admiral, is morally dissolute and has taken a mistress under his own roof. That’s why Mary has had to leave, so as not to injure her own reputation. But Mary herself makes a joke about having seen “rears” and “vices” at his home. She refers to military titles, to rear admirals and vice admirals, but also says, disingenuously, don’t suspect me of making a pun. Critics still debate precisely which kinds of vice Mary might be alluding to with this ribald joke.
Austen’s fiction also features villains who hail from the army. In Pride and Prejudice, after Lydia runs off with the army officer Wickham, her father, Mr. Bennet, angrily declares that, “No officer is ever to enter into my house again, nor even to pass through the village.” Of course, this statement is exaggerated for humor. Mr. Bennet couldn’t control the movements of regiments. But it does further suggest Austen’s tendency to celebrate the navy over the army.
Common Questions about Officers and Other Military Men in Jane Austen’s Novels
The early 19th century, the British army was divided into infantry and cavalry. Other branches included artillery and engineers.
The payment for purchasing the military commission usually went to the retiring officer, not to the government.
The navy operated differently. It required more training but its practices made it easier for men to rise by merit.