By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen was born and wrote at a time when the 18th century witnessed two revolutions—the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. These years witnessed profound changes in social structures and ways of life. These years and the changes in the social environment greatly influenced Austen’s works and personal life.
A Conflict-ridden Country
Jane Austen, born in 1775, was just an infant when Great Britain went to war with 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. Austen, then, lived in a country that was at war across almost all of her 41 years.
A closer look at Austen’s fiction shows how 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.
The French population comprised three estates: the First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate was the nobility, and the Third Estate was made up of commoners. The First and Second Estates bore little of the tax burden, which was increasingly viewed as unfair by the Third Estate. 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.
There was a crisis of increasing prices, depressed wages, hunger, and rioting, followed by troops putting down riots. As the year 1789 unfolded, powerful orators from various factions were encouraging people to organize against the crown, the army, and the state. New municipal governments and municipal militias were forming.
Fall of Bastille
Newly formed groups 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,
When the Bastille fell, on July 14, 1789, it was celebrated as a milestone moment for the powers assembling against the monarchy and the First and Second Estates.
The young Jane Austen began writing around this time, producing short works of fiction, drama, and history. Her comic play “The Visit”, probably written in the year 1789, echoes the greed of those who don’t provide for others, and the privileges afforded to those of rank.
Fall of Monarchy
The situation in France was unstable. As the king’s power and popularity weakened, other leaders emerged. These included Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat. In August of 1792, the king and queen were imprisoned, and the National Convention declared France to be a republic, abolishing the monarchy.
Louis XVI was sentenced to death and executed by decapitation, on January 21, 1793, using a guillotine. Nine months later, the queen, Marie Antoinette, was tried, convicted of treason, and also guillotined, on October 16, 1793.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Literature in the 18th Century
The philosophies of the French Revolution came to be hotly debated in Britain. In November 1790, Edmund Burke published a book siding with the monarchists, titled Reflections on the Revolution in France. Writer and activist Thomas Paine supported the revolutionaries in his book, The Rights of Man, arguing that sovereignty resided in the people, not in the king.
However, the revolutionary English writer who may have influenced Austen was a female philosopher and novelist, Mary Wollstonecraft. She wrote a response to Burke, titled A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in 1790, as well as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792.
Reign of Terror
In 1793 and 1794, France endured the Reign of Terror with the newly empowered rulers punishing anyone who had allegedly supported the Old Regime. New festivals were put in place, in order to de-Christianize the country.
The use of the guillotine became almost commonplace during the Terror, with an estimated death of 40,000 people. By the end of the Terror in France, Jane Austen—still living with her parents in Steventon, England—was in her late teens.
Impact of the Political Upheaval on Austen’s Work
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.
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 becoming wealthy in war, amassing 20,000 pounds as “prize money”.
Austen’s fiction doesn’t advocate for institutions and systems being 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.
Emergence of Napoleon
Later in the decade of 1790s, a young French military commander named Napoleon emerged. He succeeded in leading the French to overpower Italy.
Under his leadership, France left the revolutionary ideals of a republic behind for a dictatorship. Napoleon stayed in power for 15 years.
Even without an invasion, British families lost fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers to its wars against France. In fact, Austen’s family was among the first to experience a loss in Revolutionary France when her cousin Eliza lost her husband to guillotining.
Common Questions about the Sociopolitical Milieu of Jane Austen
In 1793 and 1794, France endured a period sometimes called the Reign of Terror with the newly empowered rulers punishing anyone who had allegedly supported the Old Regime.
The philosophies of the French Revolution came to be hotly debated in Britain. While Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France sided with the monarchists, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man favored the revolutionaries. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men was another important piece of literature.
The French monarchy fell in 1792 with the royal couple being arrested, which was followed by their execution the next year.