September 2014 Meeting: The Military and Navy in Jane Austen’s novels

Continuing our look at work roles and professions in Jane Austen’s novels, we turned our thoughts in September to the military and the navy. Members had consulted various sources in preparation for the discussion, including

  • Sarah Ailwood, “What men ought to be”: Masuclinities in Jane Austen’s novels (unpublished PhD thesis, 2008)
  • John Breihan and Clive Caplan, “Jane Austen and the Militia”, Persuasions, No 14, 1992.
  • David Byrne, “The Royal Navy in Jane Austen’s Lifetime 1775-1817”, Sensibilities No. 10, 1995, pp41-61.
  • Rowland McMaster “Waterloo is in Reserve – Jane, William Makepeace Thackeray and the Waterloo Number of Vanity Fair”, Sensibilities, No. 9, December 1994, pp45-59.
  • Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, 2000
  • Janet Todd (ed), Jane Austen in context
  • Various blogs (including the WordWenches’ post on Buying a set of colours) and websites, as well as the novels themselves

“We never could agree in our choice of a profession. I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough: many young men, who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs. But I had no inclination for the law, even in this less abstruse study of it, which my family approved. As for the navy, it had fashion on its side, but I was too old when the subject was first started to enter it; and, at length, as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be most advantageous and honourable, and a young man of eighteen is not in general so earnestly bent on being busy as to resist the solicitations of his friends to do nothing. I was therefore entered at Oxford, and have been properly idle ever since.” (Edward Ferrars on not choosing a profession, Sense and sensibility, Ch. 19)

This comment by Edward Ferrars in Sense and sensibility introduces a few of the issues we discussed – the smartness of the military (well, the militia in particular, of which Pride and prejudice’s Wickham was a member), the fashion for the navy (helped along by the cult of celebrity for Nelson who died in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars), and Mrs Bennet’s comment that “I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well”!

The military and navy in Jane Austen’s times

But we discussed much more. One of the reasons we are enjoying our exploration of the professions in Jane Austen’s novels is the research we are doing into her times, research that illuminates our reading of the novels. And so, in terms of the military and the navy, we discussed how (and which) young men took up these careers, how much they were paid, and particularly how they advanced in their careers. We learnt that in the Army, advancement could be “bought” (as Darcy did for Wickham in Pride and prejudice), while in the Navy, connections could help (as Admiral Crawford helped William Price in Mansfield Park) but that from Captain on, promotion was solely by seniority. (Consequently, Jane Austen’s brother, Francis, become Admiral of the Fleet at the age of 89!) We also learnt that Captain Wentworth’s fortune in Persuasion would have come from “prizes”, that is, spoils from the capture of enemy ships.

We discussed the difference between the Militia (essentially homeland security), whose ranks were mostly filled by conscription of poor, illiterate, manual labourers from the villages, and the Regular Army, which was responsible for national defence. We realised we didn’t know a lot about how much engagement the British Army actually saw during the Napoleonic Wars, but with modern technology (i.e. iPads) at our fingertips, we could research this on the spot – and discovered the extent of the Army’s engagement, from Egypt to Holland, from India to the West Indies.

As for Jane Austen, herself, we discussed that she had come across the Militia in Basingstoke in 1795/96. Also, her brother Henry had been in the Militia in the Brighton Camp and was able to provide her with information that she used in Pride and prejudice. Until around 1795/96, the Militia tended to be billeted in pubs and the like, but when the size of the Militia expanded after the start of the Napoleonic Wars, this became untenable. Barracks began to be built, outside the townships. This reduced the amount of socialising that had been occurring between townspeople/villagers and the Militia, probably to the relief of many parents!

Role of the military and navy in Jane Austen’s novels

And, of course, we discussed how Austen used these professions in her novels. For example:

  • Henry Crawford’s engaging Admiral Crawford to obtain a commission for Fanny’s brother William was used/intended to persuade her to accept Henry as a husband. (Mansfield Park)
  • The arrival of the Militia in Meryton set off the plot in Pride and prejudice, by turning young girls’ heads, like Lydia, and by also bringing, in fact, Mr Darcy to town. The Militia, our research told us, was seen at the times as quite a threat to eligible young women.
  • General Tilney was a Militia General. While Catherine’s flight of fancy regarding nefarious behaviour by him was wrong, it’s possible that his nighttime work of “poring over the affairs of the Nation” refers to his keeping an eye on possible troublemakers. (Northanger Abbey)
  • Captain Wentworth’s becoming a wealthy man through his career in the Navy brought him once more into Anne Elliot’s circle. (Persuasion)
  • Jane Austen explored a new masculinity through the naval officers in Persuasion, showing that men could make themselves through hard work rather than through family money and connections, and that men and women could relate to each other on a sharing basis. (Sarah Ailwood’s thesis)

We also shared some interesting, albeit somewhat minor facts, from the novels, such as that Jane Fairfax (Emma) was a war orphan, and that Mr Weston (also Emma) had been in the militia.

Business and meeting conclusion

We decided on the topics for our last two meetings of the year, and that we would return to a slow-read activity for the beginning of 2015. These can all be found in the sidebar of the blog. We also discussed this year’s Christmas gathering, and decided that we should confirm a date and venue at our next meeting.

After afternoon tea, our meeting finished with a quiz and quotes (some of which were spoiled by the theme-related quiz!).

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