Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Discreet and Quiet Life? Jane Austen’s Interesting Times by Stephanie Barron

We’ve all heard some variation of that ancient Chinese curse: May You Live in Interesting Times—the danger being that “interesting” is rarely devoid of the chaotic or the unsettling. I doubt Jane Austen was ever formally subjected to such a curse; but she got “interesting” all the same. Born on the eve of the American Revolution (1775), and dying just two years after the epic Battle of Waterloo (1817), Jane lived during one of the most turbulent periods in English history--over four decades of almost continuous warfare, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, industrialization, Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and the spread of Enlightenment ideals across the European continent. Yes, she lived her final six years in a quiet village in Hampshire, during which time her novels were published; and yes, she never married—but to see Jane merely as a spinster buried in an English garden, penning her sweet stories in obscurity, is to misread her history.

Some fifteen years ago, I made understanding Jane my personal winter project. I’d been reading her books, as I usually do when the weather turns bad, but this year it was with a peculiar purpose: I wanted to use Jane as the central detective in a mystery series I planned to write—and realized I knew Eliza Bennet and Anne Elliot better than I knew Austen herself. I’d studied Napoleonic France and Regency England as an undergrad, so the period was something I grasped. Jane, however, remained opaque behind the scrim of her novels and her time, an indistinct figure obscured by what other people chose to say about her. Brother Henry eulogized her as a God-fearing Christian woman of proper feeling, in the posthumous edition of her last two novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey; but Henry—probably Jane’s liveliest and favorite brother—had found God himself after bankrupting his clients and half his family when his financial industry ran aground. Jane’s descendants, who wrote the first “biography” of her in the form of Jane Austen: A Family Record, were Victorians anxious to tidy Aunt Jane for posterity. I needed to hear her actual voice—I needed Jane to tell me who she was--and the surest way to find her was among the pages of her surviving letters.

There are nearly one hundred and sixty of them, which is to say there are barely any letters at all. Jane wrote several times a day, to various members of her family and her acquaintance—probably as much as a hundred and sixty letters every few months—so the surviving correspondence is the proverbial tip of Jane’s iceberg. But the letters we have tell us tantalizing things: that she read several newspapers a day, and was absolutely current on the political debates and decisions of a government as much at war with itself as with the French; that she mingled with dangerous characters in London and Kent; and that far from being naïve or sheltered, she was no stranger to the scandals of her times.

Possessing two brothers who served as Post Captains in the Royal Navy, Jane constantly scoured the press for news of engagements—because her brothers’ letters would arrive, with word of their life or death, long after the actual battles. Jane was visiting her wealthy brother Edward in Kent during the summer of 1805, which was known as the Great Terror in England due to the constant fear of French invasion along the Kentish Coast—she witnessed the militia on forced marches while Edward’s household grappled with evacuation plans that summer. Naval brother Frank was on the Channel blockade that same August, sailing with Nelson up to the day before the epic battle of Trafalgar in October—and the first news of that horrific, bloody and epic engagement, as well as Nelson’s death, must have brought with it intense anxiety for the entire Austen family. Jane comments with apparent callousness on a battle years later in the Peninsula: “How horrible it is to have so many people killed!—And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!--” which is, of course, merely her way of saying thankfully that her brothers were not among the casualties of war.

In London, Jane often visited Henry and his wife Eliza, who claimed the French title of countess from her first husband, guillotined during the Terror; at Eliza’s house, Jane hobnobbed with the Regent’s cronies, who borrowed money from Henry’s bank to cover their gambling debts. In Sloane Street she also met Eliza’s particular friends, the d’Entraigues—a French opera singer and her aristocratic husband, who was secretly spying against the English for both Napoleon and the Tsar. By 1812, the d’Entraigues would be murdered in their beds, their throats slit by a vengeful servant—but was it in fact political assassination? Jane certainly must have had an opinion; but if she wrote it in one of her letters, it has not survived. Henry was comfortable enough among London’s ton to attend the party at White’s—the most aristocratic and breathless of Pall Mall’s Tory clubs—in celebration of the Regent’s coronation in June, 1811, but Jane was no fan of His Royal Highness: she despised the Regent and championed his estranged wife, Princess Caroline, in part because, Jane wrote, “she is a woman.”

For years, critics have derided Austen for writing nothing of the struggles of her time in her charming novels of manners. But again, this is to misread her work. Jane had no need to explain the context of her books to her contemporary readers—the fact of warfare was implicit in all their lives—and for those of us attempting to understand her milieu two hundred years later, the clues are subtle but present. When Eliza Bennet is forced to sit down at the Meryton Assembly, because gentlemen are scarce and more than one lady is in want of a partner—she is resigned to what every young woman of 1813 knew: the bulk of the male population was absent from home, serving in either the army or navy. Wickham’s regimentals underline the prevalent social reality of Jane’s time: militia were being drafted and quartered in every “obscure country village” in England, seriously disrupting the sanity of the female inhabitants. Anne Elliot in Persuasion can recite the various degrees of rank within the White, Red and Blue fleets of the Royal Navy, with all the assurance and familiarty of one who has been up late reading the Naval Lists by candlelight; and Fanny Price’s visit to Portsmouth in Mansfield Park betrays Jane’s intimate knowledge of the naval town, from her years of living with Frank in neighboring Southampton. The real world intrudes on the bucolic world of Austen’s ballrooms with constant pressure: Persuasion closes with Napoleon’s escape from Elba and Frederick Wentworth’s return to battle—a note of anxiety amidst the wedding bells.

In my detective series featuring Jane Austen, I’ve focused on her engagement with her turbulent times, by giving her an intriguing sidekick—Lord Harold Trowbridge, an aristocratic government spy—and a willingness to leave no stone unturned. The two return in a tantalizingly short episode in the new anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It.

May we all live in interesting times.

To know more about Stephanie Barron and her novels, don't forget to visit her website:


  1. That was a very well thought, informative posting. Your astute observations about Jane Austen and the political atmosphere she and her novels were backdropped against was great.
    I've read all the Jane Austen mysteries save the last and the short story so I have much to look forward to (Yeah, to discover Lord Harold is back for another adventure).

  2. Thank you for such an interesting post.

  3. Glad you had time to read it. As is true for most of us, I can go on and on about Jane...Enjoy the Gentleman Rogue!

  4. What an interesting post. I don't think I had ever read such comprehensive post about her times. Thank you!

    And yes I am now very curious to read more about Lord Harold and how he and Jane Austen solve some mysteries.

  5. Then Ana, you may enjoy the short story "Jane and the Gentleman Rogue" in the new Austen anthology. One of my favorite Lord Harold books in the series is JANE AND THE STILLROOM MAID. Happy Reading!