Pride and Prejudice – and politics

This year marks the bicentenary of one of our most beloved novels, Pride and Prejudice. Most of us know the story: Mr and Mrs Bennet have no son and heir, but five daughters to dispose of in the uncompromising Georgian marriage market. The problem is that the sisters are without “family, connections, or fortune”. The heroine is the second sister, Elizabeth, who, despite her lack of dowry and status, finds a worthy (and wealthy) husband in a union that promises to be one of intellectual companionship and equality. Elizabeth is a new and very modern heroine who succeeds by dint of her charm and wit, and not by how much money she has inherited.

Of all of Jane Austen’s works, Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the most happy and fulfilling, possibly even a little too perfect. Austen herself complained – knowing full well its brilliance – that her novel was “too light, bright and sparkling”. The common criticism of Austen is that her world was not just light and bright but narrow and genteel. It is said that all she ever did was write about posh girls in pursuit of rich husbands – and that she had nothing to say about the great historical events of her time.

The Victorians fostered the idea of Austen as the retiring spinster who confined her novels to the small canvas of village life. In more recent times she has been reinvented as, among other things, a feminist writer, yet it has been difficult to shake off the myth of sequestered, cosy “Aunt Jane”, devoted to domestic and romantic issues and studiously ignoring her historical and political context.

In fact, Austen’s novels scrupulously avoid the clichés of romantic fiction: the dashing heroes such as Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice turn out to be villains, and the young heroines are often downwardly mobile, struggling with financial uncertainty. The plight of impoverished genteel women is a theme that continued to obsess Austen throughout her works; she was a supreme realist, not a romantic fantasist.

Nor is it true that the novels ignore their historical context. Austen was no stranger to turbulent times. Most of her adult life was lived through the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. She had two beloved brothers in the navy and one in the army. Her cousin’s husband was guillotined in the French Revolution. She took for granted that her readers would understand the context of her work. If we read Pride and Prejudice carefully, we can see that this is an essential element of the novel. The historical context is there for all to see but because we don’t share it we tend not to notice it.

Here is Lydia Bennet, Elizabeth’s boy-mad youngest sister, thrilling to the thought of soldiers setting up camp in the famous resort of Brighton: “In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp; its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.”

There would be no plot in Pride and Prejudice without the presence of the militia. Lydia’s main source of gossip is news from the Redcoats, whether it be that her uncle has dined with the officers, or the more sinister information that a private has been flogged. The equivalent of the modern Territorial Army in Britain, the militia was essentially the reserves, the Home Guard. Its members frequently incurred a poor reputation for dancing and drinking in the towns where they were quartered. The charming but villainous Wickham in Pride and Prejudice has joined his corps expressly for “the prospect of constant society, and good society”.

Austen knew all about it, her favourite brother Henry having joined the Oxfordshire militia in 1793. Just as her sailor brothers, Frank and Charles, were instrumental in shaping the naval background to Mansfield Park (1814) and Persuasion (1817), so Henry’s military associations had a subtle impact on his sister’s literary career. Jane herself danced with Redcoats from the South Devons at the Basingstoke balls. She also knew the Surrey Regiment, of which her fictional Captain Weston from Emma (1815) was a member.

Redcoats were vilified by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she warned about the dangerous attraction of military men for young women: “Nothing can be so prejudicial to the morals of the inhabitants of country towns as the occasional residence of a set of idle superficial young men, whose only occupation is gallantry.” Austen had a more nuanced view of the militia. Wickham embodies what Wollstonecraft is talking about but other soldier characters in Pride and Prejudice – notably Colonel Forster – have high moral standards and generous hearts.

Furthermore, as Austen was aware, the militia performed a vital role in protecting the home front from foreign invasion. Pride and Prejudice drew on Henry Austen’s experiences with the Oxfordshire militia: he was posted with them to Brighton. And it is Brighton and its army encampment that is the setting for Lydia Bennet’s affair with Wickham.

Lydia is one of Austen’s most interesting minor characters – a striking example of how Austen’s opinions on the status of women are less conventional than we might think. She presents us with a lusty teenage girl who enjoys sex before marriage and has very little concern for the consequences. After their elopement, she and Wickham live together in lodgings in London. When Lizzy tells Darcy that Lydia is “lost for ever”, she is making it clear that he will never marry her. The long discussion between Elizabeth and her aunt is remarkably open: “But can you think that Lydia is so lost to everything but love of him as to consent to live with him on any terms other than marriage?” asks Mrs Gardiner. Elizabeth, fully aware of her sister’s “animal spirits”, knows that she is very capable of living in sin with him. She has not been seduced or forced by Wickham; she gives herself to the rakish soldier with eyes wide open.

On one occasion, Lydia sends a request to her maid that she should “mend a great slit in my worked muslin gown”. We do not have to be Freudians to recognise a shocking image of her sexual transgression. Lydia’s “slit” can’t be mended, except by a forced marriage, which is exactly what happens, though no one is fooled by the “patched-up business”. Austen allows Lydia to be free from repentance or shame. Indeed, the moral torchlight is shone upon the odious Mr Collins when he tells Mr Bennet to “throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence”. Lydia is fortunate not to share the fate of Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility, who is abandoned by Willoughby when she falls pregnant with his child.

Austen wrote her first version of Pride and Prejudice (“First Impressions”) in 1797, at exactly the time her brother was firmly ensconced in military life. Her detailed knowledge of the army was derived from his experiences. The stories of the soldiers dancing and flirting at the balls, the young private who is flogged, the cross-dressing antics of the young Bennet girls’ favourite Redcoat, the decampment to Brighton in the summer months: all would have elicited a smile of pleasurable familiarity from Henry when he read the book. At the end of the novel, Wickham plans to quit the militia to go into the regulars: “He has the promise of an ensigncy in General ____’s regiment, now quartered in the North.” It cost somewhere in the region of £500 to buy such a commission and Mrs Gardiner informs Elizabeth that Mr Darcy has paid for it.

Henry Austen resigned his commission in 1801. But he retained his strong connections with the military. Within a month of his resignation, he reappeared in the pay list of the Oxfordshire Regiment of the Militia, in a new role: “Agent: HT Austen and Co”. Together with Henry Maunde, another ex-officer, he had set himself up as a banker. Their first lucrative account was the handling of the regiment’s payroll. They also made a secret agreement with a certain Charles James “to profit from speculation in army commission brokerage and in the agency of half pay”. James had held captaincies in two different militias and was at this time working on a Military Dictionary, which was completed the following year and would go through many editions.

It was the link forged between Henry Austen and Thomas Egerton, James’s publisher, that would eventually launch Jane Austen into print for the first time. Few modern readers are aware that Sense and Sensibility and its successor Pride and Prejudice, among the most beloved works of romantic fiction in the English language, originally bore title pages announcing the publisher as “T. Egerton, Military Library, Whitehall”.

Paula Byrne’s ‘The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things’ is published by Harper Press on January 17

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.