The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages c. January 21, 2002
It has been more than a year since I exercised my spreadsheet in a effort to study Jane Austen's creative life. This posting is a dubious continuation of that dubious study. The previous study is summarized in the following graph of Jane Austen's cumulative life-long effort in letter writing (purple) and novel writing (gold). Basically, the interesting period is any time when the curves are flat. This corresponds to a time when our Lady was not writing novels and her letters were few (or of such a nature that her sister destroyed them.) There are a lot of qualifications that can be made here; I indicated some of those for the letters and for the novels myself, and you can start your own critique with those links.
I think I see a big "gap" from about 1799 to about 1812; that is, Jane Austen from age 23 to age 36. Perhaps I can't see straight. The gap is not uninterrupted—there seems to have been a flurry of activity in about the middle of that period around 1804 or 6 or so. I will have a lot more to say about that.
I have mused over reasons for the gaps before; for example, see my posting on Jane Austen's letter #11.
It is not my purpose, today, to fix a particular reason for the gaps. After all, there may be a number of categories of reasons and some of them personal—so personal and secret that we can never discover them. Rather, I wish only to contribute to the list of possibilities one more set of circumstances that coincided with this gap—the gap I think I see during the first decade of the 1800s, and which might explain Jane Austen's distraction during this period.
My candidate today is the set problems with the French and the Americans, especially the rise and fall of Napoleon. (As we Americans have learned recently, the threat of war and homeland invasion can certainly distract one and make other things, ordinarily thought important, take on a secondary role for a time.) There was a interlude or two in this saga: the Peace of Amiens in March 1802 was one such and the great victory over the French at Trafalgar in October of 1805 was another. The "Peace" turned out to be nothing more than a temporary truce, but more was expected of it at the time. The naval victory at Trafalgar put an end to the threat of French invasion, but that fact was not fully appreciated at the time. The timing of these interludes become especially interesting when held up to the graphs shown on this page—the interludes in the struggle against France might be associated with Jane Austen's intermediate flurry of writing in some causal way. This observation encourages us.
My summary of the course of the French Revolution is as follows. The Revolution was begun by the aristocracy who refused to pay taxes as had the other classes of society. They told the King that only the Estates General could levy new taxes. That body was a tripartite assembly wherein the three estates or classes—the clergy, the aristocracy, and the "commoners" - were represented, each class with one vote. Actually, the so-called "commoners" were men of talent and means without the crucial social standing—men who can be thought of as capitalists, entrepreneurs, or professional men—the so-called "bourgeoisie".
The King called the convention into session in order to stall for time and with no intention to pay any real respect or attention to its proceedings. This was a big mistake because the bourgeoisie had their own grievances and agenda; they announced that, henceforth, the three estates would meet as a single body and vote in proportion to their representation rather than each class with only a single vote out of three. In other words, they converted the Estates General into a General Assembly—a sort of Parliament. That was revolutionary! The English were impressed and flattered at what they, at first, saw as imitation—a move toward the constitutional monarchy recently achieved in their island kingdom.
The revolutionary spirit inspired, in turn, the lower classes which traditionally had been left outside the assembly, and who had their own grievances with the entitled estates. The genie was out of the bottle, the struggle was on, and armed conflict was sometimes the case. It seems to me to have been class warfare. The first two estates and royalty were swept aside and the real battle over the form a new government would take, and who would be the lucky reformers, began. All was chaos, anarchy, political tension, and headless corpses.
After a few experiments with democracy failed to bring order and stop the execution of thousands of political prisoners ("The Terror"), some clever folks decided to bring in any military puppet who might have earned the respect of the public; give him a fancy executive title to awe the populace; and, then begin the real rule of the nation behind the scenes. Napoleon Bonaparte was chosen as the figurehead and a worse choice could not have been made. Or, perhaps I should say that a better choice could not have been made, as Napoleon restored order and consolidated the economic and social reforms of the revolution while exacting a small price by crushing all the democratic reforms. He also brushed aside the clever people who had brought him to the forefront.
After all the dust settled, the bourgeoisie was the big winner (they always are), but Napoleon's family was a bigger winner. Brothers, sisters, and brother-in-laws were installed on the thrones of most European nations. If a particular nation didn't want that, Napoleon's army beat the wee out of them. The one power that he could not defeat was Britain with their #!@&*!>* navy. (Pardon my French.) Actually, he decided upon an invasion of England; so, he combined his fleet with an armada of his Spanish ally and the planning began. The planning was quite good - all the "i"s were dotted. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Admiral Lord Nelson knew how to cross the "t"s, which was the name of the innovative sea-battle maneuver that Nelson used to crush the Armada when it attempted to move to the open sea. Nelson smashed his enemies' navies to smithereens.
Napoleon's next guess—next solution—was to prevent the English from trading in Europe - his so-called Continental System of business and trade. That had the desired economic impact in England but an unplanned-for dire impact in Europe. The simple truth is that the English had a new-fangled manufacturing system, an industrial revolution; so, Europe suffered from the loss of access to cheaper goods of higher quality. When it appeared that Russia was about to break ranks with the Continental System, Napoleon took his army in there to teach the Tzar a thing or two. Imagine Napoleon's surprise to learn what Charles XII of Sweden had learned before him and what Hitler would learn after; the Russian winter is every bit as formidable as the English navy—and even less merciful.
O.K., so allow me to recapitulate with specific details this time. The chronology is shown in the next table along with Jane Austen's age and with emphasis on those years that might constitute a gap in her creative life. (The specific years of the gap are shown in red for emphasis.) Lest you think I cannot subtract, I admit that Jane Austen was born in 1775, but in mid December of that year; I show her age in this table to be what it would have been for the far greater part of the year.
Jane Austen's Gap (?), Napoleon in France,
And Growing Problems with the United States
|Year||Jane's Age||Current Events|
French execute their King. Other European nations admit their misjudgment:
France is not evolving a constitutional monarchy. They threaten
The "Committee for Public Safety" is formed and it becomes the master of all branches of French government. A call goes out for 300,000 conscriptions into the French Army to protect the revolution. However, the authority of the government is widely flouted and royalist counter-revolution is the norm.
"The Terror" begins as 17,000 are executed after judicial review and another 20,000 are killed with less nicety. A member of Jane Austen's own family is one of the victims.
Spring: the levies and coercion are effective and the French Army becomes well organized and achieves spectacular victories along the northern and western frontiers.
|1794||18||A run of bad harvests,
financial crises, and loss of continental markets cause social unrest in
William Godwin publishes his Things as They Are or The Adventures of Caleb Williams.
|1795||19||English Jacobins make an
attack on the King's person as he rides through London to open Parliament.
This event contributes to a great anxiety among the English ruling
June: A British force lands in France with a group of 魩gr鳮 This invading force is demolished by the Republican Army.
"The Terror" is brought to an end and a new French Constitution is adopted. This is Government for if not by the bourgeoisie and property-owning peasants.
October: a young Corsican artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, puts down a dangerous royalist insurrection. (Napoleon is only six years older than Jane Austen.)
|1796||20||The Spanish, angered by
English incursions into Spanish colonies, ally with the French who are
seeking some way to end the wars they have been fighting since 1792.
Bonaparte's military victories over the Austrians force them to make peace.
This is a year of great financial difficulty in England.
|1797||21||Napoleon leads an
invasion of Egypt and middle-east with a view of destroying English Naval
predominance in the Mediterranean. |
English Jacobins inspire two mutinies in the English Royal Navy at Nore and Spithead.
Despite protests that the very liberties that Englishmen were fighting to defend were being thrown away, a series of statutes are set in place to restrict traditional rights of free speech, of free press, and of assembly. (Some things never change.) Some British radicals are executed and others are transported to Australia.
|1798||22||This is the year of an
armed Irish Rebellion under the leadership of the United Irishman.
A French expedition is sent to aid the rebellion but it is an inadequate
force, arrives too late, and is easily defeated by an English garrison.
The rebellion is crushed, but it is clear that a revolutionary spirit
burns on in the Irish Catholic heart. |
August: Nelson destroys a French fleet at Aboukir Bay, Eygpt, in the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon has no other choice than to abandon what has become a useless army in Egypt and return to France. Nelson then enjoys conquests of a different kind in Naples.
|1799||23||November: A coup d'鴡t, led by others, inadvertently installs Napoleon in absolute power as First Consul in France. He dictates a new constitution, and continues and strengthens administrative reform. He codifies the social and economic reforms of the Revolution, under which, "careers are open to talent." He restores order and tranquility but he will soon involve France in great wars of conquest.|
|1800||24||Napoleon is intrigued by
the idea of reestablishing French colonial America. He forces the Spanish
to return the Louisiana territory, once claimed by France but now
controlled by Spain. (The treaty is kept secret until 1803.) He sends a
10,000-man army to quell a slave revolt in Santo Domingo, but the valiant
islanders and yellow fever will defeat his purposes.
December: royalists nearly succeed in assassinating Napoleon.
battlefield victories force Austria to sue for peace—again. France thereby
expanded to the left bank of the Rhine. |
May: Jane Austen is greatly saddened when she must leave her girl-hood home at Steventon when her family takes up residence in Bath. This move is the result of her father's retirement.
himself as Consul for Life. He has many French political opponents
de Sta물/a>. Of course, the Jacobins or the royalists are a far
greater—a far more dangerous threat. |
An alliance of neutral nations attempts to trade with both sides of the conflict, but England takes the attitude that, "If you are not with us, you are against us." (It is an attitude that will bring war with the United States in the next decade.) The English force Denmark out of the neutral alliance by bombarding Copenhagen without a declaration of war. The assassination of Tzar Paul completes the break-up of the alliance. However, the rise of economic difficulties in England creates a willingness to test Napoleon's resolve for peace.
March: the Peace of Amiens seems to end Britain's conflict with France. It is intended as a peace without victory for either side; but, it will turn out to be nothing more, in effect, than a truce.
Napoleon annexes Italian territory to France and commands a political
re-organization of other European states, an aroused England demands that
France abide by the Peace of Amiens. Napoleon does not condescend to even
reply and war breaks out again. |
Napoleon wearies of his efforts to reinvigorate French colonial America. And besides, he needs money for his impending war with England. He sells the Louisiana territory to the United States. Napoleon had forced the Spanish to return the territory but had promised them that he would never sell the land to a third party. The United States becomes twice its original side, overnight, for the whopping price of $15,000,000. It now controls the entire Mississippi, its valleys, and its tributaries. The port of New Orleans is now a part of the United States.
Crosby & Co agree to publish what would have been Jane Austen's first novel, Susan. They eventually abandon the project and the novel will not appear until 1818, posthumously, as Northanger Abbey.
pretense is dropped; Napoleon declares himself Napoleon I, Emperor of
the French. He puts an end to the notion of representative assemblies;
he restricts the number of newspapers and he orders those censored.
Churchmen are ordered to take an oath of loyalty to the state. He
institutes a secret police to whom he gives the instruction, "watch
everyone but me." |
Napoleon declares an amnesty for the nobility for whom he establishes a court. Henceforth, nobility will be based on wealth and service to the state.
Napoleon produces a Civil Code (Code Napoleon) which secures the economic and social reforms of the Revolution, the basic Rights of Man. He institutes a national educational system, which is to be under government control, and that places him in conflict with the Catholic Church.
Napoleon's international power is now such that he can place his relatives on the thrones of many European nations.
Austen's father dies suddenly in Bath. |
October: The British victory at the battle of Trafalgar ends the long-feared threat of a French invasion of England. Jane's brother, Frank Austen, misses a chance of a lifetime and is disconsolate. The price of victory is the death of Nelson.
The British are now free to impose their will on the seas. They turn their attention to the repression and control of neutral shipping. They stop American ships and impress British citizens, but if there is any doubt about citizenship, they impress the man anyway—just to be safe. Many Americans are abducted in this practice.
Incidentally, Jane Austen's brother, Frank Austen, occasionally led press gangs (in England, not on American ships), and once made a problem for himself when he impressed some men who were already seaman on other Royal Navy ships. He was excused after he explained that all those people look alike.
|1806||30||Napoleon has a decree
issued in Berlin, which establishes The Continental System. This
forbade the import into continental Europe of all goods of English origin.
Economic problems develop almost immediately in England. |
Britain's problems with the United States on the high seas escalate. An attempt at a diplomatic solution fails in the last minute. War between the English-speaking nations will be the eventual result.
British counter the "Continental System" with decrees of their own
restricting trade. By the end of the year, the United States will be
forbidden to trade with western and northern European nations. British
privateers begin the capture of American merchant ships which they claim
as prizes. Famous examples of this practice inflame American public
The Continental System is further strengthened by decrees issued at Fontainebleau and Milan. The economic problems in England deepen.
This year will prove to be the apogee of Napoleon's power.
A combined French-Spanish empire conquers Portugal. But, French troops remain in Spain in the aftermath and that causes unrest among the Spanish citizenry.
The United States attempts to retaliate against the British with an Embargo Act that denies free access to American ports for British merchant or military ships. The effect is slight in Britain, but the act has a devastating economic impact in America.
|1808||32||The economic problems in
England continue. |
Spanish unrest bursts into outright rebellion, including guerrilla warfare, when Napoleon's brother, Joseph Bonaparte, is proclaimed King of Spain. Napoleon captures Madrid.
The rebels receive crucial support from a small British regular army force led by Sir Arthur Wellesley (later, the Duke of Wellington). This combination achieves remarkable success against the French. Wellesley defeats the French at Talavera.
|1809||33||The Spanish conflict
becomes as an open wound in the French Empire. Austria, emboldened by news
from Spain, re-enters the war against France—again. |
April: Jane Austen writes her famous "M.A.D." letter to Crosby & Co asking why they had not published Susan. Our Lady receives a snotty reply, a warning not to attempt publication elsewhere.
July: Jane Austen moves to Chawton with mother, sister, and the sister-in-law of brother James.
|1810||34||Napoleon divorces the
childless Josephine in order to marry Marie Louise, Archduchess of
Austria. She will produce an heir. |
Fall: Sense and Sensibility is accepted for publication.
|1811||35||Relations between the
United States and Britain have grown steadily worse. All attempts at
diplomatic negotiations, at times including the French, fail. |
The French are expelled from Portugal.
The English King, George III, is declared insane—again. The first official judgment of this kind had been made in 1788 and was later rescinded. The Prince of Wales becomes regent—the Prince Regent, whence the "Regency Period".
October: Sense and Sensibility is the first novel published by Jane Austen.
Fall: Jane Austens begins the revision of First Impressions into Pride and Prejudice.
invades Russia in order to hold the "Continental System" together.
July: This is the year that the American Congress votes to go to war with Britain. They are motivated by British actions on the high seas, and by the assistance the British give to hostile Indians northwest of the Ohio. Perhaps an even greater motivation is an imperialist lust for the conquest of Canada—war would give an excellent excuse for that. Subsequent invasion of Canada is disastrous for Americans.
Late Summer: Pride and Prejudice is accepted for publication.
September: Napoleon enters an abandoned Moscow.
October: Napoleon understands, at last, that holding Moscow is as meaningless as it is untenable. He begins the long, tortured retreat to France. He had invaded with an army of 700,000 but, by the time he reaches safety, 400,000 will have been killed and another 100,000 captured.
The French lose Madrid.
Fall: Victories of American frigates over the British astonish the British public and press, "... Anyone who had predicted such a result of an American war this time last year would have been treated as a madman or a traitor. He would have been told ... that long ere seven months had elapsed the American flag would have been swept from the seas, the contemptible navy of the United States annihilated, and their marine arsenals rendered a heap of ruins. Yet down to this moment not a single American frigate has struck her flag." (London Times) British losses were three frigates and 500 merchantmen. There is no reason to imagine that Jane Austen's brothers were in our waters at that time.
Incidentally, "frigates" were fast and maneuverable war ships with a single deck of guns. They served different purposes than did the "ships of the line", which were the equivalent of modern battleships and had three gun decks. "Ships of the line" were too costly to build in those days by the Americans who would have had trouble manning them in any case. The secret to the American success was a secret: an American designer had invented an entirely new type of hull architecture that allowed frigates to be clad in a thicker, stronger—albeit wood—outer shell. Whence the name "Old Ironsides".
and Prejudice is published. |
Winter and Spring: American assaults on Canada continue and produce little more than destruction and loss of life. Atrocity is a tactic used by both sides. The British refuse to protect five hundred American prisoners from slaughter by Indians allied to the British. In April, the Americans burn provincial parliament buildings in the city now known as Toronto.
June: English casualties are high, but the Duke of Wellington achieves a great triumph at Vittoria in Spain. The defeat causes the withdrawal of the French from the Iberian peninsula. It is only a matter of time now.
abdicates and is exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. The
powers allied to Britain restore power in France to the royalists—to the
party that "had learned nothing and had forgot nothing." The French
populace prefers a return to Napoleon and, thereby, a return to the social
and economic reforms of the Revolution. |
The British are now free to turn the full attention of their army and navy against the Americans.
May: Mansfield Park is published.
August: The British capture Washington D.C., which had been abandoned so precipitately that British officers are able, literally, to eat the American President's lunch. They then order the burning of all government buildings, in part to retaliate for the American's destruction of Toronto, and, in part, because they are drunk. They then withdraw; the military significance of the British campaign is slight, but memory of the incident would burn in the American consciousness for at least a century. In fact, events associated with this campaign are immortalized in the American anthem.
December: the Treaty of Ghent officially ends the war with the United States.
travels slowly; so, even though the war has been officially concluded, a
final battle is fought between the Americans and the British near New
Orleans. The Americans are commanded by Andrew Jackson and the British by
the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington. The over-confident British
commander is killed in the field and the Americans achieve an overwhelming
victory. This is the first time ever that an American army, acting alone,
has defeated a European. The event swells American pride and confidence
and will eventually bring Jackson to the White House.
March: Napoleon escapes from Elba and resumes power in France. Hostilities with powers allied to England recommence.
June: Wellington's defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, in Belgium, ends hostilities. Napoleon is sent to the island of St. Helena in the far south-Atlantic. He will remain a threat in the minds of many until his death in 1821.
December: Emma is published.
Lady's health begins to fail. |
This is a year of economic depression in England.
August: Persuasion is completed, but will not appear until after Jane Austen's death.
|1817||41||July: the death of Jane Austen
occurs on the 18th; she is interred in Winchester Cathedral on the
December: Persuasion and Northanger Abbey are published.
Well, I do not pretend to have proven anything; but, the coincidence of dramatic international events with a gap in Jane Austen's productivity is interesting. And, the proposition that external events might have caused the gap seems quite plausible to me. Of course, the coincidence is not perfect, there are certain overlaps. Perhaps, though, a perfect overlapping is not to be expected—rather, it is to be expected that, given sufficient time, a creative spirit will make adjustments to external conditions.
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