Jane Austen & the Wars

Part VII: 1809-1811


On July 7, 1809, Mrs. Austen and her daughters moved into Chawton Cottage. The house was near the intersection of two roads, close enough that passing coaches could see into, or even shake the front rooms. The Austens soon settled into the life of the village, although their social opportunities were very limited.. Jane and Cassandra appear to have continued to share a room. While Frank was off to China his wife and daughter moved into a nearby cottage. In August, as her spirits rose, Jane renewed an interest in writing.

On July 28 the Battle of Talavera was fought in Spain. A tactical victory for Wellesley, it also protected Portugal from further invasion. Meanwhile, the French offensive in the south continued. Wellesley had agreed to advance against Madrid based upon Spanish promises of supplies and transport, and that his flanks would be protected. None of this happened. Fearful of being cut off, the British commander retreated. The French, not realising the real weakness of their enemy, failed to immediately push their numerical advantage. In early September they went into cantonments on the Portuguese frontier.

The Austrian victory at Essling (May 21) prompted the Britain to follow up with an attack across the North Sea to the Walcheran area of the Netherlands. While Wellesley complained of a lack of troops, some 40,000 (including many militia) were found for the new expedition. Although the men had been obtained, there was no real plan or direction to this operation. After many delays they embarked on July 20. However, on the 25th news arrived in London of Austria’s defeat. Storms delayed a rough landing. Little resistance was offered. After a bombardment of Flushing the French garrison surrendered. As had happened in all the other campaigns in the Lowlands, fever broke out, exacerbated by wet and hot weather. The army was evacuated during the first week of September, leaving behind 18,000, most of whom were sick. Battle deaths were listed as 106, but by February of 1810 4,000 had died of “Walcheren Fever.” This made the second evacuation by the British within eight months.

In mid-August, the Duke of Portland suffered a stroke. He rallied, but his government’s days were numbered. During the third week of September the combined ill news from the Scheldt, the Danube and Spain arrived. This ended any hope of Chatham becoming the next Prime Minister. Canning resolved upon trying for the leadership himself. This pitted him against Perceval, another man of character. Canning became aware of backroom bargaining and challenged Castlereagh to a duel in which the former was wounded in the thigh. The Tories seemed doomed, but the anti-war view of the Whigs was not in step with nation; who thought better a fool than a coward. On October 4, Perceval became Prime Minister. He was a small man, usually cheerful and modest, with an innate courage, but demonstrating a lawyer’s limited vision

Things continued to look bleak. During that summer the Pope was imprisoned under Napoleon’s orders. The exhausted Austrians signed the Treaty of Schonbrunn with France (October 14, 1809), losing 32000 square miles (including her sole outlet to the sea) and 3.5 million people (one-fifth of the population).

In September Arthur Wellesley was named “Viscount Wellington of Talavera and Baron Douro”. On October 18, a Spanish army defeated an overconfident French force at Tamames. The Spanish commander, del Parue, invited Wellesley to join him on an offensive, but the latter forbade any British or Portuguese involvement. Wellington instead issued orders for the construction of three lines of defence near the Portuguese border centred on Torres Vedras. Some fifty miles of earthworks, gun positions, and other fortifications were prepared by thousands of Portuguese labourers and militia. Despite the size of these undertakings, the greatest secrecy was maintained. The Spanish offensive ended in their defeat at the Battle of Ocana, (November 19) allowing the French to overrun all of Andulsia, except Cadiz. Winter brought a close to major operations, but the guerrilla war continued. Wellington used this time well to rest, refit and train his own troops and those of his Portuguese ally. For six-months hardly a shot was fired by the British forces upon the enemy. The French remained content, for the moment, not to push their advantage.

Frank was back in England from July to November. Jane wrote Cassandra from Castle Square (December 9),

There were only four dances…. You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance – but I was – by the gentleman whom we met that Sunday with Captain d’Auvergne. We have always kept up a bowing acquaintance since, and being pleased with his black eyes, I spoke to him at the ball, which brought on me this civility; but I do not know his name, and he seems so little at home in the English language…”


In February 1810, Charles’ second daughter was born in Bermuda. In May he was promoted to Post-Captain into the 74-gun ”Swiftsure” (1804, Bucklers Head), flagship of Sir John Borlase Warren.

Napoleon, despairing of his wife producing an heir, divorced Josephine. In April he married the Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria. By spring, all of France’s Caribbean possessions had been lost, and many others elsewhere were falling, freeing up considerable British manpower. Despite Napoleon’s Continental System, British exports rose from £50 to £70 million that year. July 1st saw the abdication and flight of the King of Holland who had refused to ruin his country by supporting the Continental System. Holland was annexed to France.

In Spain, the French besieged and captured Ciudad Rodrigo (July), giving them control of the northern invasion route into Portugal. This compelled Wellington to fall back towards Lisbon, the retreat was marked by a successful rearguard action on the Coa River (July 24). The French invested and besieged Almeida for a month, capturing it (August 27) after a lucky strike on a magazine.

In July 1810, Frank arrived home and saw his son for first time. He received formal thanks from the Admiralty for his effective command at sea. The East India Company gave him a thousand guineas and some silver plate as a reward for bringing back “Treasure” (likely bullion) from China to England. He had been away since April 1809.on convoy duty to the East Indies, which included Penang. The Malays were a constant problem for ships in that area, making small but vicious attacks. Frank commented on eating “buffalo beef”, and that fish was neither plentiful nor good.. Later he had gone on to China, including Canton for five months (Sept 18, 1809 - March 2, 1810). There he had been engaged against pirates operating in the Canton River (Landrones), where the St. Albans helped the Mercury maintain order. As the water was too shallow for Navy vessels, they usually used local boats, modified and outfitted with light guns and crewed by the Royal Navy. While in Canton there had been a quarrel between the English sailors and the locals; Frank is given credit for using his tact and firmness to ensure the convoy was able to leave China safely. He also visited Cape Varella, Natuna, Seputa Island, and Paraels (Krakatoa). On his way home, Frank stopped off at St. Helena. He then requested to be superseded in order to spend time at home with his wife. Officially he remained attached to the St. Albans until September 22.

For Britain it was a difficult time. Wellington had to seek active and sustained support for what was a costly and inglorious retreat, while facing bitter opposition in the country over rising taxes for apparently no results. Perceval questioned an £85 million predicted expenditure. With such opposition at home and locally, Wellington was in grave need of a victory before making a necessary retreat. He concentrated his army, hitherto operating as two sections. The Portuguese, meanwhile, adopted a scorched earth policy to deny the French any supplies.

The French were reinforcing in Spain, although the Emperor himself did not come, nor did he send the cream of his army. The new commander, Massena, was experienced and cunning, but acted without complete authority . On September 27 a well-prepared trap at Bussaco bloodied the French and temporarily stopped their third invasion of Portugal. This also gave the British army a much-needed moral boost. However, because he remained vastly outnumbered, Wellington again retreated. Although orderly this retrograde movement, surrounded by refugees, puzzled his army and the populace. A series of lesser clashes followed. In early October the army entered the lines of Torres Vedras. Messena, in pursuit, was dumbfounded to encounter such a work. His spies had failed to prepared him for such a sight. The French, growing increasingly hungry but unable to attack and unwilling to retreat, remained for a month before retiring.

Much of the British public, unmindful of military necessity was upset at Wellington’s retreat, and his apparent strategy of inaction. There were other worrying trends at home. The worst off of the working poor, especially in the North, were facing near starvation. The radicals were critical of aristocratic privilege, and growing speculation ruined many merchants. The Opposition railed against the cost, waste and mismanagement of the war. Fortunately, the Government was not intimidated, especially after they received the news of the victory at Bussco. The more solid elements of the populace continued to support the administration.

During September, Charles was posted to the frigate Cleopatra (32, 1779, Bristol), but remained at home until April 1811. This ship is mentioned in passing in Mansfield Park.

On November 5, Charles Bernodotte, formerly one of Napoleon’s Marshals, was named Crown Prince of Sweden despite the emperor’s opposition. Under pressure from France, Sweden was compelled to declare war on England. The British government, however, considered that nation’s situation and former friendship. The British admiral in the area avoided attacking Swedish trade in order not to harm her economy..

Over the winter of 1810-11 Wellington and Messena confronted each other without engaging. Finally the hungry French army retreated into Spain.

About this time the first whisperings of the return of the King’s madness where heard. On December 19th a Regency Bill was introduced. This was essential as no measure could be passed without the sovereign’s approval. Perceval was clever enough that the Bill restricted some of the Regent’s power, much to the latter’s ire. The Whigs fought against it, but it finally passed on February 5, 1811. The Regent decided to retain his father’s ministers rather than replace them..

During the winter of 1810-11, Thomas Egerton (who also published a number of books on military science) accepted ”Sense and Sensibility” for publication upon commission. That is, she paid for the printing, plus something towards the advertising and distribution, while retaining the copyright. If it did not sell, she would have to cover the author’s expenses; Jane was so unsure of recovering her costs that she budgeted accordingly.


Further details on the Royal Navy ships mentioned in this series can be found at Ships of the Old Navy.

If you are interested in commenting or discussing anything in this series the Dregston Chronicle Board has graciously been made available.

The author may be contacted at: jeverett@sympatico.ca

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