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Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Written by HELENA KELLY
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Knopf
On Sale: 05/02/2017
Price: $27.95
ISBN: 978-1-524-73210-3
Also available in:
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
A brilliant, illuminating reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring--how truly radical--a writer she was. 

In this fascinating, revelatory work, Helena Kelly--dazzling Jane Austen authority--looks past the grand houses, the pretty young women, past the demure drawing room dramas and witty commentary on the narrow social worlds of her time that became the hallmark of Austen's work to bring to light the serious, ambitious, deeply subversive nature of this beloved writer. Kelly illuminates the radical subjects--slavery, poverty, feminism, the Church, evolution, among them--considered treasonous at the time, that Austen deftly explored in the six novels that have come to embody an age. The author reveals just how in the novels we find the real Jane Austen: a clever, clear-sighted woman "of information," fully aware of what was going on in the world and sure about what she thought of it. We see a writer who understood that the novel--until then seen as mindless "trash"--could be a great art form and who, perhaps more than any other writer up to that time, imbued it with its particular greatness.

 
“A fresh take on the life and work of the beloved writer Jane Austen . . . Reveals the subversive rebel soul behind such towering classics as Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.”
—Lisa Shea, Elle
 
Jane Austen: the Secret Radical is wonderful; a revelation. It’s difficult to stand out from the crowd when writing about such an influential figure, but Helena Kelly has certainly achieved that with this smart, knowing, perceptive book.”
—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
 
“Helena Kelly makes the case for Austen as an author steeped in the fear of war and revolution who wrote about the burning political issues of the time . . . Meticulously researched . . . Through a combination of beautifully precise close readings alongside Austen’s biographical, literary and historical context, Kelly shows us that the novels were about nothing more or less than the burning political questions of the day . . . A deeply welcome book . . . A sublime piece of literary detective work that shows us once and for all how to be precisely the sort of reader that Austen deserves.”
—Caroline Criado-Perez, The Guardian
 
“A thoroughly impressive and convincing re-reading of Jane Austen’s works . . . Austen expert Helena Kelly takes the author’s catalogue of works,  much adapted, much loved, and turns them upside down, shaking out the petticoats and love stories to find a dark, politically motivated underbelly . . . Kelly points us toward Austen’s carefully woven-in ideas and opinions on, among others, the deadliness of marriage and motherhood, corruption in the church, and the debilitating poverty caused by enclosure of common lands . . . You’ll definitely see Austen’s work differently from now on.”
—Ella Walker, Eastern Daily Press
 
“Uncovering a radical, spirited and politically engaged Austen, Jane Austen, The Secret Radical will encourage you to read Jane, all over again.”
Yorkshire Post
 
“Kelly amply shows her deep research into some of the lesser-known elements of Austen's life and work . . . She exposes a depth beyond what at first may seem to be silly characters. A fine-grained study that shows us how to read between the lines to discover the remarkable woman who helped transform the novel from trash to an absolute art form.”
Kirkus Reviews
 
“Ambitious . . . illuminating, provocative . . . Kelly offers a salutary argument for reading Austen’s novels with the serious attentiveness they invite and deserve.”
—Bharat Tandon, The Spectator
 
“A thoroughly engaging read.”
—Devoney Looser, The Times Literary Supplement
 
“A thoroughly impressive and convincing re-reading of Jane Austen’s work . . . Kelly takes the author’s catalogue of works, much adapted, much loved, and turns them upside down, shaking out the petticoats and love stories to find a dark, politically motivated underbelly. Beneath the drawing room chatter and matchmaking, Kelly points us toward Austen’s carefully woven-in ideas and opinions on, among others, the deadliness of marriage and motherhood, corruption in the church, and the debilitating poverty caused by enclosure of common lands . . . You’ll definitely see Austen’s works differently from now on.”
—Ella Walker, The Press and Journal
 
“A bodice-burstingly brilliant book . . . Essential . . . What this radical re-reading of the novels does so brilliantly is to exhort us all to chuck out the chintz, and the teacups, and all the traditional romantic notions about Austen’s work that have been fed to us for so long . . . However well you think you know the novels, you’ll be raring to read them again once you’ve read this.”
—Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller (Book of the Month)
open close ABOUT THE AUTHOR
HELENA KELLY grew up in North Kent. She is a professor of classics and English Literature at the University of Oxford. She lives in Oxford with her husband and son.
open close READ AN EXCERPT
Everyone—almost everyone—loves Pride and Prejudice.* It regularly tops lists of the hundred most important or best-loved novels. The hero and heroine, Darcy and Elizabeth, have developed lives of their own, rather like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. They’ve become cul- tural icons in their own right, their relationship the ultimate in literary romance.

I have a coffee mug that I was given a couple of Christmases ago. It’s one of a series that you can buy, “Classic novels abridged.” This one encapsulates the plot of Pride and Prejudice. “Mr Darcy is a proud man,” it reads. “Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t like him. They change their minds and get married. The end.”

There is, of course, rather more to it than that.

More than anything else, it’s the 1995 BBC television series of Pride and Prejudice that precipitated the current, two-decade-long period of intense, near-global obsession with Jane Austen. It’s this version that entered the cultural consciousness, creating such a strong hold for itself that when a member of the general public hears the title, the first image that appears in his or her mind is one that has no counterpart in the book: a sweaty Colin Firth stripping half-naked and diving into the lake at Pemberley. And there have been other very popular Pride and Prejudices since, lots of them: the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley; the Bollywoodized Bride and Prejudice; Bridget Jones’s Diary; Lost in Austen; Death Comes to Pember- ley; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible. Even the “biopic” Becoming Jane riffed on Pride and Prejudice. All these retellings and variations work on the assumption that readers or viewers know the characters and the story very well, an assumption that doesn’t get made with Jane’s other books. The assumption isn’t wrong.

But it’s that same knowledge, that same sense of familiarity, which blinds us to much of what Pride and Prejudice is actually doing as a text. It makes it, perhaps, the most difficult out of all of Jane’s novels for us to read as she intended.

We all know that Pride and Prejudice is a happy, cheerful book, even if we haven’t read it. There’s a degree of truth there, but only a degree.

Jane herself, in one of those passages of her writing that it’s almost impossible to fix the tone of, called it “rather too light & bright & sparkling.”* It wanted, she said, “shade” and “to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter—of sense if it could be had.” Failing long, sen- sible chapters, she suggests the book might benefit instead from adding passages of “solemn specious nonsense—about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte.”

It isn’t that unusual to find long sections in eighteenth-century novels that seem to have nothing to do with anything; theoretical discussions about writing appear too.† There was, for a long time, a pervasive view that the novel, as a genre, wasn’t good enough—wasn’t sufficiently seri- ous, intellectual, improving. This is something we discussed briefly in the chapter on Northanger Abbey, and the “defence of the novel” that appears there seems, in some respects, to chime with what Jane’s saying here. In Northanger Abbey, she sets the novel in opposition to other, traditionally better-respected, types of writing—essays, history—and she defends it against literary critics as well.

But any “history of Buonaparte” would, of its nature, be political, would, in spite of being called a “history,” be in effect current affairs.‡ Bonaparte, after all, was still very much a present threat in early 1813. And though Walter Scott’s poetry, like his later novels, was largely pseu- domedieval, though it had generally been reviewed very favorably, there had been one particular rather famous criticism—a “critique.” It had appeared in The Edinburgh Review in 1808 and focused on Scott’s long poem about wicked knights, villainous nuns, and the Battle of Flodden, fought between England and Scotland in 1513: Marmion.

Marmion
ends with an address to “Statesmen grave,” wishing them “Sound head, clean hand, and piercing wit, / And patriotic heart—as Pitt!” Pitt is William Pitt, the youngest prime minister Britain has ever had, who had died in 1806. It was Pitt who’d overseen the government crackdown on radicalism in the 1790s, the increase in state surveillance, the suspension of habeas corpus, the forced union with Ireland after the Uprising, the expansion of the navy and the militia. The Edinburgh Review “critique” of Marmion ended with a sneering reference to the “political creed of the author.” Reviews could be an even touchier subject in the early nineteenth century than they are now.

What’s the reason that Jane starts to talk politics here, as she seems to be doing? Why does she follow up the references by asserting that her correspondent—Cassandra, as  so often—would think  differently (“I doubt your quite agreeing with me here—I know your starched notions”)? Are politics totally “unconnected with the story”?

In another letter penned a few days earlier, Jane mentions some print- er’s errors she’s noticed in the text of Pride and Prejudice: “There are a few Typical errors—& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear.” No matter, though, she continues, “I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.”

This is, roughly, a quotation from the second-to-last stanza of Marmion. In the space of a few lines, the reader is encouraged to imagine how the hero, Wilton, and the heroine, Clara, are united and how all the stray plot strands will be tied up:

I do not rhyme to that dull elf,
Who cannot image to himself,
That all through Flodden’s dismal night,
Wilton was foremost in the fight;
. . .
Nor sing I to that simple maid,  
To whom it must in terms be said,
That King and kinsmen did agree,
To bless fair Clara’s constancy;
Who cannot, unless I relate,
Paint to her mind the bridal’s state.


This stanza, the stanza that pops into Jane’s head when she’s thinking about how her newly appeared novel will be read, deals with what an author can expect a reader to do. It’s about the author’s desire for readers who can join the dots, follow implications and allusions through to their natural conclusions, who can “image” for themselves, “paint” for them- selves, who don’t necessarily have to see the words set down in order to understand the message.

Jane wants readers who have a “great deal of ingenuity.” Isn’t it possible, then, that Pride and Prejudice isn’t quite so light and bright and sparkling as we’ve been led to believe? That there are darker, more serious layers to be uncovered?

In December 1943, on a visit to North Africa, the British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, fell seriously ill with pneumonia. Later he recalled that, confined to bed, banned from work, he “decided to read a novel” or, rather, to have his daughter Sarah read one to him. Having “long ago” read “Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility,” he thought that he would have Pride and Prejudice. Sarah read it to me beautifully from the foot of the bed. I had always thought it would be better than its rival. What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only man- ners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cul- tured explanations of any mischances.*

This wasn’t an original idea. Rudyard Kipling, the great writer of empire, had drawn a very similar direct contrast in “The Janeites,” a short story centering on one character’s experiences in the trenches of World War I. In it, Jane’s novels are absurd, almost meaningless, and, paradoxi- cally, a representation of civilization, salvation, and Britishness, a balm to wounded minds. The names and passages that the main character, the London-Cockney hairdresser Humberstall, learns to recite—and that get him out of more than one sticky situation—are to begin with all Greek to him. After the war, when he reads the books, he finds “nothing in ’em”— except the solace of seeing ordinary, everyday peacetime life reflected back to him.


In a novel of 1975 by Paul Scott—A Division of the Spoils, the last of the “quartet” on which the 1980s television series The Jewel in the Crown was based—a returned prisoner of war recalls discussing with one of his former captors what the experience of coming home might involve. The home in question is in colonial India, but the imagined return is both distinctly British and soothing, hypnotic even—“a comfortable chair in a cosy room,” “reading Pride and Prejudice, sipping a glass of special malt whisky, and fondling the ears” of a “faithful black labrador.” Dog, whisky, Pride and Prejudice—all are equally alien to India and, it’s implied, equally unimaginable in war, in its twentieth-century incarnation at least.

The idea that Jane’s novels offer a blissful, almost drugged-up, break from harsh reality doesn’t hold water, though. Remember that Britain was at war with France from 1793 to 1815, with only two short periods of peace. It’s this background that we have to place the books against. The “emigrant” mentioned in passing in Sense and Sensibility is a refugee from the French Revolution. Easy enough to miss the reference if you wanted to try to make the war and revolutionary unrest disappear; Jane doesn’t.

War is a constant presence in the novels, a buzz of background static that, at times, rises to earsplitting screeches and whines. Later, we’ll see just how closely the plot of Persuasion is built around the “crashing struggle” of the Napoleonic Wars. In that novel, the heroine’s family objects to her marrying a naval officer not just because they’re snobs but because there is a very real risk that he will be killed or injured, leaving her with little money. She breaks off the engagement because she thinks he’s more likely to advance in his career without her, married men tending not to pos- sess quite the dazzling recklessness required. He returns years later with a fortune acquired by seizing enemy ships, hardly a blameless or a bloodless pursuit and very far from a safe one. While Anne has sat at home, “quiet, confined,” and anxiously poring over the newspapers, Captain Went- worth has been braving sabers, musket fire, and cannon. Persuasion ends with “the dread of a future war.”

Possibly Winston Churchill was familiar with the 1940 Hollywood film of Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, which transfers the action to the Victorian era and softens almost all of Jane’s jagged edges, even succeeding in the difficult task of making Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh lovable. Churchill seems to have known what he was going to find in the novel before he ever opened it (he had “always thought it would be better”); I’d suggest he’s very far from being the only reader to approach the book through a haze of preconceptions. Either way, we have to wonder how much of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice he actually heard, and how much he tuned out, as he dozed.

ecause what he doesn’t seem to have registered is that for a novel which is supposedly far removed from any concerns about war, it’s crammed with references to soldiers. Its pages are peppered with the words “regiment,” “militia,” “officers.” Sense and Sensibility has one colonel—Colonel Bran- don, who seems to have retired from military life.* Pride and Prejudice features two, both of whom—as far as we know—are still active. One major character and quite a number of minor ones are pursuing military careers, though, naturally, as officers. The ranks of the militia were sup- posed to be filled by lot, but you could pay to be taken out, so in practice the landowning and even middling classes were exempt.†

Both Persuasion and Mansfield Park have been called naval novels because they focus on characters who are sailors; if Jane ever wrote an army novel, then it’s this one.

And it’s one that, unlike Sense and Sensibility, is definitively set dur- ing wartime. At the end of the book, when Jane details the various fates of the different characters, she mentions, explicitly, “the restoration of peace.” The whole action of the novel, then, takes place during active hostilities. But to Jane’s first readers this would have been apparent from early on. The “regiment of militia” that in chapter 7 takes up its winter quarters in the heroine’s hometown of Meryton and, halfway through the book, moves to a larger camp at Brighton, on the south coast, would have been shifted around the country like this only during a time of war. The summer army camps strung along the south coast weren’t there just to train recruits in the bracing sea breezes; they were there to defend against invasion.

I grew up near Chatham in Kent, which was for centuries a major naval base. It’s ringed with hilltop fortifications built or extensively remodeled during the Napoleonic Wars. Throughout Jane’s adulthood, people were terrified of being invaded by the French. There was a degree of scaremon- gering involved. It was far from unusual for newspapers to carry alarmist reports in which invasion was made to seem imminent. But scaremonger- ing wasn’t the only reason people were afraid. Fourteen hundred French troops landed at Fishguard in Wales in 1797.* They quickly surrendered, but they landed.

And one of the alarmist reports at least was pretty accurate. It appeared in 1796 and detailed how an escaped prisoner of war had seen, with his own eyes, French volunteers massing near Dunkirk, consumed with revo- lutionary bloodlust, warning that the French had collected “a number of flat-bottomed boats all along the coast, which are constructed with great convenience for the landing of cavalry from them. Each boat has two field pieces [that is, artillery guns] belonging to it. The French talk of the Expedition being ready towards the end of November.”†

It was. The French didn’t invade the well-fortified south coast of England; they tried instead to land troops at Bantry Bay, on the sparsely populated southwest coast of Ireland. They were prevented by a combina- tion of bad weather and the British navy. Among the ships that sailed out from the Irish port of Cork to mop up the last remains of the French fleet was the Unicorn, captained by the man who’d married Jane’s first cousin Jane Cooper and having, among its officers, Jane’s younger brother, Charles.

Ireland, in some ways, was less distant from England then than it is now. Jane never ventures there in her fiction—aware, perhaps, that her scenes would be unlikely to stand comparison with those of the then more famous novelist Maria Edgeworth, who had lived in Ireland for much of her life. She sends characters there quite often, though, more often than she sends them anywhere else. Jane Fairfax’s foster sister, in Emma, marries a Mr. Dixon and goes to live with him at his Irish “country seat, Baly-craig.” In Persuasion, Admiral and Mrs. Croft have been stationed for a time at Cork, and the heroine, Anne, has family who live in Ireland, the aristocratic but uninspiring Dalrymples. In the unfinished fragment usually called The Watsons, the heroine returns home to her birth family because the aunt who brought her up has married again to a man called “O’brien” and “is gone to settle in Ireland.”

We don’t have to cling to those mysteriously vanished letters and the idea that Jane was in love with the Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy to explain this. Jane knew a number of people who had spent time in Ireland: Tom Lefroy, yes, but also, as we saw above, her cousin and her younger brother. In 1799 her brother Henry, too, spent the better part of a year in Ireland with the Oxfordshires, the regiment of militia that he had joined in 1793 and for which he became acting paymaster.

Ireland wasn’t so distant to Jane, and—though both her brothers had managed to avoid them—the horrors that took place there in the narrow gap between Charles’s visit and Henry’s must have seemed uncomfortably close to home.

In 1798, French soldiers invaded Ireland, in support of what used to be called the Irish Rebellion and is now more often called the United Irish Uprising.

In modern minds Irish nationalism is strongly associated with Roman Catholicism, but in the 1790s the Catholic Church was opposed to any suggestion of rebellion in Ireland. Not many of the United Irishmen were Catholic. They were political radicals; most had been directly influenced by the literature and ideas of the French Revolution. Prominent among the United Irish leaders was a man called Lord Edward Fitzgerald, one of the twenty-two children born to the Duchess of Leinster. Despite being related to half the aristocratic families in the British Isles and serving for a time in the army and as a member of Parliament, Lord Edward embraced revolution wholeheartedly. He visited Paris, where he stayed with Thomas Paine, the author whose writings could fairly be said to have inspired both the American and the French Revolutions. He repudiated his title and married a woman who was in all probability an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Orléans, the only member of the French royal family to support—and indeed help to promote—revolutionary change.

The Uprising was more than an expression of Hibernian nationalism; it was a clash of fundamental ideologies, played out over the course of a wet summer across the Irish hills and through the streets of towns like Carlow and Ballynahinch and Enniscorthy. Bullets flew. Buildings were burned. There were brutal atrocities on both sides; the aftermath was no gentler. Fitzgerald was betrayed and shot, dying in prison of untreated septice- mia. His co-conspirator, Wolfe Tone, who held the rank of general in the French army, committed suicide. Jane could have read in The Hampshire Chronicle of the fate of another Irish rebel, Henry Munro, hanged oppo- site his front door. “After hanging a considerable time,” the newspaper reports, “his heart was taken out and his head being severed from his body was stuck on top of a pike and affixed on the market house.”

What the Uprising revealed was that the British government was will- ing to turn its troops—including its foreign mercenaries and its militia— against its own people. In 1797, in Haddington in Scotland, a disagreement over call-ups to the militia had resulted in public unrest in which a num- ber of civilians were killed. In the wake of the Uprising, this looked less like an unfortunate incident and more like the unspoken reason for hav- ing militia in the first place. When proposals for expanding the militia were being debated in Parliament, a member of the Opposition claimed that “the real object . . . was to . . . extend the influence of Ministers.” The government wanted, he suggested, a large armed force with which to menace the populace; its true intention was to introduce, by stealth, the apparatus of “an absolute Monarchy”—a tyranny, a dictatorship.

Serving in the militia was rather like being in the Territorial Army or Army Reserve; in peacetime you occasionally had to do some training, but it wasn’t a major disruption to your life. During wartime or national crisis it was different. Militias were purposely stationed away from their homes, in areas where they had no loyalties, no networks of friends and family. Traditionally, they had been billeted in towns; the officers in rented lodg- ings, the men at inns, though this was starting to change. In Pride and Prejudice it seems likely that the men, at least, are in barracks, because in one scene four of the five Bennet sisters dine alone together at the local inn, the George. Their parents don’t take very good care of them, but it’s difficult to imagine even Mr. and Mrs. Bennet countenancing unaccompanied trips into town if there was any serious risk of the girls’ being insulted. The officers, however, are in “lodgings” and, with their red coats, are a visible presence in the town, a constant reminder of govern- ment observation and control. Meryton is, we know, close to the Great North Road—the main arterial route northward from the capital. When it’s thought that Lydia and Wickham have eloped via London to Scotland, a character laments that “they must have passed within ten miles of us.” From Meryton to London is, Jane tells us, “a journey of only twenty-four miles,” one that can be comfortably achieved in a morning. The War Office hasn’t quartered the regiment at random; it’s put it there so that it can easily march to the north or be used to help suppress metropolitan unrest.

The militias aren’t in the novel to provide young men for the five unmarried Bennet girls to dance with; they bring with them an atmo- sphere that is highly politically charged; they trail clouds of danger— images of a rebellious populace, of government repression, and, more distant but insistent nevertheless, of the fear of what might happen if the men in the militia, the troops, mutiny. The militias embody one of the central questions of the age: Whom should you be afraid of? In evading one danger, do you run straight into the arms of another?

Jane freely admits that men in uniform are glamorous. Even the intel- ligent, cynical heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, isn’t immune, though she is dis- cerning. When she and her sisters first meet the caddish Wickham, they’re delighted to find that he’s planning to join the militia—“the young man wanted only regimentals [that is, a uniform] to make him completely charming.”* Wickham has, in addition, “all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” But Kitty and Lydia, the youngest and silliest of the Bennet girls, are entranced even by the “regimentals of an ensign”—the most junior officer rank, not infre- quently held by teenage boys.

For Jane, though, it’s only naïveté or extreme youth that enables characters to persist in this kind of attitude. Mrs. Bennet can “remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well,” but for all she is “a woman of mean understanding,” she can see past the uniforms. She doesn’t want her daughters marrying just any officer. Only “a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year,” will do.

Wickham, who has no annual income whatsoever, needs all the assis- tance he can get, socially, which is why he joins the militia in the first place, and why, as Mr. Bennet says, “he simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all.” Though given access to a superior education through the generosity of his godfather—Darcy’s father—he has, we learn, forfeited any right to look for further assistance by planning an elopement with Darcy’s young sister, Georgiana. Quite why Wickham never attempted to force a marriage by making Georgiana pregnant, as it seems he could have done, is unclear; together with the late Mr. Darcy’s generosity to him, and the current Mr. Darcy’s strong dislike of Wickham’s mother, it may perhaps indicate that there exists a possibility in everyone’s mind that Wickham is a half brother to Darcy and Georgiana and that his true intention might in fact never have been seduction—or marriage—in the first place. Whatever the truth, Wickham delights in pulling Darcy’s char- acter to shreds and is happy to feed Elizabeth’s curiosity about him; it’s a large part of the reason she is, at first, so taken by him. For her, the uni- form has little to do with it.

As I pointed out in both of the previous chapters, we can be certain of next to nothing about the genesis of the early novels. But whenever— and in whatever guise—Pride and Prejudice was begun, by the time Jane came to publish it, she had herself lived in what was, for all intents and purposes, a garrison town. The glamour, for her, had worn off.

When the regiment removes to a summer camp at Brighton, the youngest of the Bennet sisters, Lydia, is invited to go too, by her friend the wife of the colonel. We’re told that she imagines 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.

Jane makes it absolutely clear that this is “the creative eye of fancy,” and the fancy of a fifteen-year-old girl at that. Jane knew that military camps were anything but “beauteous,” knew that a town full of soldiers was not a pleasant place for women, and she knew that her readers knew that too, or could guess at it.

The camp at Brighton will be dirty and—if it rains—muddy. It will stink. There will be stalls selling alcohol, public drunkenness. There will be women (and girls, and perhaps a few boys) plying their wares as pros- titutes. And these kinds of problems aren’t confined to the large train- ing camps. The militia, which supposedly exists to preserve order and to protect the local inhabitants, is in fact a disruptive force throughout Pride and Prejudice.

When Elizabeth first hears of Lydia’s wish to go to Brighton, she’s appalled. “Good Heaven!” she thinks to herself. “Brighton, and a whole campful of soldiers, to us, who have been overset already by one poor regiment of militia, and the monthly balls of Meryton!” We’re told that Elizabeth “did not credit above half of what was said” by the local gos- sips after Wickham decamps with Lydia, but even if he isn’t “in debt to every tradesman in the place,” even if his amorous adventures—his “intrigues”—didn’t in fact extend “into every tradesman’s family,” we’re left to conclude that Wickham really is economically and sexually danger- ous, that he has done some damage in the town. And he’s only one officer. Are we meant to believe that all the others have been virtuously idle the whole winter through?

Well, in fact, we know they haven’t. We see them promenading in the street, flirting, dancing, dining, drinking. We’re told that they’ve been dressing up as women—“We dressed up Chamberlayne [one of the junior officers] in woman’s clothes on purpose to pass for a lady, only think what fun!”—and this with the approval of the colonel (“Not a soul knew of it, but Colonel and Mrs. Forster, and Kitty and me”).

There’s a nasty underbelly to all this fun and games. Jane lifts the lid on it in one deeply, dizzyingly unsettling sentence, which goes from social niceties to bloody violence and back again: “Several of the officers had dined lately with their uncle, a private had been flogged, and it had actu- ally been hinted that Colonel Forster was going to be married.” There must be plenty of privates somewhere in or near Meryton, but this is the only one we ever glimpse. As an ordinary member of the militia ranks, not an officer, he’s unlikely to have been a volunteer; he’ll have been selected by lottery and then conscripted. He didn’t, evidently, have the money to evade the ballot. He’s being flogged, subjected to discipline—the kind of discipline that, if wrongly judged or mistimed, could lead to bad feeling in the ranks, even, on occasion, to mutiny. Flogging took the skin off your back. It scarred you for life. What is this particular man being disciplined for? Laziness, insubordination, drunkenness, theft, handing out seditious leaflets, “bothering” the local women? All of these options are plausible; none are soothing.

The presence of the militia in the novel, then, introduces layer upon layer of anxiety. There’s the anxiety that always attaches to the sudden arrival of large numbers of strange men in a neighborhood. Elizabeth really isn’t wise to walk alone, as she does early in the novel. It’s notice- able that she stops doing it. But there are also political anxieties: What if the strange men become radicalized? What, conversely, if a meeting gets a little out of hand and they start shooting at ordinary people? Meryton isn’t so calm and untroubled, so very “merry,” after all.

Invasions; the naval mutinies at Portsmouth and in the Thames Estuary in 1797; the food riots that periodically erupted throughout the war years—they’re there. They’re in the background, but they are there.











* One notable exception is Mark Twain, who once wrote in a letter that every time he read the book, he wanted to dig Jane up and “beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

* Letter to Cassandra Austen, dated only with “February 4,” though the year of composition is clearly, from internal references, 1813.
 
† Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), sometimes called the first English novel, is a notable, but hardly solitary, example.
 
‡ One positively glowing “Memoir of General Buonaparte” had been printed in the magazine of the London Corresponding Society, the group that really did want to have a revolution and overthrow the British government. Moral and Political Magazine of the London Corresponding Society 1 (1796–97).

* The story appears in more than one place; the museum now in Chawton Cottage, where Jane lived, used to have it in a letter, mounted on the wall in what’s supposed to have been Jane’s bedroom.

* Mr. Weston, in Emma, we’re told, once served for some time in the militia as a captain, some twenty or twenty-five years before the story starts. It is, as we’ll see, difficult to date Emma’s set- ting with any certainty.
 
† It was possible to insure against being drawn for the militia. A premium of 25 shillings would allow you to evade service if you wished (see, for example, the Hereford Journal, Feb. 1, 1797).

* The story that the French mistook the Welshwomen, dressed in red shawls and tall black hats, for soldiers is charming but absent from early sources.
 
Reading Mercury, Nov. 7, 1796; the report also appeared in at least half a dozen other newspapers.

* In theory, militia officers were meant to be landowners—which neither the fictional Wickham nor the real Henry Austen was—but the rule was easily and frequently got around.