By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 30 2016 01:00PM
The classics are timeless, we are told. Their freshness has no sell-by date; their concerns seem as urgent in our times as in the times that spawned them.
Surely, this is true of Jane Austen’s novels, with their indelible character portraits, their psychological acuity and their deep understanding of family dynamics. Arguably, it’s her novels’ very reticence about the ephemera of nineteenth-century politics and economics that makes them great -- that frees them from the particular and allows them to become universal.
Of course, this timelessness is also held against Austen. Even some of her admirers condescend, just a little. “What calm lives they had, those people!” Winston Churchill wrote, after he spent a bout of illness in bed listening to his daughter read aloud from Pride and Prejudice. “No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.”
At the most extreme, Austen’s alleged disconnection from her times becomes one of the items on the Austen-haters’ bill of indictment: Men were fighting battles, and Jane Austen wrote about women attending balls! Where were her priorities? Didn’t she know what was really important?
So is Austen’s timelessness a feature or a bug? A book like the excellent In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815, written by the British biographer, historian and editor Jenny Uglow, provides a useful aid in thinking over this question. Uglow’s book, published in 2015, is my latest self-imposed assignment in the year-long Austen Catch-Up Project, designed to help plug a few of the holes in my Janeite education.
Uglow’s wide-ranging and beautifully written history of the home front during Georgian Britain’s twenty-two years of near-constant war with France fills in the context that Austen’s first readers took for granted. “The wars were like permanent bad weather,” Uglow writes, “so all-surrounding that people stopped referring to them and merely said ‘in these dismal times,’ ‘in such troubling and dangerous times’ or simply ‘in these times.’ ”
The conflict was monumental in every sense. During an era when Britain’s population ranged from ten to fourteen million, one million men and boys fought, and 311,000 died. Battle lines were drawn in Portugal and Spain, Egypt and the Caribbean, Belgium and the Welsh town of Fishguard, where in 1797 a small French detachment staged a brief, unsuccessful invasion of the British mainland.
And the war dragged on and on, lasting -- like every war in every era -- far longer than its proponents ever expected. As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, the brief Peace of Amiens evaporated and British soldiers and sailors returned to the fight, “boys not yet born at the start of the first war were joining their ships or marching away as their father had done, leaving mothers and sisters at home,” Uglow writes.
At home, change of every kind – political, economic, social, religious, technological, artistic – was tremendous and wrenching. Speculators and entrepreneurs made their fortunes, while workers saw traditional livelihoods evaporate amid industrialization and technological change. Wartime pressures spurred innovation in everything from artillery shells to taxation, and a new religious fervor – as well as the desire to undermine France in the West Indies -- pushed Parliament to abolish the slave trade. Bad weather and worse trade policies spawned food shortages and widespread hunger. Political attitudes polarized, and jumpy wartime governments cracked down on dissent, engendering resentment and protest that sometimes degenerated into violence on both sides.
Uglow draws on contemporary diaries, letters, cartoons, poetry and political speeches, as well as on the work of other historians, to tell this story. Along the way, she provides touching and sometimes heart-breaking accounts of families: men separated for years from their growing children, sons struggling to keep family businesses from going under, women dreading the arrival of letters or newspapers that might bring bad news about loved ones.
Inevitably, in a group portrait like this one, the details blur. It’s hard to keep all the names, dates and places straight, and I wouldn’t want to take an exam on everything Uglow tells us about Parliamentary debates or grinding military campaigns. (Though I’m glad to finally understand something about the Peninsular War, the brutally extended fighting in Iberia, which I previously knew mostly from those Regency romance novels in which the hero returns home from the fighting bearing emotional scars that can only be healed by the love of a good woman.)
Ultimately, Uglow sees the Napoleonic Wars as a crucible of British identity, forging a newly assertive nation freshly aware of its strength and its nationhood.
“With its industrial power, technological wizardry and financial clout Britain was squeezed out of the French wars like a pip from a lemon into a century and a half as a major world power,” she writes, in a typically elegant passage. “After 1815 most people shared a feeling of being ‘British’ which had not existed before. . . . The old paternalistic patterns had been fractured, between landlords and rural communities and between masters and workers, but in their place there was a new sense of solidarity in groups.”
What does all this have to do with Jane Austen? In a sense, not much: Her critics are of course correct to note that the upheaval of war touches her stories only tangentially, in the off-stage naval dramas of William Price or Captain Wentworth, or in the unstated fear of French invasion that explains why a provincial town like P&P's Meryton needs a militia presence.
Yet I would argue that when we know something of the fractured, frightening times in which Austen lived, we can make better sense of a mood that subtly pervades the novels, especially the three written at Chawton, as the war dragged on endlessly: the sense that life is a succession of choices whose outcomes can’t be predicted -- that the choices we make are simultaneously deeply serious and entirely contingent.
Timeless truths? Certainly. But also, as Uglow shows us, truths that were the product of a very particular time.