Jane Austen: Isolated Spinster or In-Touch Citizen?
Updated: Feb 28
Some think that Jane Austen was a culturally and politically myopic person because her novels are seemingly oblivious to those larger matters. They're touted as simple country house novels where everyone gets married.
But those of us familiar with her work know that issues of the Napoleonic wars, slavery, sexual attraction, and the economic and social position of women are all tangentially addressed in her six novels.
What about Austen personally? Was she a sheltered spinster only concerned with the goings on in her small village? Jane wrote this to her sister January 10, 1809:
The St. Albans perhaps may soon be off to help bring home what may remain by this time of our poor army, whose state seems dreadfully critical. The "Regency" seems to have been heard of only here; my most political correspondents make no mention of it. Unlucky that I should have wasted so much reflection on the subject.
Her brother Frank was appointed to the HMS St Albans in 1807 where he served 3 and 1/2 years. He was a captain sailing to China and India convoying for the East India Company. In January 1809, the St Albans aided retreating British troops after the Battle of Corunna. The Spanish armies were defeated by Napoleon’s forces, and this caused the British army to withdraw to the coast. They had to retreat in harsh winter conditions and suffered a breakdown in morale. When they finally arrived on the coast, their transport ships hadn’t arrived yet, and the French launched another attack while the British were embarking on January 17.
The British casualties during the retreat were around 4,000 men killed, wounded, or captured, of whom 800 to 900 were casualties at the Battle of Corunna. By the time the army returned to England four days later, 6,000 were ill. Poor army, indeed.
Was Jane only aware of the desperate state of the retreating forces because her brother’s ship was on its way to transport the troops? I think that's unlikely.
What about when she writes of the “Regency” being unheard of in Southampton? “Regency” brings to mind empire dresses and men in breeches, but what was it and why was it needed?
She's not talking about the regency you're probably thinking of.
A regent is a person appointed to govern temporarily because the reigning monarch is a minor, is absent, or is incapacitated. If we’re talking about the person next in line of succession, he was called the Prince Regent. King George III had several bouts of mental illness throughout his life. He may have had an episode as early as the 1760s, but he had a longer, more public episode in the summer of 1788.
He suffered from manic behavior, such as speaking for hours on end and repeating himself, and Parliament grappled with whether or not the Prince of Wales should rule as regent with full powers or with restrictions. This Regency Crisis continued through the end of 1788 and in February 1789 the Regency Bill passed the House of Commons, but George III recovered before it was passed by the House of Lords.
He suffered other lapses in 1801 and 1804, but it was the death of his youngest child, Princess Amelia, that triggered an episode George never recovered from. She died in November 1811 and George fell into melancholy and senselessness for the rest of his life. The Regency Act of 1811 was passed and the Prince of Wales was subject to limitations on his power, such as granting peerages or concerting public offices, for one year. The Prince of Wales fought against this, but agreed to retain his father’s government and ministers, and in a year was able to exercise full powers of the king. There was a provision in place for the king’s recovery, but George III never did.
But the Regency didn’t begin in 1809, so what is Jane referencing in this letter? Was she and her more “political correspondents” assuming that it was only a matter of time before there was another regency crisis? George III’s Golden Jubilee was celebrated in October of that year. Was Jane and whomever she was writing to talking about this 50-year milestone and wondering if their king would be fit to continue to rule?
What if there's another option? Given her knowledge of the what was happening on Spain’s coast, it’s also possible that Jane was talking about something political a little farther from home.
The Portuguese also had a Prince Regent at this time, Prince John of Braganza. From 1799, he served as prince regent due to the mental illness of his mother, Queen Maria I. The Portuguese Prince Regent was in exile from Napoleon’s forces in Brazil since 1807. A secret treaty with the British guaranteed him help in his flight from Portugal. In April of 1809, he announced that he would place the Portuguese army under British training, effectively placing his forces under Wellington’s control. It’s possible that the rumor or the inevitability of this development was circulating as early as January 1809.
Austen's letters and her novels address topics deeper than who visited or married who. She was not an isolated, narrow minded, spinster. She was cognizant of what was happening nationally. Regardless of what regency she was talking about, Jane Austen was more attuned to the political climate of the day than she’s given credit for.