During Jane Austen’s life and beyond, England was beset with constant internal strife—labor protests, political riots, and military mutinies. These came as the result of falling wages–caused by increasing mill automation–high-priced food, and the harsh conditions and poor pay of military life. From the mid-1790s through the end of Austen’s life, a major insurrection would boil up at least once every couple of years.
These rebellions, coupled with the revolutions in the United States and France—the latter disintegrating into the wholesale slaughter of the aristocracy—left Tories deathly afraid that they, the King, and traditional British order would be overthrown as well, either by the demon Democracy or la Terreur.
Yet one must read Jane Austen carefully to find topical mentions of these big issues of the day. Northanger Abbey, her least mature work—completed first, published last—turns out to contain the most overt references to political dissent.
The first such reference involves General Tilney’s reading material. During Catherine Morland’s stay with the family, he says to her one evening: “I have many pamphlets to finish before I can close my eyes, and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep.” Catherine is not impressed by his pompous self-regard. She assumes that his late-night activities relate instead to her Gothic vision of wanton cruelty to a wife rattling about in hidden rooms of the abbey: “To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets was not very likely. There must be some deeper cause.”
We never learn the details of the pamphlets, but we can presume that the Tory general, who by age would have fought against the Americans in the Revolutionary War, is not reading the latest tract on the freedom of man by the firebrand Thomas Paine. More likely, he is reading a pamphlet published by the Bath Loyal Association (BLA), which he would have picked up while in the resort town. Set up under the auspices of the Bath mayor at the time of the French revolution, the BLA was an “Association for preserving Liberty and Property and the Constitution against the Levellers and Republicans.”
Among other things, it published a declaration pledging undying loyalty to the King. Signed by hundreds of people, the pledge declared that “the wild doctrine of equality, newly propagated, is unknown to the English Constitution, is incompatible with Civil Society, and only held forth as a Delusion to mislead the lower ranks of the people, to poison the minds of his Majesty’s subjects … and to substitute Anarchy in the place of our mild and happy Government.”
By equating equality and a republican form of government with anarchy, conservatives created a deadly self-fulfilling cycle. The government put down nonviolent pleas for reform as ferociously as insurrections, driving more people into the folds of the rebels and creating more anti-government plots.
Most of the insurgencies had the same game plan. One set of conspirators in London would try to seize the king, key members of Parliament, funds from the Bank of England, and weapons from the Tower of London. Another set of revolutionaries would simultaneously start a revolt in one of the northern counties, areas that seethed with unhappy factory workers, or in Ireland, which hated English rule. The hope was that a general uprising would bring in disgruntled soldiers. The northern militants would march south and join forces with the London cadre, and Liberté would reign.
Unfortunately for the rebels, England’s extensive spy network exposed the larger plots before they could be carried out. As detailed in Sue Wilkes’s Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels and Revolutionaries, the typical result would be local outbreaks of violence that were quickly put down, the execution of two or three leaders, and transportation (exile) for another dozen or so conspirators to the penal colony of Australia. The government and Tory press played up these intrigues to justify further harsh suppression of any protest.
This—a succession of threatened and failed revolts—is the historical context for one of the funniest scenes anywhere in Austen, when Catherine Morland and Eleanor Tilney talk past each other on current events and Henry Tilney eggs on their confusion. The exchange begins as Henry is “mansplaining” to the ladies about various important topics. When he pauses, Catherine solemnly says: “I have heard that something very shocking indeed will soon come out in London. … It is to be more horrible than anything we have met with yet. … It is to be uncommonly dreadful. I shall expect murder and everything of the kind.”
The last subject having been politics, Eleanor is startled, thinking Catherine is talking about a new uprising when instead she means the usual wild, horrific events sure to be part of a soon-to-be-released Gothic novel. Believing that the working classes are marching down from London to terrorize Bath, Eleanor reacts: “Good heaven! … You speak with astonishing composure! But … if such a design is known beforehand, proper measures will undoubtedly be taken by government to prevent its coming to effect.”
Henry sees what is going on but decides to join in the joke at his sister’s expense. “Government,” he says, “neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters. There must be murder; and government cares not how much. … ” Eleanor responds: “Miss Morland, do not mind what he says; but have the goodness to satisfy me as to this dreadful riot.”
“Riot! What riot?” Catherine exclaims, now equally confused.
Henry then tells Eleanor that the only riot is in her brain, that Catherine is talking of nothing more dreadful than a scary new book featuring tombstones and lanterns. But he criticizes Eleanor’s gullibility, which leads her to picture “a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window.”
Henry’s jocular but condescending point is that Eleanor, Catherine, and women in general have no understanding of public issues or other weighty subjects. Given Catherine’s rapid switch of topic and lack of clarification, however, Eleanor has every reason to be alarmed at the very real possibility of public violence—especially if the army is involved. Eleanor insists on an apology for his affront to her, which he gives in his usual half-serious manner.
This is Henry’s typical treatment of his sister, and even to Catherine, to some degree. As the scene ends, we’re unsure whether he has actually apologized or is still laughing at them rather than with them.
Next time: Does Henry’s riot reference change our understanding of when Austen finished Northanger Abbey?
The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.