Jane Austen had two brothers who served in the navy, Frank and Charles, and two who served in the militia, Edward and Henry. Father George Austen and brother James, as clergymen, were discouraged from bearing arms but recruited soldiers and militiamen from the local population.
It was the women in Jane’s close orbit, however, who suffered most directly from the horrors of war itself.
Jane’s sister, Cassandra, lost her fiancé, Tom Fowle, who went on a military expedition to the West Indies as the chaplain of his cousin’s ship. There, Tom died of yellow fever–as did half of all the British serving there. The cousin later said that, if he had known Tom was engaged, he would not have taken him. Tom’s generous £1,000 financial legacy to Cassandra, yielding about £50 annually, proved providential when the family income plummeted after the elder Mr. Austen died.
The other woman suffering a casualty from the war was Elizabeth, the wife of Jane’s wealthy brother Edward. In August 1807, Edward and Elizabeth learned that Elizabeth’s youngest brother, George, had been wounded in naval action, taken prisoner and brought ashore, and died.
The only surviving reference to the death of “poor Uncle George” comes on August 27, 1807, in the diary of Fanny Austen, Edward and Elizabeth’s oldest child and Jane Austen’s favorite niece. The death of the twenty-three-year-old lieutenant was confirmed about a week later.
Only nine years older than Fanny, George likely was more of a brother to Fanny and Edward’s other eldest children than an uncle. Though he came from the wealthy Bridges family, George had no wealth of his own. He lacked the inheritance of the oldest son or the clerical calling of the other three surviving sons. Like the two youngest Austen males, he sought to make a career of the Royal Navy. In fact, being five years younger than Charles, he might well have been emulating their careers. Both families came and went at Edward’s Godmersham estate; it’s likely that young George might have met at least Frank, who honeymooned there in 1806 while Charles spent 1805-1811 on duty in North America.
Jane’s reaction is unknown—the year 1807 is nearly blank insofar as her letters go. But the equivalence of the two situations—two women whose favorite young brother faced the fury of battle—must have struck Jane deeply.
Still more shocking, George was mortally wounded on Frank’s old ship, the Canopus (above, by headline), which he had captained to victory at San Domingo the previous year. The Austens lacked the connections to be given command of the newest ships, and Frank had complained about how slow and clumsy the old vessel was. Jane must have shuddered to realize that Frank himself had walked the same quarterdeck—it could have easily been his blood spilled on the oaken planks as George’s.
The war with France ran most of Austen’s adult life, and she wove elements of it into her works. The bad-boy militia is an important subplot in “Pride and Prejudice”; the courage and open-heartedness of young naval officer William Price provides a counterpoint to the several dubious male characters in “Mansfield Park”; and the return of the conquering navy is the heart of “Persuasion.”
In addition to serving as a meaningful backdrop in these Jane Austen novels, the war also comes up subtly elsewhere as a plot device or character marker. In “Emma,” Jane Fairfax needs to be an orphan, so her father has been killed in action. In “Sense and Sensibility,” Colonel Brandon’s earlier service in India illustrates his sturdy character and reliability, while in “Northanger Abbey” Frederick Tilney’s captaincy in the dragoons serves as a flag for his hell-bent-for-leather recklessness.
Nowhere, however, does the war itself truly come to the forefront or serve as a major part of the storyline. Even in the most military book, “Persuasion,” the theme is not the horrors of war but the contrast after the war between self-made naval heroes entering society and the lazy, self-indulgent gentry who will be displaced by them.
Austen kept the war at a distance in her novels, but not because she was uninterested or unaware of the military battles raging. Instead, as the losses to Cass and Elizabeth show, its dangers struck far too close to home.