A Dance to Time: When Wellington Became a Janeite

The “Long War,” as it was known in the day, raged between England and France during almost all of Jane Austen’s adulthood. Two of her brothers served in the Navy, and the others served in or supported the Militia. England’s problem from the start was that it had no effective way to take the war to Napoleon in Europe. That changed with the Peninsular War, which began in the summer of 1808.

Austen’s home county of Hampshire had the major naval installation at Portsmouth. The calm waters of Spithead, between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, was where the fleet gathered to go out to fight—and where the shattered remnants of General Sir John Moore’s army returned in January 1809 after the initial, failed expedition to Spain.

Moore’s campaign was designed to open a southern front against Napoleon, to enable the British army to get a foothold on the continent. Until this time, as Napoleon put it, France was the elephant, the most powerful force on land, and England was the whale, the most powerful force at sea. There was no way for one to take the war to the other.

Austen mentions the Spanish campaign in letters to her sister Cassandra in January 1809. Jane was at Southampton, the civilian port twenty miles up the road from Portsmouth, and Cass was at Godmersham with the family of brother Edward after the sudden death of Edward’s wife, Elizabeth, after childbirth. When news of the army’s reverses reaches England, Jane says that brother Frank, stationed at Portsmouth, “may soon be off to help bring home what may remain by this time of our poor Army, whose state seems dreadfully critical” (10-11 January 1809).

On 24 January she writes again of the “grievous news from Spain,” including the death of Sir John in the final battle that protected the army’s embarkation for home—the largest British military evacuation until Dunkirk in World War II. On 30 January she follows with seemingly callous remarks: “I am sorry to find that Sir J. Moore has a Mother living, but tho’ a very Heroick son, he might not be a very necessary one to her happiness. I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the Hero in his death.—Thank Heaven! we have no one to care for particularly among the troops—no one in fact nearer to us than Sir John himself.”

The reason for Austen’s catty remarks about Sir John’s un-Christian views is unclear. He was a military officer respected for his courage and tactical abilities but not for his strategic thinking. His army’s foray into central Spain was a deliberate effort to draw the French army away from England’s beleaguered Spanish allies, but the action nearly allowed Napoleon to get behind him with an army twice the size of his own. It is also unclear whether Frank helped evacuate the army. He was in charge of their disembarkation at Portsmouth, and it appears that his ship, the St. Albans, remained in port, but there is a chance it dashed out to help.

What is curious about the Moore campaign—and how the story loops back to the Austen family 150 years later—is that it should have been the action of General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. Wellesley was a highly regarded officer who resigned from the army during a multi-year lull in action to enter politics. He returned to service when it became clear that England was going to find a way to strike at Napoleon on land.

Wellesley won a major victory at Vimeiro, Spain, in the summer of 1808; was replaced on the same day by two more senior but less experienced generals; and the terms of surrender for the French were so generous that all three officers were recalled to explain themselves. Frank Austen watched the battle unfold from his ship and ferried the wounded and captured home.

Moore, the most senior officer remaining in country, led what became the disastrous winter offensive. Later in 1809, Wellesley returned to Spain to badger Napoleon for several more years. Sir Arthur never had enough forces to directly battle one of the massive armies of the French, but he would move into northern Spain when Napoleon deployed his troops elsewhere and would withdraw in orderly fashion to a coastal fortress when the French returned.

After Napoleon’s own winter disaster in Russia in 1812, he no longer had reinforcements to send to Spain, and Wellesley (now Duke) punched into southern France in 1813, leading to Napoleon’s first abdication. Wellington, of course, led the British at Waterloo after Napoleon returned to power, the victory bringing more fame and riches to himself and his family. Wellington followed with a distinguished, largely conservative career in government.

One of the prizes for the Duke was the 7,000-acre Stratfield Saye estate in northeast Hampshire, which was sold to the nation for £600,000 in 1817 to present as a reward to the Iron Duke. The original plan was to build a Waterloo Palace to rival Blenheim Palace, home of the Duke of Marlborough, the great military hero of the previous century. Though that plan proved to be too expensive, the Stratfield Saye estate and house, about 22 miles north of Chawton, where Austen lived her final years, have remained in the family ever since.

Stratfield Saye was purchased for the Duke of Wellington by a grateful nation and has been home to the family since. The seventh duke and his literary friends sallied forth from this estate in Hampshire to attend meetings of the Jane Austen Society in Chawton.

I was giving a series of talks to the Jane Austen Society of Australia (JASA) about the war and its effects on the Austens, when Ellen Jordan, of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at the University of Newcastle, Australia, approached me about my knowledge of an Austen-Wellington connection. I knew that the Wellington home was close to the Austen haunts, but nothing else. Ellen not only explained how the world of Wellington and the world of Austen intersected but also was kind enough to send direct citations that explained them.

The seventh Duke of Wellington, great-grandson of our Sir Arthur, was the third cousin of Violet Powell, the wife of novelist Anthony Powell, famous for his twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time. A shared interest in Jane Austen was one highlight of their friendship. In their autobiographies, the Powells explain the Duke’s love of Austen and his support for the Jane Austen Society in the 1950s.

(It should be noted that military service has remained a part of the Wellington tradition. The first eight Dukes all served in the military. Gerald (Gerry), the seventh duke, inherited the title from his nephew, Henry, the sixth, when the nephew was killed in World War II leading a commando force in Italy.)

After World War II, Anthony Powell said, they came to know Gerry quite well, often staying at Stratfield Saye. “Gerry Wellington’s great literary passion was for Jane Austen, a novelist on whom Violet is expert, and for some time the two of them maintained a correspondence, purporting to be exchanged between Austen characters, though more ribald in strain. … A firm tradition grew up for us to … attend the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society, held in the gardens of Chawton House.”

Violet proved to be a true Janeite, passing the Duke’s test on her knowledge about Austen’s works. Violet says: “In 1958 we were again invited … to attend the AGM of the Jane Austen Society at Chawton. This was partly the result of my having correctly answered Gerry’s two test questions. Where in Jane Austen is there a scene of transvestism and where is the word ‘dung’ mentioned? The transvestite scene occurs in Pride and Prejudice when one of the officers who so excite the younger Miss Bennets is dressed up in a gown belonging to their vulgar aunt, Mrs. Phillips. It is in Persuasion that collision with a dung cart is averted by the skill of Mrs. Croft’s intervention, when out driving with her husband, the genial Admiral.”

The trips to the AGM became a custom involving still another respected novelist, L. P. Hartley, best known for The Go Between. Violet continues: “A tradition grew that a house party at Stratfield Saye should drive over to the [AGM]. … An eccentricity of this literary house party was that the two novelists, Anthony Powell and L.P. Hartley, regarded Jane Austen with sincere respect, but with less than total commitment, and jibbed at the esoteric exchanges so enjoyed by Gerry and myself.”

In addition to Jane Austen’s Letters, January 1809, sources are:

Powell, Anthony. 1980. To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell. Vol 3: Faces in My Time. London: William Heinemann, pp. 123-4.

Powell, Violet. 1998. The Departure Platform: An Autobiography. London: William Heinemann, pp. 137-8.

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