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Jane Austen and the Army

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 8 September 2011

Prize-winning historian Rupert Willoughby explains how Jane Austen's novels reveal an intricate grasp both of military technicalities and of contemporary events.


Rupert Willoughby:

Thank you very much, Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s very gratifying to see such a large audience but I’ve learned that Jane Austen is always guaranteed to draw a crowd.

It’s often said that the novels of Jane Austen reflect her very high opinion of the Royal Navy and this is unsurprising. She had two brothers in the service, both of whom rose to be admirals and if her attitude to the Army is more ambivalent it was an attitude shared by most of the nation.

The navy was more obviously useful. We were an island nation with sea lanes that needed constant protection to secure our trade and prosperity. In the mid-18th century the navy had covered itself in glory and was commonly thought to be invincible. ‘Rule Brittania, Brittania rules the waves,’ went the song. What was the Army for?

Sailors, of course, were usually out of sight and out of mind, doing their duty splendidly on the high seas. Soldiers were another matter. They were an ever-present feature of Georgian and indeed Victorian society. Their numbers were never great. The successive governments always resented the expense.

You will remember how in Kipling’s poem ‘Tommy’ the hapless redcoat is reviled at every turn, thrown out of pubs and theatres and generally treated like a blackguard even when sober as could be – and he does admit to being a drinker. But he can’t help noticing that it’s, ‘“Thank you, Mr Atkins,” when the band begins to play,’ or ‘“Thin red line of ‘eroes,” when the drums begin to roll”. And this was as true in Jane Austen’s time as in Kipling’s.

In the 1790s, when Jane was a young girl, a French invasion was thought to be imminent and this was one of the moments when Tommy Atkins was cherished. As he might have observed, ‘O, it’s “Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind.” And as a demonstration of their support military fashion suddenly became all the rage among ladies.

In Scotland those dressing a la maison favoured red coats with military cuffs and epaulets, whilst in England the style was velvet dresses of rifle green. (Incidentally, this isn’t an image of either of those, which we couldn’t lay our hands on. Most of the pictures you’re seeing today are from the National Army Museum Collection, some of them indeed in this very room.) So we had these fashions - a la maison and rifle green - none of which I think would have interested Jane Austen. She seems to have been somewhat indifferent to fashion.

Incidentally, the war had its effect on male fashions as well, as Jane cannot have failed to notice. In 1795 Pitt imposed a tax on hair powder. It was made from wheat and it was considered to be wasteful in wartime. This measure of Pitt’s put the widespread use of hair powder to an immediate end, much to the relief of the younger generation who were already finding wigs and powdered hair an acute embarrassment. And powdering in the Army was officially abolished in that year, in 1795. Only a few old fogies clung to these fashions, the powdered hair and the wigs, some of them well into the 19th century, and you can observe the changes in portraits of Jane Austen’s father and brothers.

The Army was most obviously useful for service in the colonies but it had a crucial role at home as well: keeping public order in the absence of any effective police force. And we catch a glimpse of this side of them in ‘Northanger Abbey’ which Jane wrote in 1798-9.

Whilst Henry Tilney teased his sister and Catherine Morland, ‘she immediately pictured to herself a mob of 3,000 men assembling in St George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the 12th Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgence 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.’

Well there had indeed been such disturbances in London in 1780, the so-called ‘Gordon Riots’, and Jane might have read of a food riot in Nottingham in 1795 and it happens to have been suppressed by the real-life 12th Light Dragoons who were briefly quartered there. And the townsfolk were very grateful to them and presented the Freedom of the Borough to the officers.

On the other hand it’s often pointed out that Jane Austen wrote nothing about the French wars that raged during her entire adult life. She was too truthful a writer to describe events or experiences of which she had no personal knowledge. And she does write about them to the extent that they impinged on the life of a young girl in the country. Indeed, as I hope to explain, her novels contain a surprising amount of accurate military detail.

Jane, who always kept her ear to the ground, picked up much useful information from her family and friends. There is her portrayal of General Tilney, for example, which is most convincing. A man like Tilney, hardly a grizzled old warrior or winner of battles (not at all like Sir Hugh Dalrymple here), Tilney might have acquired his high rank simply by virtue of his seniority on the retired list. Because such a man would probably have retired years ago from active service on half-pay, having obtained no higher rank than that of major or lieutenant-colonel.

Promotion on the retired list was then an automatic process with nothing to stop him rising to the highest rank provided he lived long enough. This very peculiar system was thought to preserve stability and to be a safeguard to constitutional liberty as it prevented the eventuality of revolutionary generals being foisted into the higher commands.

Thus, in June 1811, we find that three major-generals were promoted to lieutenant-general, each was drawing half-pay as a mere major, none having seen any service since the end of the American war in 1783. And indeed among the generals of that period we find some real old buffers. On the 1808 Army List there is actually a general who had carried his regiment’s Colours at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Why would a man like Tilney have wished to remain in service when the pleasures of London society beckoned? He would be guaranteed his promotion with all its attendant social advantages because it was a matter purely of seniority rather than merit. Quite the reverse, incidentally, of the position in Admiral Anderson’s reformed navy.

And, of course, there would be no more horrible postings abroad and Tilney was not at all likely to be called back into service. He just wouldn’t have been considered good enough. Whilst proudly calling himself General he would continue to collect the half-pay commensurate with whatever junior rank he had retired in, be it that of lieutenant-colonel, major or even captain.

Thus, it has been pointed out that in the midst of the drama in ‘Northanger Abbey’ the General is suddenly obliged to go to London for a week, surely for no other purpose than to collect his precious half-pay. As Jane Austen clearly knew, this was issued only at the Army Pay Office in London. It had to be collected either in person or by an agent and Tilney would have been far too mean to pay the standard 2.5% commission to an agent. And it was payable at exactly the time of year that Jane describes. As for the amount involved, supposing Tilney had retired as a lieutenant-colonel, would have ranged from £75 to £90, depending on whether he’d been in the infantry or cavalry.

Jane further reveals her grasp of military technicalities when referring to his son, to Captain Frederick Tilney and these are technicalities of the sort that would pass over the heads of modern readers. For example, Henry reassures Catherine that his brother ‘will probably remain but a very short time, perhaps only a few days behind us. His leave of absence will soon expire and he must return to his regiment’. It would have been well known in Jane Austen’s circle that all army leaves of absence expired on the 10th March which was a few days after the action in the novel.

In early April, however, Isabella writes that Frederick ‘went away to his regiment two days ago’. So Jane, well aware that extensions to leaves of absence were usually of three weeks’ duration, had evidently planned her chronology with precision.

She must have picked up such details from her beloved brother, Henry, who was known to have enjoyed several extensions of leave during his militia service. It was probably Henry who informed her about the 12th Light Dragoons. You will remember them as the heroes of the real-life Nottingham Riot in 1795 and of the fictional one in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

In 1796-7 Henry’s own unit, the Oxfordshire Regiment, had been stationed at Colchester the very moment that the 12th were in training at Newmarket. (Newmarket is a mere 30 miles from Colchester.) Henry is sure to have had contact with its officers and to have sent news of them home to Jane.

In her novel Jane has the 12th posted to Northampton where there was indeed a cavalry barracks which had been built as recently as 1796 in response to the general alert. It was government policy to erect a string of such barracks in urban centres. Barracks hitherto had been a complete rarity.

Soldiers in their predominantly red uniforms were, by that time, ubiquitous in England but for the most part they were billeted in inns and other public houses. Never, please note, in private houses. This had been done in the Civil War when bands of ruffians had been unleashed on the civilian population, often without payment, and had been bitterly resented. The new fangled barracks which Pitt foisted on many a town were hardly any more popular and they were typically laid out as a square which was as much to keep the licentious soldiery in as any enemy out.

Cavalry barracks were the first to be raised, followed by barracks for the infantry and in their inland locations these were to be bases for the troops in their crucial role, and this was explicitly stated, in the maintenance of internal order. In the event of a riot it was the mounted troops who were apt to be called upon first. Units quartered in the towns would also have been in the front line of any invasion as well as being deployed in the constant struggle against smugglers. The barracks at Northampton, where Jane fictitiously places the 12th, and Nottingham, where they were genuinely quartered in 1795, performed similar roles as they were both strategically sited along the crucial artery of communication between London and Leeds.

So, far from being heedless of contemporary events, Jane Austen reveals herself to have an intricate grasp of them. Jane had earlier portrayed a soldier of quite a different type. Colonel Brandon of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ had by the age of 30 a considerable amount of active service under his belt, some of it in India.

During those years of service Brandon had been a comfortably-off younger son but when the unexpected death of his brother had left him the master of Delaford he had retired. Details in the novel are scant. ‘I was with my regiment in the East Indies,’ says Brandon, ‘having procured my exchange.’ This he had done in the wake of his unhappy love affair with a view to getting as far away from England as possible.

Most commissions in that period were obtained by purchase. Earlier in the century there are cases of them being bought for children, even for girls. It could be said, in favour of this bizarre system, that an officer’s pay was simply an honorarium. As expensive commodities they were open only to men of independent means or, as Wellington put it, ‘men of fortune and character’. Though Wellington’s own rapid ascent through the ranks had been greased by ready cash, they were equally available and attractive to men who were thunderingly thick and incompetent.

Under the purchase system a would-be officer bought his first commission in the lowest officer rank, that of ensign in the infantry or cornet in the cavalry, and he would then buy his way up the ranks as suitable vacancies arose, chiefly when the existing holders were willing to sell them.

The transactions were in theory between the individual and the government but in practice a hefty premium was paid through an agent to the officer who was relinquishing his commission. Incidentally, Jane Austen’s brother Henry became just such an agent himself in 1801. The amounts of money involved were considerable.

Purchase-free commissions occasionally became available when an officer was killed or cashiered – and incidentally this is a very Brandon-esque colonel perishing at the gates of Bangalore – so when an officer died there would be a vacancy. Exchanges of commissions tended to affect all the officers in the regiment because they would create a ripple of vacancies, giving everyone an opportunity, if he could afford it, to move up a notch. Officers were also able to exchange with comrades of the same rank in different regiments. Some did this to avoid unpopular postings.

You remember that Brandon did this. The officer who exchanged with him was no doubt delighted not to have to serve in India. Perhaps he had family at home or simply enjoyed the social life. On the other hand, an officer with ambition might welcome the opportunity to see action. He might regularly switch regiments in order to improve his prospects. For example, transferring to one that was less fashionable but had plenty of vacancies. Brandon’s reason for exchanging – to heal a broken heart – may not have been an uncommon one.

Fierce wars were being fought in India in this period. For example, we had the Third Mysore War in 1790-2 and the Fourth Mysore War in 1799 and that’s the one which toppled Tipu Sultan, but the novel actually falls between these dates so Brandon was not involved.

Another sort of soldier is portrayed in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. A regiment of militia arrives in Merriton in the autumn. The militia were the reserves of the Army, organised in county regiments, whose officers were gentlemen chosen by the relevant lord lieutenant. The rank and file, on the other hand, were everyone from the local farmers, tradesmen and labourers who had each been selected by ballot from their communities to serve for five years. These were distinct from the volunteers, sometimes formed into yeomanry cavalry, who were first raised in 1794 as a sort of home guard and they weren’t expected to serve full time like the militia. Jane Austen’s own brother Edward was later to form a troop of his own tenants in the East Kent Volunteers and to undertake a spell of coastal guard duty with them.

In 1793, three years before Jane Austen began her novel, 19,000 militia were called out. Her own brother Henry was commissioned in the Oxfordshire Militia in that year. For all ranks it was a relatively soft option compared to service in wartime in the regular army. Occasionally officers and men were drafted into the regulars but it was a step that caused fierce resentment in the shires. The wives kicked up a hell of a fuss. Their task was instead to defend the home front for as long as the emergency might last. (These caricatures, incidentally, are of well-known characters in the Cornwall Militia.)

Jane would have become very well acquainted with the officers of the South Devon Militia under Colonel Role because for the next two winters these men were quartered in Basingstoke, the town nearest her home at Steventon. She would have danced with them at the regular balls that took place in the town hall and these were the high point of her social life and, of course, are depicted in novels like ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

During their winter at Merriton the fictional _______shires would have been billeted, as was usual with officers, in the local inns and pubs. When the regiment in the novel moves to Brighton in the following May, presumably to brace itself for the imminent landing of the French, they were expected to bivouac in tents on the Downs and thus Lydia pictures, with her creative eye of fancy, ‘the glories of the camp, its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay and dazzling with scarlet’. If the officers of the _______shire Regiment were all as good looking at George Wickham, it is no wonder that they were popular with local ladies like the Bennet girls.

If, as has been suggested, the fictional Merriton is located on the east side of the Great North Road then it might be the Derbyshire Regiment, genuinely quartered there in the winter of 1794-5, that Jane had in mind. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in Jane’s imagination Darcy and Bingley are both Derbyshire men and friends of the _______shire officers who are described as ‘in general a very creditable, gentlemanlike set’.

The presence of these men added huge excitement to the rather dreary lives of the provincials. According to Mrs Chute, of the Vine, an acquaintance of Jane Austen, the South Devons created a great fracas during their time in Basingstoke. As Wickham himself says, ‘It was the prospect of constant society and good society...which was my chief inducement to enter the _______shire. I knew it to be a most respectable, agreeable corps and my friend Denny tempted me further by his account of their present quarters.’

Mary Russell Mitford, who knew the young Jane, would have us believe that she was an ‘affected, husband-hunting butterfly’ whose own reaction to such excitement would have been rather like that of the younger Bennet girls. I’m not sure it’s an entirely convincing description.

Militia regiments would hold reviews now and then, almost as a form of entertainment for the locals. The troops would spend a day marching, drilling, firing at targets and staging mock battles in front of some visiting general and an admiring crowd. Hence, Mr Bennet’s promise to Kitty, ‘If you are a good girl for the next ten years I will take you to a review at the end of them.’

And in the novel the sensible, good hearted Colonel Forster commanding the _______shires, whose new young wife had invited Lydia to Brighton to live in their household, is of course deeply embarrassed by Wickham’s elopement with her and he takes it upon himself personally to pursue the couple as far as Hertfordshire, though he soon has to give up as he cannot be absent from his regiment another day. And Forster is clearly as mindful of his social responsibilities to members of his own class as he is of his military ones and they’re very grateful for it.

Later we learn that Wickham had resolved on quitting the militia. ‘He has the promise of an ensigncy in General _______’s regiment now quartered in the North.’ And no doubt Darcy had used his influence to obtain a suitable posting for Wickham, one that, to Lydia’s disappointment, was well out of the way and where, as Mrs Bennet observes, ‘the officers may not be so pleasant’. And someone, of course, would have had to stump up the considerable sum required. The regulation price was £450 to purchase the ensigncy and, of course, we all assume it’s Darcy.

A darker side of life is hinted at in Chapter 12 of the novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when the Bennet sisters include among other social gossip the information that a private had been flogged. By the casualness with which they refer to it, their lack of concern at a man being beaten half to death, Jane Austen, with characteristic understatement, suggests the frivolity and immaturity of the girls.

As far as the authorities were concerned harsh discipline was necessary to control what Wellington famously called ‘the scum of the earth’. It should be said that there is ample evidence that not all soldiers could be so described. One regimental surgeon of the time wrote that he had ‘never, in any walk of life, fallen in with better men’ and it was perhaps only a minority who were incorrigible reprobates, whilst many a good man was led astray by the ubiquitous drink.

Some of the details that follow are a little strong stuff, as they say on the BBC, and may offend the sensitive.

The hapless private of the _______shires may well have been punished for drunkenness, if not for a misdemeanour such as shaving the top of his sock or, as genuinely happened once, persistently demanding the return of money borrowed by an officer.

Stripped to the waist, he would have been tied to a large iron triangle with his comrades in full dress formed up around him in a hollow square. At the colonel’s order to proceed, the drum major would have administered the punishment with a cat o’ nine tails. Anything from 35 to 350 lashes might have been laid on his back unless the kindly colonel – and I’m sure Forster was kindly – or concerned surgeon had intervened to call a halt to the proceedings.

A real-life victim of an army flogging was to describe the experience in 1831:

‘I felt an astounding sensation between the shoulders, under my neck, which went to my toenails in one direction, my fingernails in another and stung me to the heart, as if a knife had gone through my body. The sergeant major called in a loud voice, “One...”’

According to this writer, this first stroke seemed ‘sweet and agreeable compared to the second one’. You can only imagine how he felt after a hundred lashes, by which time his back had been reduced to a bloody pulp.

In those days corporal punishment was a civil as well as a military penalty and so it remained until 1868. Summary penalties were historically considered preferable to wasteful periods of imprisonment, no doubt as much by the recipients as by society in general. The prison system itself is a 19th-century innovation. There was, however, a growing revulsion to corporal punishment and it was precisely because of its brutal floggings that the Army was held in low regard by many.

Jane Austen herself probably took the enlightened view that flogging was a barbarity. There was still a whipping post in the marketplace outside Basingstoke Town Hall but it was no longer used because the magistrates were recruited from the local gentry, people like the Austens themselves, who would have been appalled at the idea. The absence of beatings in the private school that Jane’s father ran in the rectory at Steventon was no doubt part of its attraction to well-heeled parents who might otherwise have sent their sons to brutal public schools.

Despite the precision of her research Jane Austen’s novels can hardly be read for their detailed insights into army life so I cannot resist looking elsewhere, though not too far, for a fleeting glimpse. In December 1793 the 15th Light Dragoons descended on Reading, the medium-sized market town at which only a few years before Jane Austen went to school, and they took up billets at the Bear Inn.

One of the soldiers, the newly recruited Trooper Comberbache, was a shy, sensitive youth who seemed like a fish out of water. His comrades were perplexed and picked on him at first but his charming, unaffected manner soon won them over. He became a regular in the tap room at the Bear and he turned out to be a brilliant conversationalist and storyteller with a fund of stirring tales with which to entertain them. There was one about the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae and another about the crossing of the Hellespont by Xerxes. And these events were so vividly described that they assumed he must ha witnessed them personally.

They would roar with laughter at the manner in which he addressed all ranks. ‘Whose rusty gun is this?’ his officer once asked him sternly. ‘Oh, is it very rusty?’ said Comberbache, ‘because if it is, I think it must be mine.’

Chided for presenting a scruffy horse at an inspection, he remarked gently that, ‘It was a pity that the animal could not rub himself down and shake himself clean and so shine in all his native beauty.’ His manner must have been more disarming than insolent because other men had been flogged for less.

So the shy, educated Comberbache, who was terrified of horses and incapable of keeping his kit in order, was unprepared for the hardship of army life and clearly traumatised by the experience. In his misery he scrawled an inscription on the whitewashed wall of the stable beneath his harness peg. ‘Eheu! quam infortunii miserrimum est fuisse felicem,’ he wrote. ‘Alas, the unhappiest men are those who have known happiness.’

The inscription was inevitably spotted by the troop commander at his next inspection. Luckily for Comberbache the officer was Captain Nathaniel Ogle, brother-in-law to Sheridan and son of the Dean of Winchester, from a family known to Jane Austen, who had himself been classically educated at Winchester and at Merton College, Oxford.

Ogle, of course, recognised the paraphrasing of Boethius and he summoned the owner of the saddle to his presence.

‘Comberbache, did you write the Latin sentence which I’ve just read under your saddle?’

‘Please sir, I wrote it.’

‘Then, my lad, you are not what you appear to be. I shall speak to the commanding officer and you may depend on my speaking as a friend.’
And thereafter Comberbache was assured of his officers’ particular favour.

The officers of the 12th threw a ball for the benefit of the townsfolk at Reading and Ogle decided that it should be the gentlemanly Comberbache who would stand to attention at the door and look splendid in his full dress uniform. But as Ogle paused nearby between dances Comberbache overheard his conversation with another officer and that man misquoted a couple of lines in Greek and mis-attributed them to Euripides.

Comberbache could not contain himself. He coughed, ‘I hope your honour will excuse me but the lines you have quoted are not quite accurately cited. Moreover, instead of being in Euripides they will be found in the second antistrophe of the Oedipus of Sophocles.’ ‘Why, who the devil are you?’ said the astonished officer. Comberbache stood stiffly to attention, ‘The sentry sir, and your honour’s servant.’

He neglected to add that he’d been the Brown Gold Medallist at Cambridge for a Sapphic ode on the slave trade and runner up for the Craven Scholarship. Comberbache, as you may have guessed, was no ordinary recruit but the disguised poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the midst of a nervous breakdown and avoiding his creditors and the censure of his family through the anonymity of the ranks.

I think the story says much for the tolerance and good humour of the ordinary soldiers at the time and I think that the existence of such humane and erudite officers as the two we’ve just met there reflects very well on the purchase system. In the light of their glorious achievements in the 18th and 19th centuries there can be no question that they made for a brave, dutiful and effective Army of which the nation could be proud.
So thank you very much for listening.


Tommy McMahon
14 February 2012, 8.44am

Brilliant, Rupert. Most

Brilliant, Rupert. Most interesting and very enjoyable. Well researched.

6 April 2015, 9.28am

Thank you for a fascinating

Thank you for a fascinating read.

I do have a quibble re. fashion, though.

Austen's letters and what survives of her wardrobe show she was not personally indifferent to fashion, and her writing casts a discerning eye over "the spotted, the sprigged,the mull, or the jackonet."

Your "a la maison and rifle green" are clearly referenced in Ch. 6 of Northanger Abbey:- "I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine, in a shop window in Milsom Street just now--very like yours, only with coquelicot ribbons instead of green"

Coquelicot was a bright red made from a new mineral dye, so ladies could display their patriotism by sparing the cochineal from Spanish South America for the army's scarlet coats.

Later, Isabella wears a turban to the concert which Captain Tilney attends, but as her conquest was not as decisive as Nelson's of the Nile, she later informs Catherine "I wear nothing but purple now: I know I look hideous in it, but no matter--it is your dear [clergyman] brother's favourite colour."

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