Jane Austen and the Battle of Waterloo
The 18th of June 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a key turning point in Britain’s history which marked the end of the Napoleonic wars. Laura Cox explores the background of the battle and Jane Austen’s links with the event.
Britain and France had been at war with one another from 1792 until 1815, with only two brief pauses in the conflict during this time. The Battle of Waterloo, which took place between the British and French forces in Belgium, ended the war. Since 1804, Napoleon had sought to establish a European empire spanning areas including Russia, Eastern Europe, Spain and Scandinavia as well as Great Britain. After a period in exile, in 1815 Napoleon returned to France and was marching on Paris.
The Congress of Vienna declared him an outlaw, and European nations readied themselves for battle. On the 18th of June, 1815, the armies fought throughout the day. The British forces were supported by Prussian, Belgian and German troops. Despite numerous casualties on both sides, key tactical errors (in particular Napoleon’s decision to delay his main attack), forced the French Imperial guard to retreat. Napoleon’s dream of a European empire was over by the end of the Battle. After his defeat, Napoleon was exiled and died a few years later.
Waterloo and Jane Austen
For over half of Jane Austen’s life, Britain was in a state of war, yet she omits the topic from her works. Critics have long debated Austen’s relationship with her social and historical context. Certain critics view Austen’s works as ‘narrow’ because they do not address the wider issues faced by society at the time. This is the view of lecturer Celia Brayfield. Speaking to the BBC, she said: "I think she [Austen] betrays her time and I'm always gob smacked by what she ignored. She focused on such a narrow strain of human reality. Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't the Napoleonic War going on at the time when she was writing, she doesn't mention it”.
In contrast, other critics, and readers, find this aspect of Austen’s work particularly favourable. David Noakes, in his text, Jane Austen: A Life, says: “Absence of war is a condition of Jane Austen’s fiction much prized by modern readers, who find great charm in her apparent depiction of a tranquil realm of domestic harmony and rural peace. The temptation to view Jane Austen’s chosen fictional milieu (‘3 or 4 families in a country village’) as a accurate social microcosm of Regency England has proved irresistibly beguiling to readers wishing to discover, in the pages of her novels, a lost England of innocent pride and family comic prejudices”.
Although critics such as Butler, who, in her landmark text Jane Austen and the War of Ideas links Austen’s work strongly to the context in which it was created, arguably Austen herself didnot seek to be recognised as a political writer. Although she touches on the topical issue of slavery within Mansfield Park, her works focus largely on the realm of the home and those within it. However, Austen’s world view, although not represented fully within her works, was far from as limited as certain critics suggest. Austen’s brothersFrank (1774-1865) and Charles (1779-1852), who fought for Britain as part of the Majesty’s Navy, were involved with the conflict and both later became Admirals.
Although no correspondence between Austen and her brothers regarding the Battle of Waterloo survives, it is highly probable that Austen’s familial ties would have provided her with information about the battle. It was a significant event for the entire nation; although the defeat of Napoleon was a cause for collective celebration, over 22,000 British men lost their lives in the battle meaning that a huge proportion of families would have been affected. Although Austen omits topical issues from her work, this does not mean she was simply unaware of the wider issues and events taking place within her own time.
A series of events to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle are taking place around Britain. Visit http://www.nam.ac.uk/waterloo200/events-venues/events-listing/ for more information.
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