Pride and Prejudice and the Napoleonic Wars
During Jane Austen’s lifetime, England was almost continuously at war. In 1793, when Jane Austen was seventeen, France declared war on Great Britain after tensions emerged between the two countries as a result of the French Revolution and the execution of the French king. These Revolutionary Wars lasted until 1802, when there was a brief period of peace, but then war resumed in 1803 as a result of Napoleon trying to expand his power. These series of wars lasted until 1815. Jane Austen wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice between 1796 and 1797 and then revised it significantly between 1811 and 1812 before its publication in 1813. At both these times, she was living in a period of warfare that she was very well aware of, especially because two of her brothers served in the British navy.
This wartime influence appears in subtle ways in Pride and Prejudice. For the characters in the novel, the arrival of the regiment is primarily interesting because it means the town will be filled with young men. However, readers at the time would have clearly understood that the presence of soldiers and militiamen signaled that the troops were gathered to prepare for the possible threat of a French invasion. The presence of these soldiers was also not always reassuring. A regiment of soldiers arriving in a town meant that there would be the presence of men who were often idle and bored. They could pose a risk in terms of drinking, mischief, and seduction of young women. Wickham’s rakish behavior suggests the possible risks of an active military presence within local communities. Austen chose not to directly reference wider geopolitical events in Pride and Prejudice. For many readers, this might seem surprising. However, the novel’s structure makes it clear that even during wartime the ordinary events of life continue and many civilians would not have necessarily been preoccupied with the war.