England | The Victoria Art Gallery


Jane Austen’s England

This was a country at war for almost the whole of Jane Austen’s life. The American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars and then the Napoleonic Wars continued with only a short pause. This period of conflict and fear finally ended in 1815, just months before Austen’s death. We hear little about war in Austen’s novels, perhaps because it was so ever-present during the author’s lifetime that she felt no need to remind her readers of it. 

There were many other crises in England during Austen’s life: George III’s insanity led to his eldest son taking over the throne as Regent from 1811. Luddite Riots from 1811-13 resulted from poverty stricken labourers fearing that mechanisation would rob them of their livelihoods; in 1812 the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval was assassinated and in 1816, known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’ a volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies led to severe climate disruption and the failure of crops across Europe.

Although we see little of these crises and threats in Austen’s novels, they were an important aspect of the world that she and her characters lived in.

Image: An old sailor seated on a bench, By John Nixon, 1801

An old sailor seated on a bench

By John Nixon, 1801

‘We had better leave the Crofts to find their own level. There are several odd-looking men walking about here, who, I am told, are sailors. The Crofts will associate with them’  Persuasion

Naval men like Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion did well out of the Napoleonic Wars. Prize money from captured enemy ships meant that many ex-sailors were wealthy enough to retire to resorts like Bath.

Image: Prince of Wales, By James Gillray, 1802

Prince of Wales

By James Gillray, 1802

George III was king of England from 1762 to 1820. From 1811 until his death his state of mental incapacity led to his son, shown here, took over as Prince Regent. This was the period known as ‘The Regency’. Although Jane Austen is associated with the Regency period, most of her life took place during the Georgian era.

Image: A British Man-o-War in Harbour in the Tagus, Portugal, By Nicholas Pocock, 1809

A British Man-o-War in Harbour in the Tagus, Portugal

By Nicholas Pocock, 1809

The Napoleonic Wars affected much of Europe and lasted many years. This shows one small part of the conflict – the Peninsular War, which started with the French invading Portugal. The British came to the aid of the Portuguese. The Spanish foughtfirstly with, and subsequently against the French.

Jane Austen’s naval officer brother Francis fought in the Peninsular War.

Image: Horatio Nelson, By Lawrence Gahagan, 1805

Horatio Nelson

By Lawrence Gahagan, 1805

National hero Horatio Nelson had close connections with Bath. Several members of his family lived here, and he had come to Bath for spa treatment to aid his recovery from battle injuries. When he died, victorious, at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Jane Austen was still living in Bath.

The city held a ‘Day of Thanksgiving’, with militia parades, charity collections for the war wounded and a feast at the White Hart Inn.