The impact of the Napoleonic wars

A time of war

NapoleonThe Napoleonic Wars grew out of the French Revolution (1789-1802) and were a series of conflicts fought by various European allies against Napoleon's French Empire. They began in 1803 and ended with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Britain was involved in the conflict throughout the Napoleonic Wars, but was specifically at war with France from 1803-1814. This long period of war sent ripples of dissatisfaction and unrest throughout British society:

  • The British middle and lower classes had been inspired by the American War of Independence (1775-1783) to demand freedom from the restrictions that the class structure imposed
  • Some were boosted further by the egalitarian sentiments at the root of the French Revolution - Liberty, Equality and Fraternity - and agitated for political reform
  • Others were disenchanted with the awful bloodshed of the Terror and their enthusiasm for reform was dampened whilst nationalism increased.

There were opposing views on the French Revolution and the ripples it was sending out across Europe. These were reflected in political treatises written toward the end of the eighteenth century:

  • Edmund Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in opposition to the French Revolution. He defends the model of a ruling class of nobles
  • Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke, supporting the French Revolution and arguing against aristocracy, monarchy, and the established church
  • Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man (1792), supporting popular revolt as a way of putting pressure on the government to safeguard the rights and interests of its people.

War in Austen's novels

Throughout Jane Austen's life there was war and unrest throughout the Western world, as European powers manoeuvred for control. In fact, her life was book-ended by war:

  • She was born the year of the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775)
  • She died two years after the allies defeated Napoleon at Waterloo (1815).

As a well-read and educated woman, Jane Austen was well aware of wars going on in the world at large, as well as being personally affected by them:

  • Her sailor brothers Frank and Charles fought in the naval campaigns against France
  • Her brother Henry was a member of the Oxford militia which protected England against the threat of French invasion
  • Her cousin Eliza married a French count who was guillotined during the French Revolution.

Nevertheless, Jane Austen has been criticised for not depicting the impact of war on Regency society in her novels. In fact, she does depict it as it would have affected the lives of those she was committed to representing in her novels. Soldiers and sailors move in and out of the pages of her novels:

  • The presence of the militia in Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion is crucial to plot development, and provides a vehicle for Jane Austen to comment on its effect on societal mobility
  • In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon's travels during his military career have widened his knowledge of the world
  • In Emma, Jane Fairfax's father is killed serving in the military
  • In Northanger Abbey, General Tilney and his son Frederick are military men.


As Britain faced war on multiple fronts, the slave trade continued to thrive:

  • British manufactured goods were shipped to Africa in exchange for slaves
  • Slaves were then taken to the Caribbean Islands where they were traded for raw materials
  • The raw materials were in turn shipped back to England.

At the same time, the Abolitionist movement was gaining momentum, and in 1807 the British Slave Trade Act was passed. This brought an end to the legal trafficking of slaves within the British Empire, although an illegal slave trade continued long afterwards. It wasn't until 1833 that slavery within the British Empire was abolished altogether with the Slavery Abolition Act.

Jane Austen's personal writings indicate that she disapproved of slavery despite the fact that her father and aunt were connected with it. She paints unflattering portraits of the two families in her novels who owe part of their fortunes to the slave trade:

  • In Emma Mrs. Elton's father is referred to as having made his fortune as a ‘Bristol Merchant', Bristol being a major slave-trading port
  • In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has a plantation in Antigua.
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