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Saturday, 30 April 2016

Was Jane Austen interested in Current Affairs?

Many have asked why Jane Austen apparently expressed so little interest in political and philosophical issues. The answer is that in private gossipy letters to a beloved sister with whom Jane shared a spiky sense of humour, it would be absurd to expect such material.

Chapman wrote in his Preface to the First Edition of the Letters: It would not have suited Jane Austen's sense of propriety to charge her sister sixpence (or thereabouts) for opinions on religion or politics, on life or letters, which were known already, or would keep.

Deirdre Le Faye in her 1995 Edition wrote in the Preface: The letters to Cassandra are the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters – hasty and elliptical, keeping each other informed of domestic events and occasionally making comments on the news of the day, both local and national.

In her novels, too, Jane chooses to insulate herself from serious matters in the wider world. She knew all about the horrors of the American War of 1810-1812, for example (her naval brothers could give her first-hand accounts), but her references to such matters (especially in Mansfield Park and Persuasion) could hardly be more minimal.

It is probable that the many letters to other persons (particularly the sailor brothers) contained references to political events. As those letters have vanished, we have only sisterly chat about the brothers: Charles has received 30£ for his share of the privateer & expects 10£ more – but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his Sisters. He has been buying Gold chains and Topaze crosses for us; – he must be well scolded. – The Endymion has already received orders for taking troops to Egypt – which I should not like at all if I did not trust to Charles' being removed from her somehow or other before she sails. He knows nothing of his own destination he says' (Letter 38).

The privateer was the Scipio. These very 'topaze' crosses are now impressive and moving exhibits in Jane Austen's house at Chawton. Jane was to use the idea of a sailor brother presenting such a cross to his sister in Mansfield Park, when William Price gave a similar present to Fanny.

In Letter 43, she tells Cassandra, The Ambuscade reached Gibraltar on the 9th of March & found all well; so say the papers. The point is not developed. She knows Cassandra fully understands.

In Southampton during January 1809, Jane reports her delight in receiving a letter from brother Frank in Bermuda: He had taken a small prize in his late cruize; a French schooner laden with Sugar, but Bad weather parted them, & she had not yet been heard of (Letter 66). From April 1811 we read: Frank is superseded in the Caledonia. Henry brought us this news yesterday from Mr Daysh – & he heard at the same time that Charles may be in England in the course of a month. – Sir Edwd Pellew succeeds Lord Gambier in his command (Letter 70).

In July 1813, Jane wrote to Frank, commanding the HMS Elephant in the Baltic. Her letter takes great interest and delight in his travels, and shows sisterly pride. She is sure he must benefit from the chance to see Sweden: Gustavus-Vasa, & Charles 12th, & Christiana, & Linneus – do their Ghosts rise up before You? ... according to the Map, many of the names have a strong resemblance to the English (Letter 86).

Three letters from Southampton in January 1809 refer to the fate of Sir John Moore and his forces. Jane's brother Francis, in command of the St. Albans, was to superintend the disembarkation of the remnants of our poor Army, whose state seems dreadfully critical (Letter 64). After the battle at Corunna, she wrote: This is greivous news from Spain. – It is well that Dr Moore was spared the knowledge of such a Son's death (Letter 66).

In the next letter there is a puzzling comment: I am sorry to find that Sir J. Moore has a Mother living, but tho' a very Heroick son, he might not be a very necessary one to her happiness. ... I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the Hero in his death (Letter 67).

Possibly Jane had in mind Sir John Moore's deathbed speeches, in which he expressed concern about the esteem in which he was held in England, rather than thoughts about God and the next world.