In Jane’s surviving letters, there are tantalizing hints of political awareness. It must be remembered that the surviving letters are a fraction of those actually written-Cassandra destroyed many more. It is a mistake to assume, based on the surviving letters, that Jane did not more fully express herself on political subjects and matters. In my opinion, it is also a mistake to assume a completely one-sided view on her part.
Let’s take a look for some hints at political views in Jane Austen’s surviving letters ( JANE AUSTEN’S LETTERS, ed. Deirdre LeFaye):

Letter 29 (p. 69) Reference to a threatened act of Parliament as not an issue of concern: per Ms. LeFaye, this referred possibly to measures in regard to alleviating the distress of the winter of 1800-1801 (one such measure involved fixing the price of wheat, which was vigorously opposed.)
Letter 61 (p. 154) Reference to politics (electioneering, canvassing)-Jane reported that, although offered the opportunity to run unopposed, Mr. Thistlewaite declined to run due to previous electioneering costs.
Letter 72 (p. 186) Reference to Weald of Kent-Canal Bill-Jane congratulates Edward because she read that the bill was delayed. “There is always something to be hoped from Delay – .”
Letter 79 (p. 202) Jane asked Cassandra if she could find out if “Northamptonshire is a Country of Hedgerows….” – this is a reference to enclosure (common lands being acquired and enclosed, usually for sheep, which affected not only the livelihood of others no longer able to access this land for open field farming or shared grazing, but also affected tithing (land in lieu of yearly tithes). [Enclosure was bad if for superficial reasons, such as improving a view; good if it will increase profit or efficiency, per Celia Eston’s article in PERSUASIONS.]
Letter 96 (p. 252) Reference to Napoleonic War –Jane’s letter referred to speeches in parliament: 11/4/1814: Marquis Wellesley, in the words of Mr. Pitt, indicated that England saved herself and others; 11/8/1814: The House of Lords thanks to Marquis Wellesley for skill and ability in action subsequent to battle of Vittoria (this reflected the Tory desire to win the war); see also remarks about Lady B (Brooks or Bridges?).
Letter 106 (p. 273-274) Reference to the War of 1812 – Jane discussed Henry’s opinion that England would not defeat America, but that England was a nation improving in religion, which Americans don’t possess (Jane’s view). (This reflects Tory conservative religious views.)

     In my opinion, these letters indicate that Jane Austen was in fact politically aware, and had definite opinions on the political issues of the day. I believe that this reflects a strong probability that women in general shared these traits, even though women could not vote and were discouraged from participating in political debate or discussion at any level.
     A frequent criticism leveled at Jane Austen’s novels is her failure to mention current events or political issues. In JANE AUSTEN Women, Politics, and the Novel, Claudia Johnson said on page 10: “Considered from within the compelling rhetorical structures conservative novelists build, to suggest, as Austen among many others, frequently does, that fathers, sons, and brothers themselves may be selfish, bullying and unscrupulous, and that the ‘bonds of domestic attachment’ are not always sweet, is to attack the institutions which make morality possible and so to contribute to the dissolution of the government.” She also says, “If, as we have seen, women novelists [Jane Austen included here] were able to appropriate a reactionary type in order to advance modest but distinctly reformist positions about female manners, they developed other narrative strategies to examine Burkean premises about marriage and patriarchy while eluding the accusation that they favored a radical reconstitution of society.” To summarize, these novelists made their commentary subtle, to avoid being accused of attacking societal norms or of being desirous of radical change, thus making their works acceptable while still getting their opinions out there.
     There are many political clues in Jane Austen’s novels. Looking specifically at PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and PERSUASION, I will address a few of them.
     PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was supposedly the most free spirited of Jane Austen’s novels, but was actually the most conservative, i.e. truer to older values and social structure (Johnson). Mr. Darcy is identifiably a Whig, as a wealthy landowner of high standing, who spent significant time in London, etc. (away from Pemberly), rich, definitely “high society” (he had danced at the Court of St. James, though seldom). Early in the novel, Darcy is seen as the handsome, wealthy, powerful hero (true to Cinderella story) but he had flaws and had to change to become worthy of winning Elizabeth. (Jane Austen showed a certain reluctant reverence for society, wealth and position, with Tory-esque values for individual merit and reward also). George Wickham was a classic Whig villain: although he was the son of Darcy’s father’s steward, he was treated as a son of the house, sent to Cambridge, and had expectations, which he squandered. Wickham expected advantages to be handed to him. After frittering away his advantages, he became a predator.
     Mr. Bingley, on the other hand, is recognizably a Tory, whose father made a fortune in trade; his success allowed his children to move up in society and become landowners. Mr. Bingley’s sisters especially aspired to Society roles (Whig “wanna-be’s”), as shown by Caroline’s relentless determination to catch Darcy. Other sympathetic Tory figures were the Gardiners: Mr. Gardiner was successful in the City, yet the couple’s manners and deportment made them acceptable in society.
     The Bennets themselves reflect the political divide. Mr. Bennet was a landowner and gentleman (inherited entailed property) who had no occupation. He married beneath him socially (she had a pretty face, was not educated, and brought little to the marriage). He was occupied with his own interests and place. Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth and Jane had the intelligence and ability to be able to fit into higher strata of society, while Mrs. Bennet and the younger girls did not. Elizabeth, as a gentleman’s daughter of charm, wit and intelligence, was found worthy of Mr. Darcy, despite the disparity of fortune and status. (This is a suggestion that Jane Austen may have felt that reform of social order was needed to allow for individual merit, but the hierarchical structure still basically sound. (CAMBRIDGE COMPANION P. 156.)
     In PERSUASION, Jane Austen’s last novel, her opinions had clearly matured. Sir Walter Elliot, Elizabeth Elliot, Lady Russell, the Dalrymples, Mary Musgrove are all classic Whig characters, convinced that  title, inherited wealth and property conferred status, regardless of personal merit. They did not perceive or readily value individual efforts to improve one’s circumstances. Of these, Lady Russell was the only one who really made an effort to value Capt. Wentworth as a man of merit because of her fondness for Anne. Anne Elliot was born a Whig, yet embraced the concept of earned value. Mr. Elliot was a Whig villain in the story: he was the heir to the title, the property entailed to him. Mr. Elliot lived in London “Society”, and married beneath him for gain. When his fortunes declined, he decided to reacquaint himself with Sir Walter and the family. His pursuit of Anne was predatory, to gain influence over Sir Walter, and to ingratiate himself. There are some striking similarities between Mr. Elliot and Wickham.
     Captain Wentworth, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, Captains Benwick and Harville represent a Tory ideal: they rose through their own merits; their personal worth made them acceptable and valuable. They embodied intelligence, hard work, and solid values and merit. Capt Wentworth being the hero and victorious suitor, combined Anne’s regard for his family and friends, show Austen’s solid Tory leanings and her ideas of the best company.
     Clearly, women’s interest in politics depended hugely on what issues had direct impact on them personally, and on the amount of information about the issues to which they had access. Literate women with access to print matter, including newspapers and gazettes, broadsheets, pamphlets, etc. would, for the most part, have been in households with the ability to provide the materials, and with the opportunity and time to read them. I submit that any woman who had family members participating in the war, or who had the opportunity or the ability to observe the effects of inequities in law (as in inheritance laws, debtor laws, civil penalties, etc.) would have some interest in political matters. Jane Austen, in particular, was encouraged to read widely and had multiple family issues, ranging from inheritance to war, which make it highly unlikely that she took no interest in politics. Although clearly having Tory sympathies, there are indications that she is not totally biased. There are hints of certain older establishment sympathies as well. I think it highly possible that Jane was actually of a moderate persuasion, perceiving the positive and negative of both the Whig and Tory positions. The glancing references in her letters and the subtle clues in her books assure us of her knowledge of these matters but only hint as to her opinions.
Washington & Lee University, “The World of Jane Austen” 2009 Alumni College – Dr. Taylor Sanders- Lectures: ‘The British Empire at Full Attention (or Why were all those men in uniform?)’ on 7/21/09, and ‘The Court Jester: Was George III Truly Mad?: The Political Scene’ on 7/23/09; Dr. Marc Conner-Lecture ‘The Economies of Jane Austen: Wealth/Religion/Marriage’ on 7/24/09. (Outlines and my notes)
Austen, Jane. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. London: 1813.
PERSUASION. London: 1817.
Copeland, Edward and McMaster, Juliet, ed. THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO JANE AUSTEN. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. “Religion and Politics” by Gary Kelly, PP. 149-169.
Erickson, Carolly. ROYAL PANOPLY Brief Lives of the English Monarchs. “Epilogue: Historical Turning Points, ‘England in 1714’”, pp. 350-352. New York: History Book Club, 2003.
Johnson, Claudia L. JANE AUSTEN Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
LeFaye, Deirdre, ed. JANE AUSTEN’S LETTERS. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Mitchell, Leslie. THE WHIG WORLD. London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2005.
PERSUASIONS, No. 24, 2002. “Jane Austen and the Enclosure Movement: The Sense and Sensibility of Land Reform,” by Celia Easton. PP. 71-89.
Pool, Daniel. WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE AND CHARLES DICKENS KNEW From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
ELECTIONEERING (from Robert Southey’s “Letters from England,” written in 1802 [originally published in 1807])
On-Line Research Sources:
Bloy, Dr. Marjory. A WEB OF ENGLISH HISTORY – THE AGE OF GEORGE III. http://www.historyhome.co.uk
FIND A GRAVE http://www.findagrave.com
THE EFFECTS OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION ON POLITICS , http://www.factmonster.com/ce6/history/A0858818.html
GEORGIAN BRITAIN: British History Under George I/II/III/IV and William IV http://www.ukstudentlife.com/Britain/History/Georgian.htm
A WEB OF ENGLISH HISTORY: THE AGE OF GEORGE III http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/ministry/ldgrenmi.htm
THE GEORGIAN INDEX http://www.georgianindex.net/Election/election.html
REGENCY COLLECTION. “Whig or Tory?” http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~awoodley/regency/whig.html

Women and Politics In Jane Austen’s Time

     As we are heating up for presidential elections, politics of course is becoming all-consuming.  What were politics like in Jane Austen’s time, and what were women’s concerns?  This is a big subject, and I would like to present some thoughts in a two-part article.  The first will present some thoughts and information about the political situation of the time; the second will address some ideas about politics and Jane Austen’s novels.


     Politics in Jane Austen’s time have little in common with politics today.  Before 1832, only 5 to 6% of the male population could vote, made up largely of aristocrats who were large property owners.  Parties (and party loyalty) were much more fluid.  Rhetoric was much more uncontrolled.  After the French Revolution, a more cautious spirit pervaded the English political landscape, reigning in ideas of change and individual rights.  Although women had been actively involved with politics in the previous generation (witness the Duchess of Devonshire and her sister soliciting votes for the Whigs, and the political hostess Mrs. Crewe; and women at the lower ends of the social scale participating in mobs and rallies), by the time Jane was a young woman, women were discouraged from concerning themselves directly with political activity.  Does that mean that women, and in particular Jane Austen, were uninformed or uninterested in politics?  For that matter, what were the issues in politics during Jane’s time that might have interested women? 

     A general political overview is helpful.  In Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Whigs succeeded in removing James II (and the exclusion of James VII/II from the throne) and establishing a constitutional monarchy  (William and Mary, followed by Queen Anne; after Anne’s death, Elector of Hanover was invited to rule.)  The Whig party felt that they had saved the realm and expected to be rewarded.  They embraced ideals of the American and French revolutions, but wanted to retain the existing structure.  Whig power declined due to their support of the French Revolution (popular until the Terror and the executions of the King and Queen).   The Tory government was much more conservative, wanted to win the Napoleonic Wars, and concerned with  fiscal responsibility.

     Political parties were not like today.  Membership was fluid: members of all sides switched with various issues.  There was cooperation as well as conflict (see Ministry of All The Talents-both Whigs and Tories –formed by Lord William Grenville, in place 2/1806-3/1807).  Party affiliations were often drawn along the lines of one issue, which resulted in strange partnerships and fluid alliances.  Forming of factions was characteristic of the period.  There were three basic groups active during this time, with movement back and forth at will.

     The Whig party supported a landowner-controlled monarchy (constitutional), and was somewhat reform minded (i.e. favored education as expected gratitude and support, supported some expansion of suffrage but didn’t expect or desire basic social structure/class changes), and sought electoral, parliamentary and philanthropic reforms within their constitutional position.  They resented the king’s control of patronage.  The Whig families controlled polite Society  (The “Upper 400”, the London season).  During Jane Austen’s era, they were the minority party, but still wielded great power on the social level.   They supported Prince of Wales.  George III hated the Whigs.

     The Tory party supported strong monarchy, and the Church of England.  More conservative, the Tories considered moves toward political reform dangerous.   Hard work, and personal worth allowed individual advancement.   The Tories took a more pragmatic, fiscal-minded view, and believed that the king should determine the direction of the state.   Country gentry, tradesmen and official administrative groups were most often allied to Tory goals.

     A third group, the Radicals, were much more independent.   They wanted broad reforms (expanded suffrage, broader religious freedom, etc.)

     Parliament was made up of two houses: the House of Lords consisting of peers of the realm (dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons), with the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England (Pool, p. 35), and the House of Commons (from the Norman French “Communes” or localities-elected from boroughs (towns) in the shires by electors whose right to vote was determined by sheriffs and the rules varied widely.)  For elections, seats were not linked to population, so representation was uneven, and a disproportionate number of seats were controlled by a few powerful men.  As a result of the Septennial Act of 1716, parliamentary elections were required every 7 years, with by-elections held between the general elections to replace a sitting member who died or resigned.  A very small number  were eligible to vote, and votes were bought and sold (both parties involved with this, even though illegal).  Public opinion had little effect on outcomes.  “Pocket boroughs” were small localities owned by one man who controlled the few resident voters, and were even bought and sold (see Duke of Bedford, Duke of Devonshire).    Both parties (Whigs and Tories) were entrenched in political system of patronage and nepotism.

      Jane Austen is often considered a Tory sympathizer, but did not disclose her personal opinions at length, as far as we know.  (Her brother Henry in 1818 was at pains to state that she was “thoroughly religious and devout” and “her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.” (CAMBRIDGE COMPANION p. 154)  This implies strong Tory leanings.)   Her mother Cassandra Leigh was connected to James Brydges, the 1st Duke of Chandos and Lord Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, but her immediate family had no money or influence (her father was a clergyman).   Jane’s father’s family was professional (George Austen’s father was a surgeon, his uncle a lawyer).  (George Austen was born in Tonbridge in Kent, one of four children of William Austen, a surgeon, and Rebecca (nee Hampson).) Both parents died before George was nine, and he was raised by his uncle, Francis Austen, a wealthy lawyer, who paid for George’s education at Tonbridge School and St. John’s College, Oxford.  In 1755, he was ordained in Rochester Cathedral.

                Various factors in Jane Austen’s life would have awakened an interest in many issues.  Her father, George Austen, a landless clergyman, had no money or property, leading to inheritance problems for his daughters.   Her cousin Eliza was the daughter of an East India merchant and her father’s sister who was sent out to India to find a husband (again, no money); Eliza’s mother took her to France where she married a minor French aristocrat connection.  During the French Revolution, Eliza’s husband was guillotined, a victim of the Terror.  (Eliza subsequently married Jane’s brother Henry.)  Jane’s  brother, Edward Austen-Knight, was a landowner with money, but had to be adopted to achieve his rank and fortune.    She had two brothers in the Navy, participating in war; for both the rank of admiral was achieved-they rose by merit and hard work.

     There were specific political issues that would be of particular interest to women, including Jane Austen.  First would be war; with husbands, fathers, sons, etc. going to war, there was a loss of protection and income for many (pay was slow to come, if issued at all; prize money could not be counted on).  Secondly were moral issues, such as the questions of slavery, and civil and criminal laws and penalties.  Although the slave trade was abolished in 1807, ownership was still legal.  Aunt Perrot’s trial for theft of a card of lace would have been an immediate concern, especially as possible penalties included being transported to a penal colony.  Thirdly, and for many most importantly, were marital issues; although much was written about love, marriage had more to do with property.  Frequently, family pressure was applied to compel young people to marry appropriately.  Once married, women had little or no control of their assets (in essence, they and anything they owned became the property of their husbands).  Divorce was hugely expensive and time-consuming, involving a  petition to Parliament; women had great difficulty gaining custody of children, or funds. 

     Another issue of huge importance was inheritance law-the issues primogeniture (property and money going to the oldest son), entail (restrictions on the disposal of property), etc. limited women’s ability to inherit.  With few opportunities available to support themselves, women were frequently left at the mercy of the intentions and generosity of male family members to provide support.

     General reform was a major topic of the day on many levels.  Regarding slavery issues, William Wilberforce (and his Anti-Slavery league) was active during her life.  Although the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished in 1807, there was still on-going activity to abolish ownership of slaves.  In education, Hannah Moore (a prolific writer, founder of schools) and Mary Wollstonecraft (who wrote about women’s education) brought issues of education to the forefront,  as availability of education to all was not considered a right, or even desirable.  Election reforms, including suffrage and other rights for Catholics and non-landowners were also major issues.   In the political climate of the time, given the loss of the American colonies and the French Revolution leading to the destruction of French society and the rise of Napoleon, these were sensitive issues, not to be embraced lightly. 

    The fear of revolution in Britain was real, and issues of reform exacerbated these fears.  Indeed, laws were passed to restrict the press from publishing material that could be construed as critical or seditious.


Washington & Lee University, “The World of Jane Austen” 2009 Alumni College – Dr. Taylor Sanders-  Lectures: ‘The British Empire at Full Attention (or Why were all those men in uniform?)’ on 7/21/09, and  ‘The Court Jester: Was George III Truly Mad?: The Political Scene’ on 7/23/09; Dr. Marc Conner-Lecture ‘The Economies of Jane Austen: Wealth/Religion/Marriage’ on 7/24/09.  (Outlines and my notes)

Austen, Jane.  PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.  London: 1813.

                          PERSUASION.  London: 1817.                       

Copeland, Edward and McMaster, Juliet, ed.  THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO JANE AUSTEN. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.  “Religion and Politics” by Gary Kelly, PP. 149-169.

Erickson, Carolly.  ROYAL PANOPLY Brief Lives of the English Monarchs.  “Epilogue: Historical Turning Points, ‘England in 1714’”, pp. 350-352.  New York: History Book Club, 2003.

Johnson, Claudia L.  JANE AUSTEN Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 

LeFaye, Deirdre, ed.  JANE AUSTEN’S LETTERS. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Mitchell, Leslie.  THE WHIG WORLD. London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2005.

PERSUASIONS, No. 24, 2002.  “Jane Austen and the Enclosure Movement: The Sense and Sensibility of Land Reform,” by Celia Easton.  PP. 71-89.

Pool, Daniel.  WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE AND CHARLES DICKENS KNEW From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

ELECTIONEERING (from Robert Southey’s “Letters from England,” written in 1802 [originally published in 1807])

On-Line Research Sources:

Bloy, Dr. Marjory.  A WEB OF ENGLISH HISTORY – THE AGE OF GEORGE III.  http://www.historyhome.co.uk

FIND A GRAVE http://www.findagrave.com

 THE EFFECTS OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION ON POLITICS , http://www.factmonster.com/ce6/history/A0858818.html    

GEORGIAN BRITAIN: British History Under George I/II/III/IV and William IV http://www.ukstudentlife.com/Britain/History/Georgian.htm 

A WEB OF ENGLISH HISTORY: THE AGE OF GEORGE III                                                 http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/ministry/ldgrenmi.htm

THE GEORGIAN INDEX http://www.georgianindex.net/Election/election.html 

REGENCY COLLECTION.  “Whig or Tory?”  http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~awoodley/regency/whig.html