|Jane Austen As A Monarchist|
|Written by Susannah Fullerton|
|Tuesday, 08 April 2003|
Transcript as released by the Office of Research and Education
JANE AUSTEN AS A MONARCHIST
The powers and the role of the monarchy were important issues in Jane Austen’s lifetime and they were issues which she commented on in her letters and explored within her fiction. She certainly heard both sides of the debate – just across the channel was a country which sent its royals to the guillotine – and she came down firmly on the side of retaining and respecting the monarchy.
The Hanoverians had been on the throne for sixty years when Jane Austen was born into a clergy family in 1775. George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1821, was on the throne throughout the whole of Joan Austen’s short life, but he was not in power for all of that time. He showed the first sign of ‘madness’ (thought now to be the disease Porphyria) in 1788 and by 1811 was so unwell that his son, George, Prince of Wales, took over as Regent. By the time he came to the throne as George IV, Jane Austen had been dead four years. The problems of a Regency were much commented on in the press during these years and Jane Austen picked up the theme in Mansfield Park. In that novel the landowner and ruler of the house, Sir Thomas Bertram, has to travel abroad to see to his estates in the West Indies. In his absence he hands control of the house and estate to his eldest son, Tom. How Tom deals with this responsibility and what occurs during Tom’s own small “Regency” are vital aspects of the book.
Jane Austen, like most English people of the time, admired and respected George III. Frugal, domestic, conscientious and rural, the King was popularly known as Farmer George. It is no coincidence that Jane Austen named her gentleman farmer hero, the man who benevolently watches over the guides the Highbury community, “George” Knightly. The Austen family were Tory in their politics (like the King) and Jane Austen’s two brothers served their King loyally in the Royal Navy, defending England from an invasion by Napoleon.
The Prince Regent, however, was a man she found harder to admire. A Whig in his youth (mainly to spite his father), the Prince was a womanising spendthrift whose marital difficulties kept the Regency world enthralled. He and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, fought out their battle for popular sympathy very publicly and Jane Austen had no hesitation in declaring herself sympathetic to the Princess. “I suppose all the world is sitting in judgment on the Princess of Wales’ letter”, she wrote to a friend in 1813, when the Prince had published a letter to her estranged husband. “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a woman and because I hate her husband”.
Her dislike was not reciprocal. So great an admirer was the Prince of Jane Austen’s novels that he kept a set of them in each of his royal residences. Shortly before the publication of Emma, Jane Austen was in London and the Prince’s librarian came to hear of her visit to the metropolis. He got in touch, inviting her, on behalf of the Prince, to Carlton House. There she was given a guided tour and, at the end of her visit, informed that the Prince would be pleased if Jane Austen’s next novel could be dedicated to him. She may not have admired the Prince’s morals, but she did respect and approve of royalty (she also hoped royal approval might increase her sales) and so Emma was duly “most respectfully dedicated, by His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant, The Author”.
There were many climactic events during Jane Austen’s lifetime which helped to confirm her monarchist principles. The American War of Independence, which began the year of her birth, resulted in Americas cutting their ties with Britain and its royal family. This process involved plenty of the violence and bloodshed she deplored. When she was five years old the Gordon Riots took place in London – prisons and other buildings were burned down, lives were lost and mob rule took over for some days before law and order could be restored (Jane Austen refers to this event obliquely in Northanger Abbey). Most citizens of Regency England were appalled and felt such behaviour was the first step towards revolution. Most influential of all, however, was the French Revolution. Jane Austen had a cousin, Eliza, living in France who fled to England when revolution broke out. Eliza’s husband, the Comte de Feuillide, was not so lucky. Unable to escape, he was amongst the thousands of aristocrats who were led to the guillotine. For the rest of her life, Jane Austen held a very low opinion of the French as the people who had permitted the murder of their King and Queen.
Jane Austen was not a novelist who disliked change. Indeed, her novels suggest that reform was desperately needed when it came to the position of women, slavery, the conditions of the poor and church corruption. As a teenager Jane Austen had explored the virtues and vices of many English monarchs in her delightful A History of England. Some of the individual monarchs, she suggests, were not everything they could have been. But the monarchy, she felt, was an institution which had served her country well for many centuries and which would continue to do so.
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