British Life During the Napoleonic Wars (Yes, Including Jane Austen)

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, when the Duke of Wellington and a coalition of European allies finally sent Napoleon packing, ending two decades of armed conflict.

The battle looms large in the history of Europe, and God knows how much ink has been spilled over the last two centuries, dissecting battlefield tactics and the twinned personalities of Bonaparte and Wellington. But for a different perspective, you can pick up In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. The latest work from prominent UK historian and biographer Jenny Uglow, it traces events on the home front, from the radical clampdown after the execution of Louis XVI to wartime hunger and unrest to the jubilant celebrations after triumphs like Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. For instance:

There were the usual bell-ringings, bonfires, transparencies and illuminations and drunken parties. The twenty-year-old Humphry DAvy, travelling from Cornwall with his patron Davies Giddy to his new job at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, reached Okehampton just after the mail coach, decorated with laurel and streaming ribbons; from here onwards he could hear cheering and at night all the villages they passed glowed with candles. In Suffolk, the Bury St Edmunds MPs donated hogshead of beer for the people ‘to partake of the general Joy.’ In London the battle prompted a new panorama at the Naumachia, a theater in Fleet Street specially built to stage sea battles, while Thomas Dibdin’s The Mouth of the Nile, ‘a new Serio-Comic Intermezzo of Pantomime, Song, Dance and Dialogue,’ drew crowds at Covent Garden.


Oh, and: “Even Jane Austen abandoned her white satin cap and borrowed a ‘Mamaloue cap,’ modeled on Egyptian fez work, adorned with Nelson’s emblem. It was ‘all the fashion now,’ she explained, ‘worn at the Opera, & by Lady Mildmays at Hackwood Balls.’”

But Uglow’s approach—often following the diaries and letters of middle-class Britons like Austen’s younger brothers, who served in the Royal Navy—makes the book feel very intimate for an major historical work exceeding 700 pages. And so, in advance of today’s anniversary, I gave her a call and discussed what the Napoleonic War meant for people back home, from the upper crust to the working-class women left to make ends meet while their husbands fought Boney. And also Jane Austen, of course.

Obviously it was a very long war, and it’s very hard to characterize the experience of everyone in Britain. But to what extent did the war touch people in their everyday lives?

Well, the war touched the experience of every class of people in Britain. Partly because of the way army and militia and volunteers were organized, which was by county and then by what we call hundred, which is a division of land. So everywhere across the country, somebody would have been called up or balloted. So many families were affected, and particularly poorer workers. That meant there were less laborers on the land and less textile workers and so on. So women took many of those jobs.


Many of those families that were left behind in the poorer classes found time extremely hard. Then also in the merchant classes, trade was affected, industry was affected. And it’s a point at which people in Britain start taking their own initiative, start developing new industries or new ways of managing trade. And although everybody watched what was happening in the war, they were profoundly affected by the threat of invasion in 1798 and 1803 and also that sense that you always got the news late, so you didn’t really know what was happening. And anxiety about relatives in the navy or in the army was intense.

An English caricature riffing on the threat of a French invasion(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How were people receiving information from the front? How long does it take for accurate news of something like Trafalgar and its impact to really hit the people back home in Britain?

Well, the news comes in two ways, and it’s actually very interesting. All the papers—there’s a great boom in newspapers, national and local newspapers. and they all get dispatches sent out from London, and those are the official dispatches from generals or admirals that come back. And also detailed reports of debates in the House of Commons in the Parliament. Those fill the middle pages of these four-page newspapers. That of course takes time because you’re doing it by horse. So if you live a hundred miles away you’ll get the news a day late; if you live in Scotland or you live in the north of England, you get it three days late. But that’s the official version.


But the unofficial version, which comes through letters and particularly from soldiers or sailors, sort of trickles in, is often slightly at odds with that. Whereas we might be celebrating a victory, they’re actually telling you about the wounded or how chaotic it is. So people are getting two kinds of news. And the letters are circulated around families and around friends and so on.

The time varies tremendously. The Battle of the Nile, which was a great big victory in the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, that news took six weeks to reach Britain because the first lot of dispatches were captured by the French on the way. But Trafalgar, the news arrives with a fast sort of cutter in a couple of days. Some of the Peninsular War battles, it would take about a week, sometimes ten days for people to know. And then you might be celebrating a great battle like Trafalgar and then hear of a battle on land, Napoleon’s great victory at Austerlitz, which seems to wipe it out. But there are wonderful accounts in the letters of waiting for the news, hearing rumors and then actually waiting for confirmation of whether your husband is safe or not.


Say you’re a woman—not titled, not from the upper classes—whose husband is a common soldier fighting on the Peninsula or he’s a sailor, and you’ve got a couple of kids. What’s your life like as the war is unfolding? Because of course it goes on for 20 years.

Yes, indeed, and you often see your sons—your husband goes off, and then you see your sons grow up and go off, too.


Life was very hard. Of course some wives and women managed to go with the soldiers, and that’s another fascinating story. Each regiment could take a certain amount of women, and they traipsed around the continent with children after them. But the women who are left at home, there is a bounty when their husband joins up, and that goes quite quickly. And then soldiers and sailors try and send money home, but it often means that the woman is working hard as a laundress or a weaver or is taking her husband’s role in earning. And sometimes they can’t get the money, which means they have to go and claim poor relief and then their children might go off to work in the town. Some families did end up pawning everything they had and even ending up in a workhouse or so on. Others scrabbled by with help from relatives and so on. It’s a very hard time.

To what extent was that a popular concern? Obviously the middle and upper classes were very worried about riots and discontent. To what extent were they worrying about, say, the condition of Jack Tar’s wife?


It’s very like today, it’s a kind of double-think. So the upper classes and middle classes, in the prosperous mansions having breakfast, would feel great, great sympathy. And many did start up institutions and there are subscriptions raised locally, but they’re usually for the troops rather than people left behind. And there are special subscriptions after a battle for the families of the wounded, but the ordinary people, despite this great sympathy and visiting and handing out food and things, what nobody really wanted to do was to pay more on the poor rates, which are supposed to be supporting the poor. They’re at once sympathetic and profoundly resentful of the families on the road traveling, looking for work and so on. There is a tension and there is this division in the way people—even in the way one person might think about it. “Oh dear that’s absolutely terrible, but I hope they don’t put the poor rates up.”

That having been said, this wasn’t the sort of war that left the well-off untouched. How does the war affect the upper classes, specifically? That’s where much of the officer corps came from, right?


It’s affected in that, as you say, a lot of the officer corps did come from the upper classes, so they’re suffering the same kind of anxiety, separation. You get letters to the front telling them how their children are growing up and so on. It affected them financially, because of the perpetually increased taxes, so you do get quite a lot of letters from members of the upper class complaining that everything is now taxed. Servants are taxed, horses are taxed, their houses are taxed. Then when the new income tax comes in for the very first time in 1799, they’re extremely alarmed by that.

On the other hand, if you’re in the landed classes, if you’re an aristocrat with lots of land or a rich gentleman farmer or even a merchant or a banker who sees a good opportunity, then they are enriched by the war because of the shortage of wheat, which means they can charge more for their wheat and for their meat and their crops. Whereas the smaller farmers go under. So they’re buying up lots of small farms and they do very well out of the war. So financially, as is so often the case, the very rich and particularly the landed rich actually profit by the war.


What happens if you’re somewhere in the middle? You say the smaller farmers often got bought out, but it seems like there are opportunities if you have anything to do with making guns or barrels or something along those lines.

Absolutely. There’s a lot of opportunity. I mean the medium-range farmers, there’s a great boost and a great move ahead because the government for once is so keen to support agriculture. So there are lots of magazines, there are lots of ideas, new crops, new machines, new tools. There are interesting diaries about that. But there’s a whole swath of people who’re part of a war economy. There are the gunmakers and the big iron foundries, places that are making cannon and the traditional musket-makers in Birmingham, they’re raking in the money. But also uniforms, cloth and tailors, bootmakers, tentmakers—everything to do with actual military supplies does very well. And there’s also the bankers, because of the government raising loans, who are looking after all the tax before it goes to the government, who are investing and so on.


Canny people can do quite well. A milliner who buys a lot of stock which will see him over the cycle of trade will do very well. Others, perhaps in smaller operations, go bankrupt. So people do see opportunities. There always are. Builders, of course, there’s great building in the docks, and engineers and so on.

Again, it’s tough to characterize, but I’m curious how the war shapes the lives of women. you mention that a lot of women stepped in and took textile jobs, and you always think of World War II, for instance, loosening many restrictions. Are there particular ways the war changes the lives of women?


It’s interesting, it isn’t like the first world war or the second world war, where women actually get jobs they’ve never had and they’re going to munitions factories or they become drivers or land girls. It’s more that often women take on the traditional jobs—in the countryside women used to spin and the men would weave. Then you find local magistrates saying there are so many women weavers. And as those mills grow, they go into the mills. But I expected to find that thing of women being independent and being forced back into their traditional role when the war ends, but you don’t really find that. So there isn’t a radical change in women’s role, but they do have to be more self-sufficient while the war is continuing.

The war went from 1793 to 1815. What sorts of stretches were men gone for?

That really does vary. You could be gone for several years. For example, one soldier in my book— who serves in Flanders and then is back for a couple of months then goes to France and then goes off to India and that is for several years—doesn’t see his children growing up. Also the navy, you could certainly be gone for years, because the authorities were so anxious—again, not officers—that once the ships docked you’d dash off home. There was a great shortage of men. Very often they weren’t actually allowed to come on shore. Another one in India, i know that’s further away, is abroad for 12 years. It could be quite a substantial time. Others, particularly officers, do seem to come and go—a year, two years. Sometimes it might be a short campaign, in which case it’s three or four months. But you had to be prepared for a long absence.


it was really striking reading just how many people lost children to causes that had nothing to do with the war. You know intellectually but reading it with the diaries woven through, it’s just very striking.

It is. Infant mortality is very high, and I suppose, you know, that is the striking thing—again, it’s such a human thing. It’s hard to take in numbers; you might have 45,000 soldiers who die of fever in the West Indies in a few years, but if your child is dying through fever or through something terrible like an inoculation going wrong, that’s a major tragedy. And nobody ever really got used to the loss of their children. It wasn’t that people were hard and said “Oh, nevermind, i’ll have another one.” It is a perpetual thing that women in particular had to cope with. And the letters between women who’d lost children are very moving indeed. And also men, who are more emotional than you would think, more open than you would think.


Tell me about Jane Austen’s war. One of the things that’s always fascinated me in the way popular culture thinks about Jane Austen is the war often gets dropped in the adaptations and certainly in the way people think about her.

It does get dropped in the adaptations, doesn’t it? Sometimes there are brave ones like the Mansfield Park that talks about slavery.


Well, her war was typical of many who were sisters in the middle and upper classes. She had several brothers and her oldest brother, who’s a clergyman, becomes a volunteer, but that doesn’t take him away from home. But her two youngest brothers join the navy, Francis and Charles, and another brother, Henry, who is in the militia—he would have liked to buy a commission in the regular army but they couldn’t afford it so he’s in the sort of middle rank of the services, which is the regiments who stay at home and are sent around the country to police unrest here and then sometimes go abroad.

So she’s always in touch with what is going on. And you see it in the novels—her absolutely shrewd eye on the kind of glamour of the army, which was certainly true. People turned out to watch the volunteer parades, many women seduced by the red coats. In Pride and Prejudice where you have Wickham and the militia and you have Lydia longing to go to Brighton camp. In Mansfield Park and Persuasion, of course, where she writes about sailors, she’s very much using her brother’s knowledge of the sea and in fact actually got her brother to read some passages like about Portsmouth. She was in Portsmouth, in Southampton; she knew the scenes in the dockyards. And also I think she knew the financial pressures that people were under and the fear of unrest and riot, which you get in Northanger Abbey.


It just trickles through. It is like the rumbling background of middle-class life. Distant, and you can forget about it altogether because falling in love or looking after children is what really concerns you, but it is rumbling on and it is enclosing and affecting everybody.

You wrote a bit about how in the early days, there was concern about who was making up the body of the army. And obviously port cities have always had a complicated relationship with sailors. How did the way the common soldier was seen change over the course of the war? Were they valorized?


I think there is growing respect for the heroism of the common soldier, many of whom were poor and some even sent by magistrates instead of being sent to jail. Reports come home, particularly in letters, of the suffering, and also there are particular regiments like the Scots regiments who become sort of glamorized as leading the charge in their kilts. There is a support. And then towards the end of the war or during the Peninsular War, there’s a big campaign here about the fact that these troops are not treated properly, about issues like pay and flogging, punishment, how the government doesn’t sufficiently respect the people who are fighting for them, and lack of clothes, lack of proper uniforms. So I think people did become closer to the plight of the common soldier and the sailor.

Wellington giving orders to advance at Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Then when the war’s over, they park this giant triumphal arch practically across the street from Wellington’s house. But how is the common soldier remembered? Is he?

I’ve always felt quite strongly about this, if you can. It’s not until the late 19th, early 20th century that you get village or town war memorials that include the names of the ranks. You go into churches in Britain and you’ll see memorials on the wall to particular officers and so forth. But there are no war memorials like that. And the soldiers and sailors did feel very hard done by after the war. They came back, had a miniscule pension. Many of them were either wounded or weakened by fever. There was no proper care for them, so that probably every town in Britain—because the survival rate of amputations, for example, on the battlefield is really relatively high, 95 percent survive having an arm amputated, 65 or so a leg amputated—that means that all the wounded, all of those people, there are hundreds of thousands. People get very used to seeing crippled soldiers. But the provision for them is very low. So they are beggars or selling matches on the street, so on and so forth.


And their resentment often leads them to join with people who are striving for political reform anyway, because they feel that they have represented the country and now they they should certainly be represented at Parliament. So in the big campaigns for reform and the battles for reform shortly after the war, there are an awful lot of veterans. And at Peterloo, which was a big mass demonstration in 1819—that’s four years after the war ended—there are veterans of the army both in the crowd of demonstrators and in the cavalry troops that run them down. And it’s significant, I think, that the battle is called Peterloo. It’s in St. Peter’s Square, in Manchester. It’s sort of like Waterloo, that now there is a battle continuing at home.

Photos via Getty.

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