Lest We Forget

On this Anzac Day in Australia, many of us remember the battles of various wars and those who lost their lives. The day is particularly attached to World War 1 and terrible tragedy on the shores of Turkey.

Australian war graves at Tyne Cot in France

Australian war graves at Tyne Cot in France

Last year I accompanied my friend to the sites of the WW1 battles in France and Belgium where Australian soldiers fought alongside the Allied troops.  It was an enriching, inspiring tour as our knowledgeable guide Joe not only took us to all the sites but gave us extra stories every day about events there.  We found the two headstones of my friend's forebears who died in these fields. A third name was listed on the Menin Gate as his body was never found.  We were there for the sunset ceremony that draws hundreds every night of the year.

Jane Austen's life paralleled the years of the war against the French, from 1793 to 1815.  She had particular knowledge about the Navy through her two brothers, Frank and Charles, both Captains at the time. But she chose not to write explicitly about these events writing: "Let others dwell on guilt and misery.  I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can."  While this comment was ironic as we know, at the same time there are many details about the wars subtly hidden away in the text of her novels.  For her contemporary readers the war was still fresh in their minds.  In her novels details were sparing, but they were sufficient for them to recognize all the clues that were in the text.  She paints an accurate picture of a young boy's entry into the navy, and the patronage needed.  We have clues to the broad strategy of the war.  we see the effects of prize-money, or the lack of it.  We see the social revolution begun by the successful, like Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft, with the Louisa Musgrove's of the day waiting for the marriageable officers like Captain Benwick.  We see the plight of disabled men in Mr Price and Captain Harville, one whose idleness and dissipation results in a life of poverty and chaos for his family, while the other, with his hard work and economy, create a charming, cheerful home for his family and friends.  We see the navy on dry land in two novels, one with a sailor on leave, the other with sailors returning home in the peace.

Most of all we see the stories of young women solitary at home while their loved ones brave the war at sea.  Their stories reflect all the sisters, wives and mothers during the war. There were 100,00 seamen who did not return to their families, the loss of all these brothers, husbands and fathers another factor in the social revolution caused by these long years of war.  Through her brothers Jane Austen was well aware of the world beyond her immediate circle.  By keeping her novels reflecting her lifestyle of visiting friends and family, and the naval aspects interwoven into the narrative flow, she remained true to her principle of restricting herself to areas with which she was familiar.