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Tolstoy vs Jane Austen

Readers of my Alexander Clay series may have noticed a similarity between the main character’s sister, Betsey Clay, and the early life of Jane Austen. Both came from a comparable background, both aspired to be novelists and both had brothers who served as officers in the navy. When Betsey comes to publish her first novel, just like Jane Austen, she does so anonymously.

None of Jane Austen’s six novels ever appeared under her name while she was alive. The late eighteenth century was an age with very definite ideas of what activities were acceptable for “well brought up” ladies. Their education was largely confined to the skills that would make them suitable wives for gentlemen. Jane Austen’s family were unusual in encouraging her in her writing. But they were more conventional in not wanting it widely known that their daughter was earning a living in this way. They were worried that it would destroy her prospects of marriage, as indeed it did.

I have often been struck by how little the effects of warfare intrude into Jane Austen’s work. For the majority of her short life, Britain was locked in a conflict which started when she was eighteen, and lasted with short breaks until two years before she died. Even if she was not engaged in the fighting directly, her brothers certainly were and her country was swept by a series of economic crises triggered by the strain of the conflict. Yet the only hint of a nation at war in her work, is the stream of convenient dance partners and villains, supplied by the officers of the regiment billeted in the neighbourhood.

Compare this with Tolstoy’s portrait of Russia in the same period, in his novel War and Peace. He shows a country being utterly transformed by the conflict. His romantic heroine, Natasha Rostov undergoes a series or traumatic events. Her home in Moscow is destroyed; her family is made destitute; her fiancé is badly wounded and her eventual husband spends time as a prisoner of war. While poor Natasha was struggling to cope with the horrors of a French invasion, Jane Austen’s heroine in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett, is enjoying a considerably less complicated war.

Of course, much of the difference between the novels lies in the circumstances of the two countries. Russia, along with most European nations, fielded a conscript army. This meant that virtually every family in the land would have a personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. More significantly Russia, unlike Britain, was successfully invaded by the largest army that the world had ever seen up to that point in history. Napoleon’s troops cut a wide swath of devastation across the most fertile parts of the nation, bringing flame and destruction with them.

It could all have been very different for Lizzy Bennett. The Grand Army of the French spent more time waiting at Calais for its chance to cross the narrow English Channel than they ever spent on the borders of Russia. In 1797, a small force of French troops did successfully land, near Fishguard in Wales. But as Admiral Earl St. Vincent jokingly put it when addressing Parliament, “I do not say that the French cannot come, I only say that they cannot come by sea.” He knew that while the Royal Navy was dominant, his country was safe from invasion, and Jane Austen could continue to write her charming novels, portraying a country largely unaffected by war.

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