On Pride and Prejudice

A World at War

By Lawrence Watt-Evans

One of the oddest features of Pride and Prejudice for some modern readers has nothing to do with the class structure, sexual morality, mercenary marriages or other oft-cited differences between Austen’s time and our own, but rather, the realization of just when the story is taking place and what was happening in the world at that time.

According to detailed analyses by Frank MacKinnon and R. W. Chapman, Pride and Prejudice opens in September of 1811 and reaches its happy conclusion late in 1812. This may be incorrect–they need to fudge at least one date, claiming Mr. Gardiner mis-dated a letter–but it does fit well with what we know of the story.

P. B. S. Andrews argues that the calendar better fits dates from 1799 through 1803. In either case, however, England was in the midst of the French/Na-poleonic Wars at the time. Thousands of men were fighting and dying on the Continent, yet Austen never once mentions France; the word “war” appears exactly once, in a reference to Elizabeth’s hope that the War Office will not send another regiment of militia to Meryton after the first is removed to Brighton.

Yes, England is raising militia at Meryton and then sending them to Brighton, presumably to defend against the possibility of a French invasion, but this does not appear to be a matter of any great concern to the Bennets or Darcys. When Wickham is given a commission in the regulars, the possibility that this might get him shot on a battlefield in  …

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