What was the difference between the militia officers found in Regency-based novels such as Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and the Regulars, such as Colonel Fitzwilliam, in the same book?
At the time of the war with Napoleon, Great Britain did not employ a standing militia. They were only recruited when the Regulars were required to engage the enemy. The militia assumed the “policing” of the country in the absence of the Regulars. They served on home land. They were dispensed to squash riots and seditious actions. They protected British soil while the Regulars engaged the enemy outside of the home land. The militia was often dispatched to shires away from their homes to avoid their sympathizing with those they were charged to dispatch. In Pride and Prejudice, the militia which Mr. Wickham joins in Hertfordshire, is supposedly peppered with Derbyshire volunteers.
“In the novel the anonymous regiment of – shires caused a considerable stir on its arrival in the quiet country town of Meryton – and among the Bennet family of five unmarried daughters. “. . . They were well supplied both with news and happiness by the recent arrival of a militia regiment in the neighborhood; it was to remain the whole winter, and Meryton was the head quarters.” (P&P 28). The regiment and its officers figure prominently in the fortunes of the Bennet family for the remainder of the novel. Jane Austen’s own experience of the militia was probably not too different from that of the Bennet sisters. From about the age of sixteen she began to attend the monthly assembly at the town of Basingstoke, about seven miles distant from her home village of Steventon. Here, during the winter of 1794-95, the assemblies would have been graced by officers of the South Devon Militia: three of their eight companies were quartered in Basingstoke. Their colonel was John Tolle, Member of Parliament for Devonshire since 1780, whose support for William Pitt, the Prime Minister, had made him the butt of the opposition Whigs in the mock-epic Rolliad. The officers of the South Devonshires would have enlivened local society just as the -shires did at Meryton. As they all came from the neighborhood of Exeter, it is likely that Jane Austen heard a great deal about that area from them, and it is probably not coincidence that when she wrote the beginnings of her first mature novel in the summer of 1795 about two girls called Elinor and Marianne, she set their new home, Barton, in South Devon “within four miles northward of Exeter” (SAS 25).” (Breihan and Caplan: Jane Austen and the Militia)
“Pride and Prejudice takes place in Regency England during the French Revolution, which began in 1789. To combat the threat of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, militia forces were moved across the countryside to lie in wait of an attack at camps where they were involved in training sessions. Landowning aristocrats generally led the militia of their locality, although the soldiers of each regiment came from various places. Though the militia was made up of volunteers, a commission was needed to enroll. With the Militia Act of 1757, which created a more professional force with proper uniforms and better weapons, the militia became seen as a more respectable occupation, especially for younger sons who would not inherit land.” (The Militia in “Pride and Prejudice”)
Few members of the militia were trained in military tactics, such as shooting, horsemanship, or use of a sword. They were required to have their own guns to be a member of the militia. Those picked or volunteering for militia duty in the rank and file served five years, while some served for seven years. Officer commissions were not available (as opposed to those in the Regulars). Those who held rank in the militia received that rank based on how much land the family held. Captain Denny in Pride and Prejudice would need either to be the heir of land worth at least £400 per year or actually own land worth at least £200 per year. Although we are given nothing of Denny’s background in Austen’s novel, we are told that George Wickham becomes a lieutenant in the Meryton militia. This is a bit confusing to many who know something of military history, for a lieutenant in the militia would be required to hold land worth £50 per year. If Wickham had nothing of his own upon which to depend, how did he receive his lieutenancy? Most experts speak of a lowering of the standards for the few who would qualify as a junior officer otherwise, meaning Wickham held a gentleman’s education, making him “qualify as a junior officer.” The wages presented to the officers was only to cover their expenses, not replace their income from their land.
All Protestant males were required to be available for the militia. There was a quota for each area. A local nobleman (customarily referred to as the Lord Lieutenant) was charged “by the King” (or rather by the King’s spokesman) to gather a force of able-bodied men between the ages of 18 – 45 to serve as part of the country’s militia. A local landowner was appointed as the “colonel” in charge of the men of the unit. These men were “guaranteed” not to know service outside of the homeland, meaning they would not know the battlefield frequented by professional soldiers. They also experienced a steady social life provided by the local gentry. Only clergymen were exempt from this duty.
There were substantial signing bonuses during the wars as the militia, Regulars and volunteers competed for the same pool of men, so anyone from outside the county would and did join the militia for the bonus and pay. Parishes were fined if they did not raise the required numbers of militiamen, so they were happy to have anyone fill the rosters, paying a bonus that was far less than the fine. And of course, sooner or later the parishes and Regular army learned not to pay the bonuses before the men were marched away. More than a few made a living by receiving the bonuses and then skipping out, only to ‘enlist’ again someplace else for bonuses there. A man who did not wish to serve could pay another to serve in his stead. They were offered between £25 and £60, which was equivalent to a year’s wage for many in the Regency.
As part of the community, as well as the neighborhood, there was a certain sense of pomp and circumstance as part of the militia. They would conduct military reviews (much as we see in reenactments today). This would include close order marching, marksmanship contests, and even staged “fights” for the entertainment of the neighborhood.
In any case, when Napoleon returned from Elba, the militia were called up and regular army volunteers were asked for from the militia, both officers and men. A number went to Belgium, but the militias were held in readiness on the coasts during and after Waterloo. After Waterloo, there was an effort to stop the surge in smugglers and ex-patriots trying to escape a now Monarchial France, landing along the English coasts.
Because of the militia riots of 1813, militias were more often kept in the county of origin in small groups across the countryside. Most Regular Army units were not disbanded or reduced until the fall of 1816, so the militia would not have been sent to their homes until about the same time, depending on the mood of the county folks and the coastal activity.
We must recall that what we term as the “Napoleonic Wars” is a twenty year period, 1792-1815. There were several kinds of militia during this time, including yeomanry, fensible, and volunteer organizations. The threat of invasion and the desperate need for manpower in the Regular army also affected how and where militia were used. There were very few barracks at all at the start of the Napoleonic wars, better than 85% of the ones existing for militia and Regular troops in 1815 were built during the wars. And then there are the various militia revolts which colored the way militia was deployed in later years.
Austen began Pride and Prejudice about 1796 and did not publish it until 1813, sixteen years later, so the when of the book and the militia being stationed in her area likely changed quite often based on training for several different reasons… and types of militia.
“Reading Pride and Prejudice, one may notice that there is a conspicuous lack of war in the text despite the historical context of the Napoleonic Wars and the near-constant presence of the militia. The soldiers Austen depicts are more likely to play card games or dance rather than tell tales of bloodshed, partly because the militia received few chances to fight. The aristocrats that led each local militia tended to be corrupt as well, handing out promotions in exchange for money or sexual bribes. Lydia’s fantasies exemplify the moral laxity of the militia; she imagines ‘the streets of that gay bathing place covered with officers… She saw all the glories of the camp; its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once’ (262). Lydia’s description reveals the militia’s superficial attractions, one of which is novelty–the militia are still a new enough presence in England to appear young and gay and dazzling in their uniforms rather than war-weary. Undercurrents of sexuality run through Lydia’s fantasy in her image of “herself seated… tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.” Although Lydia’s vision seems romantic enough, sexual deviance was a prominent spectacle of military life. Soldiers invited their mistresses into their tents at night and several prominent aristocrats such as the Duke of York were involved in highly publicized sex scandals.
“Added to the immorality that a military life offered was the anonymity and respectable status, which allowed men to climb social ranks easily. Due to the constant movement of the militia across the country, the new regimentals a man wore, and his new title as an officer, he could escape the hold of his past. Tim Fulford explores this idea in his essay ‘Sighing for a Soldier,’ writing that ‘[a soldier’s] dress and rank might well have been earned not by experience on the battlefield or parade ground but by influence, and the shiny uniforms masked a variety of characters and origins” (Fulford 157). The idea that ‘influence’ can earn a man status is not new to England, a country in which the aristocracy thrive off of patronage, and in the militia ‘influence’ took the form of underhanded bribes and secret deals among officers. ‘[S]hiny uniforms” and the opulence and novelty of militia camps mostly covered up this corruption from the public; however, corruption on such large a scale could never be wholly hidden.” (The Militia in “Pride and Prejudice”)
Introducing Pride and Prejudice and a Shakespearean Scholar
Unless one knows the value of loyalty, he cannot appreciate the cost of betrayal.
What if Darcy and Elizabeth met weeks before the Meryton assembly? What if there is no barely “tolerable” remark to have Elizabeth rejecting Mr. Darcy’s affections, but rather a dip in a cold creek that sets her against him? What if Mr. Bennet is a renown Shakespearean scholar who encourages Darcy to act the role of Petruchio from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” to bring Elizabeth’s Katherina persona to the line.
ELIZABETH BENNET’s pride has her learning a difficult lesson: Loyalty is hard to find, and trust is easy to lose. Even after they share a passionate kiss outside the Meryton assembly hall and are forced to marry, Elizabeth cannot forget the indignity she experienced at the hands of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Although she despises his high-handedness, Elizabeth appreciates the protection he provides her in their marriage. But can she set her prejudice aside long enough to know a great love?
FITZWILLIAM DARCY places only two demands on his new wife: her loyalty and her trust, but when she invites his worst enemy to Darcy House, he has no choice but to turn her out. Trusting her had been his decision, but proving his choice the right one before she destroys two hearts meant to be together must be hers, and Darcy is not certain Elizabeth is up to the task.
Enjoy this Excerpt from Chapter 16…
Outside the church, Darcy paused to permit Lady Matlock to whisk his wife away to take the acquaintance of several of the countess’s circle. He appreciated how the Fitzwilliam faction of the family meant to bolster Elizabeth’s position in Society with a few well-placed introductions. “Please extend my gratitude to her ladyship,” he said dutifully, as he watched the countess encircle Elizabeth’s waist in defense of her new niece.
His uncle’s eyes remained on his wife, but he said, “Despite my repeating your declaration of affection to the countess, Lady Matlock assumes you compromised the girl.”
“I did,” Darcy said simply. “But the tales of affection are not false.”
“Much as I expected,” Matlock confirmed. “Lady Matlock was simply thankful that you have finally shown interest in marriage. She made promises to your mother that she would see you well settled.”
Darcy warned, “My wife can be quite stubborn when challenged.”
The earl chuckled. “A wife with spirit makes for a happy marriage. Such is the reason George Darcy fell in love with my sister Anne and why her ladyship and I have known some thirty-five years of marital felicity.” The earl nodded to Lord Alderson, one of his cronies in the the House of Lords, before continuing. “By the way, when will my son return from Hertfordshire?”
“The colonel escorts Georgiana to London tomorrow.”
“Did Edward serve as your witness?”
Darcy responded in hushed tones. “Other than being Georgiana’s escort, I had need of my cousin’s more specialized services in Hertfordshire.”
The earl’s eyebrow rose in question. “Explain.”
Darcy glanced around to be certain no one would overhear. “George Wickham has accepted a position in the Derbyshire militia, which is housed in Meryton, near Mr. Bennet’s estate.”
“That wastrel?” Matlock’s features set in a hard line. “What rank?”
“Wickham certainly does not own the land required for a lieutenancy,” the earl growled his displeasure. “Allow me to see what I can learn of who paid Wickham to take his place in service. I will let you know what I discover.”
Darcy confided, “I could not help but wonder if Mr. Wickham followed me to Hertfordshire.”
Matlock’s frown lines deepened. “For what purpose?”
“In truth, I am not certain. All I know was the dastard appeared in the village, accompanied by a man from Yorkshire, a Captain Denny, who, ironically, has been billeted with the Bennets for several months. I could not help but wonder if the captain noticed my growing regard for Elizabeth and casually mentioned the situation to Wickham. Did Captain Denny know something of me before I took the man’s acquaintance? Had he heard Wickham’s tale of how I ignored my father’s wishes? Once in Hertfordshire, Mr. Wickham was bold enough to approach Mrs. Darcy and her sisters. I assume he continues to spread his own version of the truth of our relationship to all those who will listen.”
Worry marked his uncle’s expression. “Do you think he spoke these untruths to Mrs. Darcy?”
“I hold no doubt.”
“And Mrs. Darcy believes the scoundrel?”
Darcy admitted, “From the beginning of our acquaintance, Elizabeth has had reason to think ill of me.”
“Why do you not provide Mrs. Darcy with a full history of Mr. Wickham’s dealings with your family?” Matlock asked in incredulity.
Darcy would never share Wickham’s duplicity regarding Georgiana with Elizabeth, at least, not until his new wife learned something of trust. “I will provide Mrs. Darcy with the true nature of Mr. Wickham when the time is right. As to the colonel’s presence at Netherfield Park, it proved beneficial. Mr. Wickham attempted to attend the wedding breakfast. I cannot imagine the man would have a reason to do so unless he meant to cause mischief. Fitzwilliam stood ‘guard’ at both the church and the breakfast. I feared Mr. Wickham meant to disrupt the proceedings or the celebration. There was a bit of a ruckus, but Mr. Bennet forbid the lieutenant’s admittance to his manor house.” The scene of Elizabeth’s shedding tears over the likes of Wickham had set Darcy’s resolve to lead his wife to a better understanding of Wickham’s character and her misplace loyalty.
“Here comes the countess and Mrs. Darcy. Let me know if you require my assistance in this matter,” the earl said softly. “I know first hand all your late father did to support the reprobate.”
NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY! I have an eBook copy of Pride and Prejudice and a Shakespearean Scholar available to one of those who comments below. The giveaway will end at midnight EST on Monday, December 18.