PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.2 (Spring 2008)

Lady Bathurst’s Patriotic Ballroom, or “Reading Austen at a Distance”: The French Revolutionary Wars in Recent Adaptations



Gillian Dow


Gillian Dow (email: is research fellow at the University of Southampton, U. K., and Chawton House Library.  Her research interests are in women writers and translation, the reception of French literature in Britain, and the cross-channel migration of ideas in the period 1780-1830.


In an essay entitled “Placing Jane Austen, Displacing England: Touring between Book, History, and Nation,” Mike Crang stresses the ways in which we can “read at a distance” (111) by concerning ourselves not with Austen’s writings themselves but rather with what others make of the writings.  Crang locates his discussion of “Austenmania” within the rise in the heritage industry in the U. K., a nostalgic English nationalism which is linked to the cult of the country house.  As Crang sees it,


Austen calls forth a specific type of landscape that in turn authorises a particular version of English history.  Country-house landscapes support an essentialized English identity through a static, enclosed sense of the past, in terms of both geography and history.  In terms of geography, it is an enclosed English landscape that is divorced from contemporaneous imperial dominions.  It takes the shrunken little England of the present and projects it back to find an essence in rural, elite society.  (113)


And yet Crang is acutely aware that this nostalgia conceals the broader picture of England in Austen’s time, and that in fact “England was inextricably bound up with wider imperial processes” (113).  He illustrates his point with a discussion of Caribbean sugar plantations, referencing Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999).


In the same collection of essays, Suzanne R. Pucci draws attention to the global reach of Rozema’s adaptation, the way in which the viewer is drawn in to the closed world of Mansfield Park itself with a “broad sweeping vista[ ] of the English coast” (149), a view that both emphasizes the isolated continent and stresses that there is something beyond the enclosed English landscape.  



As Pucci points out, this is a film that is constantly stressing both its modernity and relevance:  “Mary [Crawford] makes several references in the film to living in a ‘modern world’:  ‘we’re living in modern times,’ she says at one point and, when trying to appease the family, ‘it’s 1806 for heaven’s sake’” (152).  On the reception of Rozema’s film, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield have pointed out, in an essay entitled “The Mouse that Roared: Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park,” that “some reviews overtly or subtly condemned the screenwriter-director, claiming that she imported irrelevant lesbianism and overemphasized Thomas Bertram’s slave-owning in Antigua.  The majority, however, praised the ‘contemporary resonances’ and intelligence of the film” (188).  “Relevance” for contemporary audiences is praised by critics, then, where it may be condemned by Austen scholars because it may distort emphasis at the least, change plot and characterization at the worst.


In this essay, I want to read some recent adaptations of Austen “at a distance,” to think about both what is “beyond” that English landscape and “contemporary resonances” in Austen adaptations and work inspired by her writing, and more specifically to discuss the global Austen in relation to the French Revolution and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  I am not concerned in this article with Austen’s fiction itself, but rather with the reaction of others to her fiction.  Some adaptations attempt to make Austen’s narratives relevant to our contemporary culture; others contextualize them for reasons of nostalgia, or politics, or to appeal to the tastes or desires of modern audiences.  The incorporation of references to the wars with France provides a particularly interesting example of the motives for adaptation.  


Marilyn Butler points out in her groundbreaking Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, first published in 1975, that although twentieth-century readers are largely in agreement that “Jane Austen stands aside from the ideological convulsions that accompanied and followed the French Revolution, . . . detachment is not the quality that evidently strikes her contemporaries” (162).  Butler concludes that “the crucial action of her novels is in itself expressive of the conservative side in an active war of ideas. . . . [T]he striking thing about her novels is indeed that they do not mention the French Revolution and barely allude to the Napoleonic Wars” (294).  Nevertheless, Jane Austen and the French Revolution has subsequently been the subject of several academic studies, including a book-length study by Warren Roberts, Jane Austen and the French Revolution.  In this work, Roberts addresses the reasons for what had been the dearth of academic studies on the topic:


It is a subject that has received but limited treatment.  For this there are reasons.  Austen never referred to the Revolution in any of her novels, at least directly, nor did she do so in any of her extant correspondence.  In the second half of the nineteenth century the members of her own family assumed that she had lived outside the political storm that raged away during her lifetime.  (4)


Roberts claims that although Austen made a “deliberate choice” not to include discussion of the events of the French Revolution in her novels, she “incorporated many of her responses to those events into her writing” (7).  He points out that England’s war with France is a theme in both Mansfield Park and Persuasion, and that echoes can be felt in Emma.  Roberts reads the famous “riot” passage in Northanger Abbey as informed by both the Gordon riots of 1780, and, crucially, the riots of the 1790s “and the contemporary fright deriving from the French Revolution and its impact on England” (27).  He goes on to argue convincingly that “the widespread use of spies during the 1790s is essential to an understanding of one of the better-known passages in Northanger Abbey” (28) and that “Sir Thomas went to Antigua to solve problems that related directly to England’s struggle with France” (97), and he reminds his readers that “when the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, Austen had already begun the Juvenilia” (203).  As every enthusiastic Austen scholar and Janeite knows, and as Katie Trumpener eloquently reminds us, Austen’s early work reveals a playful attentiveness to what is “beyond”:  “Austen’s juvenilia is strewn with journeys into Scotland and remote corners of Ireland, idyllic interludes in Welsh cottages and Scottish castles” (297).


Indeed, one of these works, Love and Freindship was dedicated to Eliza de Feuillide, Austen’s glamorous cousin who married a Frenchman later executed by the guillotine.  The main protagonist in this work, Laura, seems to be modelled on, and to lightly satirize, Eliza herself, and certainly does not derive from Austen’s three or four families in a country village:  “My Father was a native of Ireland & an inhabitant of Wales; My Mother was the natural Daughter of a Scotch Peer by an italian Opera-girl—I was born in Spain & received my Education at a Convent in France” (77).  The world, then, and outside events more generally occasionally disturb the tranquillity of Austen’s English settings, and Roberts’s approach has been continued in academic criticism.  Every twenty-first-century survey of Jane Austen in Context, in print or in the classroom, takes the turbulent events of the period into consideration.


The reference in my title to “Lady Bathurst’s Patriotic Ballroom” comes, as viewers of the 2005 Pride & Prejudice directed by Joe Wright will be aware, from a short scene in this film.  Caroline Bingley, seated at the breakfast table reading a letter, remarks, “Lady Bathurst is re-decorating her ballroom in the French style.  A trifle unpatriotic, don’t you think?”  The historical Lady Bathurst (1765-1841) was born Georgina Lennox and took the title Lady Bathurst upon her marriage to Henry, third Earl Bathurst  (1762-1834) in April 1789, a few short months before the storming of the Bastille in France.1  Attentive readers of Pride and Prejudice will need no reminding that this line does not appear in Austen’s novel.  In her production notes to the film, Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter, drawing attention to this invented line, discusses the criticisms that Austen’s characters lead calm, uneventful lives in the following terms:


One of the wonderful things about Jane Austen is that the canvas on which she painted was very small.  Now, that has also been cited as a criticism of her work; she has been accused of ignoring other social classes of her time, and contemporary world events.  But she did not deny it; she was observing the small piece of the world that she inhabited. . . . The wider world is seen through tiny chinks.  For instance, Caroline Bingley is reading a letter and she remarks, in the script, “Lady Bathurst is re-decorating her ballroom in the French style.  A trifle unpatriotic, don’t you think?”  I put that in as a tiny acknowledgement that all these events were going on in France.  (Pride & Prejudice Production Notes)


The glamorous militia from the period is also given a starring role in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice for an exuberant parade through Meryton, watched excitedly by a giggling and waving Mrs. Bennet, Lydia, and Kitty.



In making the decision to give “events” going on in France a space on the screen, Moggach and Davies join a line of makers of adaptations who have sought to contextualize Austen’s work with more reference to the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars than the author herself ever made in her novels.  Take, for example, the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice.  In this adaptation, the news that Netherfield Hall has been let at last is welcomed as “the best news since the battle of Waterloo,” which as Rachel M. Brownstein points out dryly, “occurred two years after Austen’s novel was published” (14).  The attraction of the militia is similarly stressed in the 1995 BBC TV mini-series, adapted by Andrew Davies, when the balls and evening card parties are enlivened by their presence.  Davies’s Elizabeth Bennet speaks the following line to Colonel Carter:  “Are you in Meryton to subdue the discontented populace sir, or do you defend Hertfordshire against the French?”


The editorial decisions involved in placing external events in the narratives of the 1940 Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and the Pride & Prejudice of 2005 strike me as interesting.  Troost and Greenfield have argued convincingly that films and adaptations get remade “because they do not inhabit a long sweep of time comfortably” (9), and furthermore that such adaptations “have more to tell us about our own moment in time than about Austen’s writing” (11).  All three of these adaptations could be seen to be providing comfort food for the viewing public, pandering to a nostalgia for (seemingly) simpler times.  In their references to contemporary events in France, however, they function quite differently.  The 1940 Hollywood film with the twentieth-century David Garrick (Laurence Olivier) in the role of Darcy inserts a reference to Britain’s glorious naval past and Wellington’s victory against Napoleon at a time when British audiences in particular sorely needed a reminder that victory in Europe had been possible, and could be so again.  The 1995 series allows Elizabeth to joke:  there is no real crisis, and Elizabeth’s reference is a conversational gambit, very much designed for an audience in peacetime as it raises two playful possibilities as reasons that the militia may be in town, either to “subdue the populace” or to “defend Hertfordshire against the French.”  Andrew Davies’s Colonel Carter replies to Elizabeth:  “Neither, ma’am.  We hope to winter peacefully at Meryton.  My soldiers are in great need of training, and my officers in even greater need of society.”  The 2005 film, on the other hand, was made for an audience involved in a lengthy and controversial war with Iraq, an audience that is used, in its own way, to thinking about patriotism and what that might mean to them.  While Caroline Bingley tuts over the unpatriotic actions of Lady Bathurst in decorating her ballroom, cinema-goers are reminded of debates over consumption of French goods in America in the time before the Iraq war, and the potential renaming of French fries.


Like the adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, the 2007 ITV production of Mansfield Park written by Maggie Wadey places the events of the revolutionary wars center stage.  Austen draws her readers’ attention to the role William Price had played in the wars in the following terms:


He had been in the Mediterranean—in the West Indies—in the Mediterranean again—had been often taken on shore by the favour of his Captain, and in the course of seven years had known every variety of danger, which sea and war together could offer.  With such means in his power he had a right to be listened to; and though Mrs. Norris could fidget about the room, and disturb every body in quest of two needlefuls of thread or a second hand shirt button in the midst of her nephew’s account of a shipwreck or an engagement, every body else was attentive; and even Lady Bertram could not hear of such horrors unmoved, or without sometimes lifting her eyes from her work to say, “Dear me! how disagreeable.—I wonder any body can ever go to sea.”  (236)


Wadey chooses to dramatize this reported scene through direct speech.  The viewers see an excited William and a captivated family group over the dinner table as William reports on his adventures:  “Just off Trieste, we chased the enemy sail until we were close enough to fire on her, at which, she returned our salute with a broad side that came scouring along the decks, tore along the foresail, made a large dent in the brass gun, rebounded, away into the open sea.”  The dramatization of a reported scene is a necessary process of adaptation from book to screen, and although it does make the emphasis on the scene quite different—Jane Austen’s narrator focuses her keen eye for the ridiculous on the busy Mrs. Norris and the indolent Lady Bertram, rather than on William’s account—it is not unfaithful to Austen’s original.


Something quite different happens in an earlier scene where the arrival of Mary and Henry Crawford is explained.  The young siblings’ arrival is said to be owing to Admiral Crawford’s having installed his mistress in his home, and the viewers witness the following exchange between Mrs Norris and Lady Bertram:


Mrs. Norris:  A week ago the Admiral installed his mistress under his own family roof.

Lady Bertram:  Well I’m not at all surprised.  Well, I have the highest regard for the navy, but, well, one has only to think of Lord Nelson. 


Jane Austen herself, we remember, makes no mention of Nelson or the navy in general, contenting herself with the authorial voice:  “Admiral Crawford was a man of vicious conduct, who chose, instead of retaining his niece, to bring his mistress under his own roof; and to this Mrs. Grant was indebted for her sister’s proposal of coming to her, a measure quite as welcome on one side, as it could be expedient on the other” (41).  Famously, there are no references to Nelson in Austen’s novels, and only one humorous aside in her letters, when she speaks of her brother Francis’s hero in the following terms:  “I am tired of Lives of Nelson, being that I never read any.  I will read this [Southey’s] however, if Frank is mentioned in it” (11-12 October 1813).  In its reference to a naval hero that Austen neglected in her novels, the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park speaks to a twenty-first-century audience obsessed with gossip and celebrity culture.  Viewers will certainly know Nelson, even if they have only a hazy awareness of his adulterous relationship with Emma, Lady Hamilton.


Questions of what readers know about the troubled period 1789-1815 have preoccupied those who write on Austen, from biographers to critics, writers of screen adaptations, prequels and sequels.  Emma Tennant, in Emma in Love, her continuation of Emma, includes a French Baroness who has escaped the horrors of the Revolution and the guillotine, where her parents met their fate.2  In Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice, first published in 1984, the narrator (a fictionalized Weldon) is far from England, in the alien landscape of Southern Australia.  Weldon describes this landscape in the following terms:


I look around the hot, dangerous beaches, and into the slow, warm seas where the brilliant fish dart and hover, and the stone fish wait to kill you with a touch, and wonder what I am doing here; and I long for the mists and grey-green grass of England and a landscape altered by human regard, not indifferent and impartial, as are these vast Australian wastes. (21) 


Her nostalgia for the English countryside—the “grey-green grass” of home—is inextricably linked to her reading of Austen.  This, we learn in the first letter of the work, is prompted by her niece, the young Alice, who is “obliged” to read Austen as part of her college course in English literature:  “You tell me . . . that you find her boring, petty and irrelevant and, that as the world is in crisis, and the future catastrophic, you cannot imagine what purpose there can be in your reading her” (7).


Fay Weldon’s imagined niece, Alice, a campaigning feminist with black and green hair, is a peculiarly 1980s creation in her lack of awareness of Austen and her work:  a twenty-first-century Alice couldn’t possibly have escaped the glut of adaptations in the nineties and noughties.  But the ways in which Weldon repackages Austen’s importance for her campaigning niece of the 1980s are remarkably similar to the ways in which recent adaptations have stressed relevance for their viewers.  Take, for example, Weldon’s imagined account of the composition of Lesley Castle and the Austen family’s reacting to their own world in crisis:


“Well, yes, Jane,” Henry may have remarked, as the family sat beside the fire in the evening, and the servants drove the warming pans into the beds upstairs, and they had finished politely admiring Cassandra’s sketches, and talked a little about what was happening in France—that year of the declaration of the Republic and the setting up of the Revolutionary Tribunal—and whether cousin Eliza, who had married a French aristocrat, and a Roman Catholic one at that, would not soon be faced with the penalty of her wilfulness—and then perhaps wondered whether they should send off for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women [sic].  (54)


As is evident from the above extract, Lesley Castle itself is barely mentioned while events in France and Wollstonecraft’s feminist work inspired in large part by these events are the focus of the imagined scene in the Austen family household.  And this, perhaps, is typical of adaptations and re-imaginings that let the world in through the tiny chinks Moggach describes.  Insertions about the French Revolution and subsequent wars reflect not the concerns of the novels themselves so much as Austen’s life.  By allowing the real events of the 1790s and 1800s to touch the lives of Austen’s characters, these adaptations give those eager for information about Austen’s life visual evidence of the events, peripheral to the novels, that shaped the life of every English man or woman in the period 1775-1817.


The blurring of the borders between fact and fiction, between the novels and the life, between the “real” events of the revolutionary wars and what Austen actually writes about these same wars can lead to confusion.  Certainly, we do not learn more about Austen’s characters by the inclusions of Lady Bathurst and her ballroom, of naughty Lord Nelson, or of reminders that “it’s 1806 for heaven’s sake.”  Austen’s England—that is to say, the England as depicted in Austen’s novels—is, John Wiltshire has argued,


a peculiarly confined, insulated place, cut off from the other parts of the British isles, never fully engaging with Europe.  The European only appears in the novels on the peripheries, as a trace, as the absurd contaminations of language, like the “caro sposo” of a Mrs. Elton or the “menus plaisirs” of a Henry Crawford, or a German play already modified to suit English taste.  (126-27)


For Wiltshire, the attempt “to insert Europe and the Empire into novels which so distinctively refuse more than minimal negotiation with these entities . . . is counterproductive, and risks skirting or overlooking the central questions that Austen’s popularity pose” (131).


Part of this popularity, however, is due to a desire to retire to simpler times, to learn more about Austen’s life and that of her family and wider circle of acquaintances.  Increasingly, it is not Austen’s England that is represented and imagined in adaptations, sequels and works inspired by Austen, but rather the England of Austen, that is to say, the country in which she lived.  Then, as today, global concerns impinged on everyday life.




1.  As the daughter of Lord George Henry Lennox (1737-1805), an army officer with a long and distinguished military career, and the wife of Henry Bathurst, the minister responsible for Napoleon’s imprisonment in Saint Helena, Georgina, Lady Bathurst moved in political circles.  Two of her sons served at the battle of Waterloo, and she would have been well aware of what was at stake for British interests during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.  There is, however, no evidence of her lack of patriotism in her choice of décor for her ballroom.  For a sparkling account of Georgina’s life, and that of her family, see Tillyard.


2.  In Emma Tennant’s Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued, the Baroness turns out to be an imposter who took her back story from Germaine de Staël’s Delphine (1802).  This novel, Staël’s first, tells the story of the brilliant and passionate young widow, Delphine, who admires revolutionary principles and advocates women’s independence.  The publication of Delphine led Napoleon to exile Staël from France.




Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

_____.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Brownstein, Rachel M.  “Out of the Drawing Room, Onto the Lawn.”  Jane Austen in Hollywood.  Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield.  Lexington: UP Kentucky, 1998.  13-21.

Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  Oxford: OUP, 1975.

Crang, Mike.  “Placing Jane Austen, Displacing England: Touring between Book, History, and Nation.”  Jane Austen and Co: Remaking the Past in Contemporary Culture Ed. Suzanne R. Pucci and James Thompson.  Albany: SUNY P, 2003.  111-30.

Langton, Simon, dir.  Pride and Prejudice. Writ. Andrew Davies. BBC/A&E, 1995.

MacDonald, Iain B., dir.  Mansfield Park.  Writ. Maggie Wadey.  DVD.  Company Pictures and WGBH/Boston, 2007.

Pride & Prejudice Production Notes. [n.d.].  2 Mar. 2008

Pucci, Suzanne R.  “The Return Home.”  Jane Austen and Co: Remaking the Past in Contemporary Culture Ed. Suzanne R. Pucci and James Thompson.  New York: SUNY P, 2003.  133-56.

Roberts, Warren.  Jane Austen and the French Revolution.  London: Macmillan, 1979.

Tennant, Emma.  Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued.  London: Fourth Estate, 1996. 

Tillyard, Stella.  Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832.  London: Chatto, 1994.

Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield.  “The Mouse that Roared: Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park.”  Jane Austen in Hollywood.  Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield.  Lexington: UP Kentucky, 1998.  188-204.

Trumpener, Katie.  Bardic Nationalism.  Princeton: PUP, 1997.

Weldon, Fay.  Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  1984. New York: Caroll & Graf, 1999.

Wiltshire, John.  “Jane Austen’s England, Jane Austen’s World.”  Redrawing Austen: Picturesque Travels in Austenland.  Ed. Beatrice Battaglia and Diego Saglia.  Napoli: Liguori, 2004.  125-36.

Wright, Joe, dir.  Pride & Prejudice.  DVD.  Focus Features, 2005.


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