PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.33, NO.1 (Winter 2012)

Betrayal: Jane Austen’s Imaginative Use of America

Patricia M. Ard


Patricia M. Ard (email: is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey.  She is the editor of Mary Peabody Mann’s 1887 novel on African-Cuban slavery, Juanita (2000), and has also published essays on Mann and Charles Dickens.  She teaches a course on Jane Austen.


the two-hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812 offers an appropriate moment to consider America’s influence on Jane Austen, since this war greatly affected her, politically and personally.  It is wrongfully assumed by many that Austen had little interest in America.  As some scholars have shown, Austen was critically aware throughout her life of what Paul Giles calls “the prospect of America” (11).1  I would like to continue the ongoing discussion concerning Austen’s connections to and imaginative sense of America, in particular the conjunction of Austen’s feelings towards America and her fiction.  As Claudia Johnson has observed, Austen “discusses politics all the time without making announcements about it” (Jane Austen xxv).  I wish to examine Austen’s quiet political “discussions” concerning the former British America and to suggest that her frequent focus in her plots on betrayal motivated by economic concerns was one way she worked out her imaginative response to America.


Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, two years to the day after the Boston Tea Party fatefully disturbed the waters between the two countries.  America had then become a more regular topic of conversation in England:  “when the possibility of losing the colonies first presented itself, Englishmen began to consider as never before the importance of those provinces” (Clark 3).  Austen’s earliest years saw the Americans reject monarchy and declare independence from England, followed by England’s humiliating loss in the Revolutionary War.  These topics would likely have been discussed in the educated Austen household especially when two of Austen’s brothers, in adolescence, joined the Portsmouth naval school.  What is relevant here, however, is not so much whether Jane ever went so far as to agree with Samuel Johnson’s acerbic statement that he was “willing to love all mankind, except an American,”2 but how she would later aesthetically process these events, especially the War of 1812, and their many aftereffects.


Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City, by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel.
©The New York Historical Society/Bridgeman Art Library


Austen did feel it was important to follow politics as does Anne Elliot in Persuasion, even if only as “a reader who was clearly most engaged by public news that had some private significance” (Hessell 252).  Her parody of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England, titled The History of England (ca. 1791), in which she announces both that “very few Dates” will be included and that “Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for,” suggests the importance of history to her while critiquing its ritualized form of “telling” its story (Minor Works 138-39).  In 1800, for example, Austen was reading Robert Henry’s History of Great Britain (12-13 November 1800), and her brother Henry posthumously confirmed her “very extensive” reading in history (7).  Further, as recent scholarship on Austen’s reading habits suggests, that historical reading included both contemporary and foreign politics (Dow and Halsey).  While the evergreen quality of her novels can be partly attributed to a scarcity of direct historical references, Austen followed political events and would, therefore, have been more than a little interested in Britain’s relationship with America.


Austen’s many fictional portrayals of seemingly close relationships calculatingly betrayed for economic reasons are, I believe, one way she would “discuss” or metaphorically translate America in her works.  The epigraph for her short juvenile piece Love and Freindship is “Deceived in Freindship & Betrayed in Love” (MW 76), and betrayal is a common theme in all her novels.  And while, like most, she certainly experienced personal betrayals that surface in her fiction, she also lived in a turbulent culture where the political “betrayal” by America in the Revolutionary War but especially in the War of 1812 was of necessity often prominent in public discussion.  North America’s Atlantic Coast was settled mostly by the English, and American culture was heavily oriented to England prior to, and well after, the Revolutionary War (“John Bull”).  Intimate family, friendship, and business ties were interwoven into a tight, transatlantic “cable” that America purposely severed.


The War of 1812 can be seen as a continuation of the Revolutionary War and, indeed, was sometimes referred to as the “Second Revolutionary War,” since the national and economic tensions between the two countries had never been resolved.  War in Disguise; or, The Frauds of the Neutral Flags, an enormously popular book-length pamphlet published in 1805 by British lawyer James Stephen, offers insight into how Austen’s disappointment over what she considered American betrayals was representative of the national mood.  The pamphlet, believed to be a government-supported work, evidences the British anxieties over American interference with its attempts to advance its campaign against France (Budiansky 41-42).  Its author’s statement that the long naval war between England and France has “excited . . . the efforts of deceit, in our enemies” illustrates the betrayal theme that was culturally prevalent (Stephen 186).  Stephen also complains that the “worst consequence” of American independence has been “the seduction of our seamen” (121).


That “seduction” was a contributing factor to the tensions that led to the War of 1812.  The shame of the British navy’s losses in skirmishes with often faster and better equipped American boats during the early stages of the war could not have sat well with Austen especially because of her brothers’ involvement.  In December of 1812, with the war underway, Francis commanded a boat which captured a private American trading ship (Southam 262).  And Charles had worked out of Britain’s North American station for over six years before the war, also “intercepting American vessels suspected of trading with Napoleonic Europe” (Southam 262).


The war—eventually called the “War of 1812” in America and the “American War” by the British—resulted in a stalemate, with a “no harm, no foul” Peace Treaty in 1814 that left each party in essentially the same pre-war position.  That oft repeated characterization, “no harm, no foul,” however, ignores the thirty thousand dead and countless injured (Budiansky ix).  The Americans were left with a burned presidential mansion, Treasury, and Capitol while the British could not so credibly boast of their maritime superiority.  This war marked, from the British point of view, the second time that the former colonies, with a multitude of intimate connections to Britain, had turned against it principally for economic reasons.


Austen lived in wartime and wrote novels reflecting that fact.  Since “ships’ captains and ordinary seamen were responsible for much of the news from America that reached Great Britain” (Clark 20), she was, as we have seen, particularly well placed, through her brothers, to be informed of activities in America and to process them into her characters’ lives.  This processing became a form of participation by Austen in an Anglo-American struggle spanning most of her life.  As we shall see, she metaphorically worked with ideas and events that were in play during those turbulent times.  The two countries’ ongoing negotiations and wars over material, economic issues appeared often in the Hampshire and London newspapers and could not but have influenced Austen’s fiction.  While direct mentions of the United States in Austen’s novels and letters are few, she lived in a world where references to America abounded.  An analysis of one of her infrequent epistolary references to America provides insight into her thinking on the United States.


That letter, to her close friend Martha Lloyd, resulted from an August 1814 trip by Austen to London, one of several that year to the capital.  While there she went to a crowded exhibition space called the Great Room at 125 Pall Mall, paid her one shilling admittance fee, and viewed with admiration one of American artist Benjamin West’s epic oil paintings, Christ Rejected (Our Saviour Brought from the Judgment Hall by Pilate to Caiaphas, the High Priest).3


The complex work depicts the differing reactions of a large group of spectators to a thin, calm, manacled Christ, whose fate has been sealed by a series of betrayals:  Judas’s betrayal of Christ for money that brought him before this group, and between Pilate and Caiaphas, any possibility of a pardon has been rejected; included in the crowd on the right is Christ’s close disciple Peter, who had also betrayed him by pretending not to know him.  Mary Magdalene kneels lower right, and his mother, Mary, stands sorrowfully nearby (Von Erffa 358).


Christ Rejected by Benjamin West. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.
Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison, Jr., Collection)


West combines two different events related to the crucifixion—involving Caiaphas and Pilate—to create a “dramatic production” in which many of the actors in the crucifixion come imaginatively together around the still Christ at upper left, whose calm demeanor contrasts with the strong emotions of the others present (Evans 97-99).


This crowded scene was typical of West’s many large, populous paintings.  West had left America for England, where his use of traditional iconography invested with emotion led him in 1772 to be appointed court history painter by George III.  The painting Austen admired, a large 200 x 260 inch canvas, was one of many religious works by West, who also was famous for historical scenes and portraits.  Here he uses the iconography of the crucifixion, as shown in the outstretched arms of the high priest (Evans 98-99), as he had used the imagery of Christ’s descent from the cross to such public acclaim in “The Death of General Wolfe” (1770), an early history painting.


Reflecting on Christ Rejected in her September 2, 1814, letter to Lloyd, Austen tellingly couples responses to the American’s painting with her own and her brother Henry’s responses to the ongoing war with the United States.  As Gary Kelly has noted, “For Jane Austen and the majority of her contemporaries, religion and politics were inextricably intertwined,” so it is not surprising a religious painting might spur thoughts of politics (149).  And while many of Austen’s letters can be “hasty and elliptical,” (Le Faye xvii), here the serious subject matters of religion and war combine with the historical moment to create a unified sensibility that we can more readily follow.


First she notes that “I have seen West’s famous Painting, & prefer it to anything of the kind I ever saw before. . . . [It] indeed is the first representation of our Saviour which ever at all contented me.”  She then quickly moves to discussing Henry, and in particular his views on America.


His veiw, & the veiw of those he mixes with, of Politics, is not chearful—with regard to an American war I mean;—they consider it as certain, & as what is to ruin us.  The [?Americans] cannot be conquered, & we shall only be teaching them the skill in War which they may now want. . . . If we are to be ruined, it cannot be helped—but I place my hope of better things on a claim to the protection of Heaven, as a Religious Nation, a Nation inspite of much Evil improving in Religion, which I cannot beleive the Americans to possess.  (2 September 1814)4


Although Austen did not “beleive” the Americans possessed the religious sensibilities of the British, her approval of West’s portrayal of Christ suggests that at least one American was a kindred spirit.  She is in immediate sympathy with West’s acclaimed painting because in its dramatic story of a good person betrayed, including by one thought to care deeply for him, she is viewing a visual representation of a theme she made a principal focus of her novels.


Her disbelief that America could share England’s “improving” religious ways is perhaps a reference to the United States’ explicit rejection of an established religion in the first amendment to its Constitution.  That this new, secular voice of America was being rejected by Austen should not, perhaps, be surprising.  Austen generally supported nation, church, and monarch.  As Austen biographer Park Honan has noted, the American Revolution affected Austen as she matured because it “challenged her family’s Tory views of class, a state Church and limited democracy” (60).


An additional point in Austen’s letter that deserves explication concerns Britain’s searching American ships for British sailors who preferred working on American ships, another point of contention that led to the War of 1812.  Brian Southam argues that Austen’s epistolary reference here to British soldiers and sailors “teaching” the Americans military skills concerns the many British sailors who found better pay and conditions on the American side and who were thus, in effect, lending their expertise to the American cause (263).  They were deemed by the British to be betraying their country as some had betrayed Christ; I believe these ideas mix for Austen in her letter.



With Austen’s view of her country’s history, America’s two wars with England resonated with her in terms of betrayal and deception.  The political is personal in Austen.  She works through her responsive strategies to America metaphorically and thematically, by transforming the public rejection of England by America for economic reasons into complex, special relationships ruined by one or more acts of betrayal with a monetary motive.  As Claudia Johnson has illustrated, Austen’s use of politics would not be the same as her “conspicuously political sister-novelists,” of the late eighteenth century (Jane Austen xxiv).  Neither would it be the dull dates-and-kings-and-queens approach Austen parodied in her juvenilia.


A brief analysis of the use of America by a contemporary of Jane Austen helps to illuminate the path to her own indirect, metaphorical approach.  A fellow British novelist used America not as metaphor but as the actual setting for some scenes.  This overt use of America was in Austen’s opinion an artistic failure, one she made fun of several times in a genial but pointed way.  Mary Brunton, whose 1778-1818 lifespan makes her an almost exact contemporary of Austen, published her novel Self-Control in 1811, and Austen, a voracious reader, comments on it in three separate letters.


In that of October 11-12, 1813, she has read the novel and is comfortably satisfied that Brunton’s effort affords her little competition.  The novel’s young heroine, Laura Montreville, survives extraordinary events, including a kidnapping to Canadian North America and a near fatal canoe ride there.  Austen’s remarks begin with a left-handed compliment (“excellently-meant”) but sharpen to focus on what she sees as Brunton’s mistakenly direct use of the American setting:


I am looking over Self Control again, & my opinion is confirmed of its’ being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.  I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she ever does.


Austen strove for realism in her plotting, so her focus on Brunton’s overt use of the North American setting for mere plot variety is understandable.  Besides, Austen’s heroines move through social worlds, only very occasionally partaking in the actual physical mobility that is one hallmark of writing using the American continent.


Austen’s use of America centers on betrayal and deception, pivotal themes in her six published novels.  Thus, for example, in Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby and Lucy Steele (whose last name in noun or verb form defines her) each betray other characters in order to make the most economically fortuitous marriages.  In the novel’s famous party scene, Willoughby betrays Marianne by trying, like the disciple Peter, to publicly deny he knows her, nearly leading to her death.  Colonel Brandon’s father betrays both his younger son and his ward Eliza by forcing her into a loveless marriage to his older son to secure her money for the family estate.  Austen, the authorial mistress of free indirect discourse, is indirect in her political discourse as well.


One of the few direct references to the United States that Austen makes in her novels appears during a dance scene in Mansfield Park when the older Bertram son, Tom—in order to cover his disparagement of Mrs. Grant’s clergyman husband—suddenly remarks, “‘A strange business this in America, Dr. Grant!—What is your opinion?—I always come to you to know what I am to think of public matters’” (119).  The novel was published in May, 1814, and written during and before the end of the War of 1812.  As Claudia Johnson notes, if one dates the time frame for the story to 1812 rather than earlier, Tom is probably alluding to England’s war with America (Johnson, MP 85 n. 3).  Tom’s impromptu political question confirms that the war was a topic of controversy in Britain, but one that Austen generally preferred to deal with indirectly.


That indirect approach to the idea of economic betrayal for character delineation, plot points, and motive is on rich display in Emma, where Frank Churchill’s betrayal of the title character affects so many.  Frank’s act is the principal reason for the darkness that borders this outwardly cheery story.  His deception is an act of betrayal towards not just Emma but his birth father, his adoptive parents, his betrothed, Jane Fairfax, and the citizens of Highbury.  His motive for pretending to be still on the marriage market and interested in Emma is money; he is afraid his rich aunt and uncle will disinherit him if he marries Jane Fairfax.  It is fairly late in the story when Emma discovers Frank’s betrayal.  Only Emma’s blissfully unaware fantasizing makes believable her statement that Frank’s deception has not seriously wounded her.


In Persuasion, Austen turns transatlantic transgression into domestic transgression.  The lassitude that permeates the Elliot family sitting room as the story begins emanates from another relationship betrayed for economic reasons:  William Elliot, the cousin marked for marriage to Elizabeth, peremptorily married “a rich woman of inferior birth” (8).  That the Elliots view his act as a betrayal is made immediately clear.  When Mr. Elliot offered no apology, “Sir Walter considered him unworthy of [the family]:  all acquaintance between them . . . ceased” (8).  Here, the “betrayer” is punished.


But the novel’s focus is the special relationship between the careworn Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, a relationship that Anne had peremptorily ended.  The ruthless economics that drove her nation, and that Austen thrived on illuminating, sundered Anne from Frederick Wentworth, who feels betrayed; the novel’s story is her campaign to correct that youthful error.  Persuasion’s narrator tells readers that the sailor’s profession is “more distinguished in it’s Domestic Virtues, than in it’s National Importance” (273), and it is Austen’s translation of the national into the domestic spaces of her novels that interests here.  Brian Southam calls the narrator’s sentiment a “surprising reversal of values” (4), but for Austen the domestic is the medium through which national issues achieve relevance.



Jane Austen frequently focuses in her novels on betrayal motivated by economic concerns.  I have suggested that one possible reason for this emphasis was her perception of the two wars and the constant political tensions between Britain and the United States during her lifetime.  While Americans saw these wars as assertions of political freedom, they were seen by many British, including Austen, as a form of betrayal motivated not by principle but by economics.  Although she only occasionally mentions America in her works, her epistolary critique of America during the War of 1812, after viewing Benjamin West’s painting concerning betrayal, suggests the ways in which America and betrayal comingled for her.  Jane Austen imaginatively transforms that response to transatlantic politics into the domestic, personal betrayals that are central to her novels.





1. See for example Park Honan’s Jane Austen: Her Life (Ch. 2, 5, 8, 16) and Paul Giles’s Transatlantic Insurrections (117-41).  Giles also points to the infrequent analysis by scholars of American influence on Austen.


2. This statement (Boswell 680) was one of Johnson’s milder attacks on Americans, a topic of disagreement between Boswell and himself.  Johnson also wrote a pamphlet titled “Taxation no Tyranny; an answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress” (Boswell 430).


3. See Von Erffa 358-59.  West’s exhibition of “Christ Rejected” was for several years open from 10:00 a.m. until evening (Pall Mall was lit by gas in 1809) (Von Erffa 359, Poplawski 35).  In its first months an average of 470 people viewed it each day (Alberts 367).  The show Austen saw also included sketches by West of various religious scenes (Von Erffa 359).  In an era when larger museum spaces were just being initiated, West’s rented exhibition space was an innovative way to show his art and make money on it before its sale.


4. Since Austen was writing to Martha in 1814, in the last months of the war, her comments making it seem as if a war with America might be about to start are “puzzling,” as Deirdre Le Faye acknowledges (436 n3).  Several explanations are possible, including Le Faye’s that Austen might be referring to the war’s continuing.  Another is that she is discussing a possible American victory.



Works Cited


Alberts, Robert C.  Benjamin West: A Biography.  Boston: Houghton, 1978.

Austen, Henry.  “Biographical Notice of the Author.”  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933-69.  5: 3-9.

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

_____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Boswell, James.  The Life of Samuel Johnson.  1791.  Introd. David Womersley.  London: Penguin, 2008.

Brunton, Mary.  Self-Control: A Novel.  1811.  The Online Books Page.

Budiansky, Stephen.  Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

Clark, Dora Mae.  British Opinion and the American Revolution.  1930.  New York: Russell, 1966.

Dow, Gillian, and Katie Halsey.  “Jane Austen’s Reading: The Chawton Years.”  Persuasions On-Line 30.2 (Spr. 2010).

Evans, Grose.  Benjamin West: And the Taste of His Times.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1959.

Giles, Paul.  Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2001.

Hessell, Nikki.  “News and Newspapers: Readers of the Daily Press in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Persuasions 31 (2009): 248-54.

Honan, Park.  Jane Austen: Her Life.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1987.

“John Bull and Uncle Sam.”  Library of Congress.  Exhibition Overview.  2010.  Web.  23 May 2012.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

_____, ed.  Mansfield Park.  New York: Norton, 1998.

Kelly, Gary.  “Religion and Politics.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster.  Cambridge: CUP, 1997.  149-69.

Poplawski, Paul.  A Jane Austen Encyclopedia.  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

Southam, Brian.  Jane Austen and the Navy.  London: Hambledon, 2000.

[Stephen, James].  War in Disguise; or, The Frauds of the Neutral Flags.  London: C. Whittingham, 1805.

Von Erffa, Helmut, and Allen Staley.  The Paintings of Benjamin West.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.


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