A running theme in books InspiredByAusten is the militia (well, yes, red coat) craziness of Lydia Bennet and her follower Kitty Bennet. Yes, her mother’s reminiscences of the appearance of the militia in Meryton in her adolescence fired their imaginations. Add their reading of novels, and you can understand Mr. Bennet’s reaction to his youngest children. However, what Mr. Bennet never seemed to do was to disapprove of the militia. My supposition about that will be apparent later, but a hint: Mr. Bennet liked the idea of the militia encamped in Meryton.
Let’s place the appearance of the militia in Meryton in context.
First and foremost, the stationing of militia in Jane Austen’s Meryton was not a one-off. Recall Mrs. Bennet’s frequent recollections of her adolescence and her fascination with red coats. Militia units rotated around the country, with the single caveat being that the units were never stationed in their home counties because they would be less likely to fire on their cousins.
In Jane Austen’s Great Britain, particularly post-Civil War (1620s-30s), organized police forces did not exist (not until 1829 with Sir Robert Peel’s Act). Magistrates and constables in each locality maintained law and order as best they could. A great city, oh, there was only one, was essentially unpoliced except by private muscle hired by the wealthy. We gently refer to these large men in our Austenesque work as footmen and outriders. A cloud of these worthies surrounded Georgiana, Caroline, and Louisa when they ventured from their houses out to Bond Street. A house’s livery distinguished the different private armies: the more significant the wealth and position, the greater the size. There was a reason that Caroline disdained Gracechurch Street. Yes, there was a social aspect, but also there was the perception that it was too close to unsafe wards.
Was the question of security reserved only for London and its warrens? Of course not. If anything, the gentry in the country faced different and often more worrisome challenges—especially if it was a backwater district like Meryton. We tend to disdain Mr. Bennet’s management of Longbourn, but we can all agree that Netherfield was the only more prosperous Meryton estate. But, even at £2,000 and with many demands calling out, Longbourn’s wealth would be hard-pressed if forced to employ several cudgel-wielding fellows to protect the five young ladies as they trooped into Meryton.
How often do we write of Darcy’s incredulous reaction to learning about Miss Elizabeth’s solitary rambles? He came from a dangerous world in town. Meryton may have been less likely to experience the same crime as London, but it was not immune. Social pressures of food and shelter insecurity had long been the undercurrent leading to localized and widespread unrest amongst the ninety-plus percent of the population who lived on the edge of survival.
Rudé points out that the most common forms of pre-industrial protest were “food rioting, machine-breaking, assaults on property, arson, and armed rebellion.” None of these were ever far from an agricultural community like Meryton—St. Albans and Hertford were nearby large towns with enough population to engender such actions. Even the dullest of Meryton’s gentry could imagine a mob marching the ten miles to terrorize the small town. Who would protect Meryton?[i]
The militia, of course, would be the gentlefolk’s shield, much as they were in 1793 in Bristol in the tollgate riots when the military was deployed and shot dead 110 people. Such tragedies would not be far from the gentry’s minds—nor, I imagine, Austen’s. This was proof to the God-fearing Church-of-England members of the wages of crime—and its ever-present threat.[ii]
To returnto my earlier question: Mr. Bennet, being a man of his class, likely approved of the coercive power of the militia to protect his property, family, and the general social order.
Suppose there was an understanding by the rural gentry that their security depended on the militia. In that case, I assert that Mr. Bennet was not disconcerted by the appearance of the militia in his hometown. The gentleman likely welcomed the force and saw the officers (despite his knowledge of their poverty) as factotums of a government he voted for at each Parliamentary election. To expect him to speak against the militia, instead to genially encourage flirtation with men he saw on the side of good, is to ignore the actual tenor of the times. Neither Mr. Bennet nor Mrs. Bennet had any cause to be suspicious of militia officers. After all, they were there to protect them. Despite satirical portrayals of Bennet family meals, Kitty and Lydia drank in that benign attitude.
As for Lydia and Kitty themselves:
Two words: Napoleonic Wars
Why the mention of that conflict? Well, as I see it, the Bennet sisters transferred the well-publicized exploits and bravery of the regular Army onto the men of the _____________shire militia. While a bit man-crazy, they saw the world around them. They had a baseline belief that officers were not impoverished because they had no conflicting information. They admired Wickham’s cravat, unaware of the debts he ran up. Why should they consider him in any other manner? Their father always settled their accounts. An officer was a gentleman…and gentlemen settled theirs.
I also suggest that these young ladies (and their mother) were vitims of their ignorance. They did not differentiate between officers in the regulars and the militia. Officer positions in the regular Army from coronet to colonel were for sale. The higher the rank, the greater the price tag. For instance, depending upon the regiment, a lieutenancy could run around £400.
A sum that was twenty percent of Longbourn’s annual income was an astonishing amount, and that could only mean—to Mrs. Bennet and her youngest daughters—that the officer’s family—and, by extension, the man—had some degree of wealth, conferring gentle status. Both young women were not foolish enough to have their heads turned by a farmer’s son—red coat or not. They were choosy. An officer’s uniform only enhanced the appeal of perceived wealth.
But, filled with misperceptions, neither Bennet daughter connected on the fact that the militia was in Meryton for a reason. That was left to the adults. However, what was available to them was observed attitude. Between their mother’s urgent desire to marry off her flock—and probably with her vision clouded by a belief in both the wealth and goodness of officers in general—and their father’s benign neglect and his lack of worry about the nature of militia officers, the two youngest walked straight into Wickham’s spun-sugar trap.
Austen masterfully combines perception and reality in her study of the Regency world. Looking at the militia through her eyes helps us understand the position it held in the hearts and minds of the English squirearchy.
The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and a Soldier’s Portion uses the militia to carry the plot ahead. This excerpt is from Book One. I refer to it as The Battle of Meryton.
This excerpt is © 2019 by Donald P. Jacobson. Reproduction is prohibited. Published in the United States of America.
Stepping through the stout front door, she paused on the walkway to adjust her bonnet and tightly pull her lace gloves onto her fingers. She did not unfurl her parasol, preferring to allow the sun free rein to play over her arms and shoulders. Despite her mother’s dire warnings, Lydia was not one of those women who feared freckles. In this, she was much like Lizzy. Mr. Wickham had averred that he enjoyed the tawny hue that enriched Lydia’s exposed skin.
Looking to her left—and utterly ignoring her right—Lydia turned and began to stroll along the walk toward the chocolaterie. Her tall frame, broad shoulders, and equally sumptuous hips lent a sensuous, sinuous gait.
She had not taken more than ten steps before the sound of male appreciation—or what men, convinced of their desirability to every living female, assume is taken as high praise—reached her ears. Lydia spun on her heels and looked back along the walk to see two pimply-faced militia officers: ensigns or coronets, although she could never tell the difference. They were posturing, gripping their crotches, and leering at her.
Her blood rose, especially after just having sat through thirty minutes of the same, albeit from someone she loved. Even then, Aunt Philips’s vulgarities targeted others, not her.
This assault on her sensibilities, however, was beyond enough!
The old unmarried maiden Lydia would have bathed in the flattery paid to her attributes.
However, Lydia Wickham, the wife of an officer and gentleman, a woman of the Second Battalion, Thirty-Third Regiment, Wellington’s Own, was having none of it, not one jot! Who were these interlopers defiling the streets of her town? Did they assume her to be a loose woman simply because she walked alone to a chocolate shop? Or did they not care, presuming that any female not obviously possessed by another man was ripe for the plucking?
I recall the story Maria told me about when three militia officers accosted her, Mary, and Georgie right after the Fire! I have begged her to repeat it several times. I can imagine my studious older sister, rage rolling off her like rain from Longbourn’s slates, cutting a strip from those pompous popinjays![iii]
Her knuckles whitened on her parasol’s handle. Carmine suffused her cheeks. Blinded by anger, she acted before she thought. Of course, she had been used to considerable deference because she was a gentleman’s daughter and, later, because she was an officer’s wife. Not one man at the Newcastle Depot would have thought to insult her sensibilities thus or importune her good nature.
Private soldiers knew that Color Sergeant Henry Wilson would have enjoyed crushing them. There also was a lingering suspicion that little Charlie Tomkins was handy with a blade and would willingly remove an offender’s liver and feed it to the colonel’s testy boar.
Officers knew they would eat grass for breakfast should Lieutenant Wickham discover they had trifled with his wife. As the challenged party, the choice of weapons would be theirs, not the lieutenant’s. Much to their great relief, they would not have to face close combat struggling with the flashing metal heads of Wickham’s barbaric American tomahawks.
However, the regiment’s lieutenants, coronets, and ensigns had watched Wickham practice with his brace of pistols. No, his were not the fine, well-sighted, Manton dueling pieces favored by so many gentlemen. His pair of Sea Service blunderbusses sported barrels so large that men joked that Wickham could drop small stones down their gaping maws instead of lead balls. His deadly precision with those notoriously inaccurate weapons frightened every man in the formation.
The less said about Wickham’s talent with his Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Saber, capable of splitting a man in two or at least cleanly removing a limb, the better.
Thus, Lydia Wickham had been cocooned, almost cosseted, throughout her entire young life. Now, like the swallowtail emerging from its chrysalis, she unfurled her delicate wings and flew toward her tormentors. Sadly, the butterfly Lydia resembled in her yellow muslin walking dress and black crocheted gloves was also susceptible to summer’s breezes. Akin to that delicate creature, the gusts these stripling wolves could deliver would overwhelm the emotional gossamer upon which the young matron soared.
Lydia drew up short when her charge did not faze the two men.
Closer now, she saw the flushed countenances of men in their cups. She could see the courage gin and brandy had brought to the forefront. Lydia realized that she had stepped into the arena with hyenas, at the least—jackals, more likely.
Her peril became more apparent when they both stepped toward her, their hands moving away from their sides. Did they mean to physically assault her in broad daylight?
She pulled her furled parasol up into a defensive position, aiming its metal tip between the two redcoats shuffling toward her.
They laughed in her face.
The taller of the pair sneered down his overly long nose, drawling as if to show undeserved sophistication. “Why, Aylesboro, look-ee here. This delectable little bit of fluff is trying to bare her teeth. Ah do so enjoy it when they put up a fight.”
His hand snaked out and batted at the silken billows of the umbrella as if he were a cat teased by her mistress. Lydia yanked it back, still presenting it as a miniature lance.
Her anger boiled over, and she snapped crudely, using epithets she had picked up through her time at Newcastle. “Who are you to importune a lady walking down the street, Mr. Snotly Lickspittle?
“I will admit that your pox-scarred countenance is impressive, but not so much so that I would forego the opportunity to buss the bristly arse of an ancient sow.”
“As for your quivering weak-chinned friend,” Lydia paused and ran her eyes up and down his spindly form, “Let me say that I have perceived better tackle on a wee stable boy who has yet to cultivate a single whisker.
“When you tried to play ‘show me yours, I’ll show you mine,’ did she say, ‘Never mind, I help my mama change my baby brother’s nappy and have seen bigger’?
“Perhaps you might take a nice shiny penny to watch a real man ride?”
The one called Aylesboro looked confused at the double-entendre innuendo echoing through her last insult. The leader, however, took advantage of Lydia’s change of focus, grabbed the parasol, and yanked on it. Lydia stumbled forward. He gripped her shoulders and planted a slobbery kiss on her lips, cutting her mouth as his teeth ground her sensitive skin.
A coppery taste flooded across her teeth and tongue. Lydia remembered well her papa’s instruction on a woman’s last line of defense. Her knee flew toward that area of supreme male sensitivity. Unfortunately, her long skirts hindered her movement, and she could only deliver a glancing blow, causing him only modest discomfort.
He arced away, pushing her toward his confederate. “Here. Take her. That alley there! She needs to learn her place, and I will be the one to teach her! Damned bit of muslin…”
Lydia unleashed a glass-scratching shriek, honed to bone-jarring perfection by countless youthful tantrums, cutting short any further musings. She squirmed, nearly breaking free before Aylesboro tightened his grip on her upper arms and began to drag her between buildings. The other followed, his black look unrelieved by any drop of civilized awareness of the evil he was ready to commit.
Booted feet thumped along the raised floorboards, and a hand spun the alpha around into position to receive a clenched fist to his teeth.
Wickham roared, “Unhand my wife!” as his opponent immediately went into a clinch, hoping to put his ten years of additional youth to work in defending against this hurricane blowing in from an unexpected quarter.
Lydia cried, “George!” She regained her feet, throwing Aylesboro off balance. His dim brain registered that Wickham was a greater threat to their safety. He released his burden and jumped to his friend’s assistance.
The lieutenant windmilled his arms as the second man moved into the fight. Where before he had blocked most of the fiercest blows, now, with four fists firing shots, more scored, although Wickham, blinded in his battle fury, ignored them.
For her part, Mrs. Wickham registered that the tide was shifting against her husband. Collecting herself, she leaped on a pair of flexing scarlet shoulders, her claws scratching at the man’s head. He broke off his attack on Wickham, choosing to concentrate on the she-cat who assaulted him from behind.
Lydia’s hands flashed around, leaving bloody trails on his brows and cheeks. He bobbed and weaved, trying to throw her off, but to no avail. In the meantime, Wickham, free again to fight but one, began making progress in his match. The men now circled one another, still unleashing head and body shots. They were unaware of their surroundings, seeing only as far as their wingspan and no more.
In quick order, several events transpired:
The object of Lydia’s attention shook her to one side and threw a vicious elbow into her ribs.
As she relaxed her hold to slide off his back, he dazed her with an elbow to her pert Gardiner nose while trying to catch her breath. Blood spurted, and gore covered her chin.
Wickham tried to break off his bout when Lydia crumbed to the walk. An overhead blow bounced off his ear, turning the sunny afternoon into a swirling mass of darkness punctuated by sparkling stars.
With both Wickhams down, the two assailants paused.
Looking at the gathering crowd, the leader, blood dripping into his eyes from the wounds delivered by Lydia’s nails, considered running but thought he would try another tack. Not having seen the Wickhams before during his brief stay with the militia, he assumed they were equally unknown to the locals. He banked on his red coat as proof of his truthfulness and authority. Arrogance bore its own fruits, as George Wickham had previously discovered, on the streets of Meryton.
“Quickly now, before they escape, find the constable and the magistrate. These two radicals attacked us as we peaceably walked by. They hate the military! They must be French spies or Luddites!” he cried.
The angry murmur that came from the ranks of the crowd sounded, to his ears, to be one of agreement.
Two meaty hands descended upon his and the other’s shoulders. A deep baritone voice split the afternoon air. “I think not, you pusillanimous pipsqueak!
“Being new to town, I doubt you would recognize the youngest daughter of one of the area’s first gentlemen. Nor, I imagine, would you apprehend that she is the sister of one of the nation’s wealthiest landowners, one who could buy and sell your piddling commission with the spare change in his pocket!
“As for calling Mr. Wickham, her husband—yes, she is a married woman—a French agent, I think he will find that quite amusing as he has sent dozens of them to the hell they so richly deserve. I will leave your accusation about them being machine-wreckers in the dust where it so laughably should lie.”
“You are a pox-scarred fool. If your father wasted more than £100 on a commission for your worthless hide, I would argue that he far overspent your worth—unless his only goal was to send you as far away as possible from whatever shithole you sprang,” Henry Wilson growled.
By this point, Wickham had shaken loose the cobwebs clouding his brain and had regained his feet.
Clearing his throat a few times, he found his voice. “My thanks, Sergeant Wilson…”
Hearing the rank of his captor, the brighter wolf rejoined. “Sergeant? Unhand me immediately! You will pay for your insolence! I am Ensign Laurence Smythe-Bigglesworth, your superior, and I will have you hanging from the tripod for three dozen before another hour is out. You dare to touch a superior officer?”
His voice trailed to a squeak as Wilson tightened his grip, squeezing muscle against the underlying bone.
Once silence reigned again, Wickham continued, his voice dropping into the lower, quieter, and more menacing register he had learned from Darcy. This he had honed during his time with Sharpe and Fitzwilliam. “I think not, Ensign. Sergeant Wilson and his associate, Corporal Tomkins”—he paused and acknowledged the ferret-faced, whippet-thin subaltern protecting his blind side—“are here on detached duty under my command.
“Oh, do put that blade away, Tomkins. These two are no threat. Please attend to Mrs. Wickham. If you would be so kind as to escort her and Mesdames Wilson and Tomkins back to Rochets’, I am confident that the sergeant and I will join you shortly once we have concluded this bit of unfinished business.”
Wickham’s face hardened as he watched Tomkins help Lydia back to her feet. The blood streaming from her broken nose had thoroughly soaked the handkerchief she held against her lower face. Leaning heavily on Tomkins’s arm, she limped to Wickham’s side and squeezed his arm. Assessing the damage to his love left Wickham just this side of blind rage. Red mist pushed into his vision as the berserker banner rose in his chest.
Lydia saw his anger. Shaking herself as a setter would after scrambling up a pond’s bank, Mrs. Wickham reached up and caressed his jutting jawline, feeling and hearing the crackling sounds as he ground his teeth together. “George, dearest, these two are not worth it. I am well if slightly injured—nothing worse than when I fell off my pony when I was a wee one. I will not have you hauled before the St. Albans Assizes for murder because you defended my honor in a duel. I must say you did that just now and in a truly glorious manner. Ask our friends who stand around us.
“Seeing you race to my aid reminded me of why I married you in the first place when I could have had my pick of others like Denny, Sanderson, and Chamberlayne. You are a warrior, my love. These are the same sort of boys your militia compatriots were.”
“Their blood would probably not even color your saber, so pitiful they are.” She raised her voice to widely broadcast the next. “And, if you decided only to cripple them, you still would have to flee, as their families would cry out against you.
“Knowing your abilities with blade and bullet, you would relegate these pathetic examples to leaching off their older brothers until they died of old age if they did not take their own lives from shame as every woman within hearing would giggle and point at them, modern-day eunuchs!
“Allow them to live, dear one. The shame of any punishment their colonel will mete out should be enough.”
She squeezed his arm to add emphasis to her appeal.
[i] George Rudé. Protest and Punishment in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Albion, Vol. 5 No. 1 (Spring 1973), 6. I did imagine that in The Longbourn Quarantine.
[ii] Rudé, 17.
[iii] Please see The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey, ch. 23.