By Catherine Zuo and Andrea Fusco
The militia offers social mobility for poor and immoral men to ascend in society and marry beyond their class, destabilizing the traditional English marriage system among aristocrats.
Militia as Material
The military, the armed forces of a country, is not usually thought of as material because of its human constituents. However, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a novel set in a time period when women were considered property and marriage an economic convention, one may very well see how the militia assumes a role as part of the material culture of the time.
The militia is comprised of men, quite often the younger sons of the gentry, and rich, well-bred men were so scarce at the time that they were sought after as husbands by nearly every family with a daughter to marry off. Though not all of the officers were rich or well-bred, enough were to ensure that the officers thus appear as goods more than people at times, and are treated as such by women such as Lydia and Kitty. Of Lydia, Elizabeth muses, “Sometimes one officer, sometimes another had been her favourite, as their attentions raised them in her opinion. Her affections had been continually fluctuating, but never without an object” (Austen 312). Austen’s reluctance to designate the officers by individual names, or Elizabeth’s failure to remember thm, dehumanizes them and implies that they are indistinguishable. The fact that they are “object[s]” of Lydia’s affections instead of subjects who act for themselves in this description suggests that they are essentially no more human than the carriages or playing cards of the time.
In this painting by Denis Dighton, the British army on the left fights against the French cavalry in the Napoleonic Wars.
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.
Immorality and Social Mobility in the 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.
George Wickham as portrayed by Adrian Lukis
Nowhere are the effects of this social mobility more clearly seen than in the character of George Wickham. Charming and handsome, Wickham exudes virtue and fine manners, but these pretended traits belie his true moral deviance. The anonymity and glamor surrounding the militia allows Wickham to project whatever persona he chooses, as no others in the army know of his past and regular citizens are inclined to think well of soldiers. When Elizabeth and her family attempt to research his past, they discover that “[i]t was not known that Wickham had a single relation with whom he kept up any connection, and it was certain that he had no near one living. His former acquaintance had been numerous; but since he had been in the militia, it did not appear that he was on terms of particular friendship with any of them” (332). Through the militia, Wickham has escaped his "former acquaintance[s]" and been given a chance to start anew with a raised social rank.
Implications for Marriage
In portraying the militia as corrupt and superficial, Austen suggests that the social status granted to these men poses a threat to the existing inter-aristocracy marriage system. Ideally in this system the rich would marry the rich and continue to preserve and expand their wealth; however, the upper class will always be beset by social climbers from the middle and lower classes seeking to increase their meager fortunes. The militia provides an opportunity for immoral and perhaps even poor men to elevate their statuses enough to marry into wealth if they have sufficient charm and cunning. Wickham's marriage to Lydia is the prime example of this corruption of the marriage system. After he elopes with her, the Bennet family learns that “in the wretched state of his own finances, there was a very powerful motive for secrecy … for it had just transpired that he had left gaming debts behind him to a very considerable amount… He owed a good deal in the town, but his debts of honour were still more formidable” (332). Wickham hides the "wretched state of his own finances" under a veneer of sociability, and once the debts begin to erode his reputation, he tries to escape them by running away with Lydia. Though her dowry is not enough to substantially increase Wickham's fortune, by marrying her he can alleviate his own debts by imposing them on the Bennets. Thus, a man with little money marries a woman with more, impoverishing her family with his own lack of fortune.
The fluctuations in wealth that occur within and between English families show the fundamental instability of the 'marriage economy.' The intermarriage of rich and poor, sometimes caused by the false reputations conveyed by the militia, disrupted its sanctity and may have eventually led to its collapse.
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