In honor of the triumphant return of Sanditon this spring, GBH Drama put together an email series to accompany each episode. For those who missed the emails, we now present them here (lightly edited for formatting).
If you still clicked on this article despite the horrible pun in the headline, I applaud your valor. This week, we’re talking about something that’s been bugging me, a nerd, this entire season: what’s up with our resident men in uniform? Any Austen fan will tell you that a story in need of enlivening must be in want of an influx of eligible gentlemen, so adding our boys in red for Sanditon season 2 made a lot of sense. But how accurate is the portrayal of the regiment? Read on for answers:
First things first: when we think of “army” and Jane Austen, most of us are actually probably thinking of the militia. These are the guys whose arrival in Meryton was heralded almost as much as our pal Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. Militia groups were kind of like the US draft: young men (clergy excepted) were required to “volunteer” to join the militia in order to keep an eye on the home front while the regulars (the army) were out fighting for king and country abroad. Officers were selected based on family wealth (which as we mentioned in previous coverage was tied to land ownership) and each militia group would be led by a local, landowning aristocrat. The militia was responsible for preventing sedition, riots, and theoretically dealing with invaders, but in practice, they basically hung out in the countryside practicing shooting and marching… and partying. Now as you can imagine, since they moved around a lot and had a ton of free time on their hands to get into trouble, these guys weren’t actually that popular.
By contrast, army or navy officers were well respected. Not only were they heroes against the dastardly French, officers were also gentlemen (i.e. potential eligible bachelors). Officer ranks would generally be purchased, and the idea was basically that the high barrier to entry would pull in only the most patriotic, refined good guys. Commissions were expensive, but gave a man a career and a retirement plan (the government would give you back your money when you decided to retire). If you didn’t have the cash, you could either pay for all your stuff and lodgings as a volunteer and hope that a spot opened up for you, or on rare occasions, officer ranks were awarded for bravery. Regardless, it’d be easier to advance in times of war as new regiments were created or your superiors died in battle. Militia groups would not serve overseas, but regulars would.
So what’s the deal with our dudes in Sanditon? From what we saw this season, they’re kind of a franken-force. Like a militia, they’re based temporarily in the countryside, and spend most of their time practicing and partying. We’ve also learned that they’ve racked up a bunch of unpaid bills, which was a stereotype of Regency militias. But like the regular army, we know that they operate on a commission system, because Horrible Edward still hasn’t paid for his, the dirty rat. Similarly, this group has served overseas, as Captain Carter’s stolen tale of heroism in battle indicates, and the group's eventual posting in India in episode 6. I’m sure some military historian is watching the show and pulling out her hair, but I’m not inclined to argue with the setup too much: this plot line gave us the exact infusion of drama that we needed this season!
Looking for more of the history behind Sanditon season 2? Check out our other coverage on our Sanditon hub here.