A Special Supplement: On Violence


When, in Chapter 12 of Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet return from their visit to Netherfield, their foolish sisters Catherine and Lydia have something to tell them of the soldiers garrisoned nearby.

Much had been done and much had been said in the regiment since the preceding Wednesday; several of the officers had dined lately with their uncle, a private had been flogged, and it had actually been hinted that Colonel Foster was going to be married.

What is here used by Jane Austen to bring out the brittleness of understanding and the lack of heart in uneducated young women of the minor gentry was taken as a matter of course even by the victims themselves. Humane officers would sometimes examine a man’s back before ordering a flogging; and if it was unscarred would commute the penalty. They were reluctant to break the man’s skin, just as men of pleasure who would sleep with any attractive woman offering herself would boast that they had never deflowered a virgin. But a man already scarred by the cat was fair game.

The agony, with the back torn open and the salt rubbed into the wounds, must have been indescribable. It was thought to be a sad necessity. Wellington was said in the peninsular campaign to have hanged and flogged the army into order.1 Frederick, Duke of York, a humane man rightly called “the soldier’s best friend,” sent out a confidential circular laying down that regimental courts-martial were not in sentencing to award more than 300 lashes.2

There were, of course, some commanding officers who never ordered the lash, and these were the most successful. One is reminded of old-fashioned boys’ schools in which incompetent masters in flogging their pupils merely increased the tumult that was the occasion for the punishment, whereas others could keep order and excite interest without raising their voices. But in the main those who professed to be shocked by the executions of Louis XVI and his Queen and wept over the September massacres took the flogging of common soldiers as a necessity of war, just as the dark side of that naval tradition represented with such radiance by Collingwood and Nelson was—the phrase is Winston Churchill’s—rum, buggery, and the lash.

In all periods what is taken to be unalterable, a part of the natural order, is not singled out as violence. Violence in the England of the Regency was something that showed itself in the actions of foreign revolutionaries or of poor people firing ricks or smashing machines. The bodily reality of violence used in defense of the social order is scarcely perceived by Catherine and Lydia, whereas we can be sure they would have been horrified by the least rumor of mob violence.

This is a kind of social myopia. It is just as prevalent today. There is no doubt that a murder committed, or believed to have been committed, by young men with long hair and necklaces will…

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