A Class Apart

The Military Man in French and British Fiction, 1740–1789

by Karen Lacey (Author)
Monographs 244 Pages


The military man has long been one of literature’s archetypal figures. Using a comparative framework, this book traces the transformation of the military man in eighteenth-century British and French literature as this figure moved from noble warrior to nationalised professional in response to changes within the military structure, the role of empire and the impact of an expanding middle class. The author examines the way in which the masculinity of the military man was reimagined at a time when older models of military service persisted alongside emerging models of patriotic nationalism, inspired by bourgeois morality, the cult of sensibility and a new understanding of the role of violence in both public and private domains. Through a corpus of canonical and lesser-known literature, the book explores the military man’s relationship to the state and to his fellow citizens, even in the domestic setting. With the role of the «nobleman» in decline, the military man, not a «civilian» and no longer associated with the ‘aristocrat’, became a separate class of man.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 : The Fetish of the Sword
  • Chapter 2 : Young Men in a Military Profession
  • Chapter 3 : The Selfless Veteran in an Empire
  • Chapter 4 : Mercenaries in a Nation of Citizens
  • Chapter 5 : The Justicier in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Tragedy
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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I would like to thank my PhD supervisors, Professor Clare Brant and Dr Sanja Perovic for their wisdom and encouragement, as well as Dr Rowan Boyson and Dr Andrew Counter for their insightful comments. I should like to thank the faculty of the French Department of King’s College London for providing an additional layer of support.

I am indebted to Professor Robin Howells of Birkbeck College who helped to set me on this path.

I am thankful for my children Nicholas, Patrick and Brigid, who accompanied me patiently through my undertaking in the midst of their own academic endeavours. Above all, I am grateful to my husband Joe for his intelligence and good humour.

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In The Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith discussed the relationship between societies in their ‘different periods of improvement’ and the kind of military man demanded by the ‘improvements’. The contemporary soldiery, he wrote, had been changed by the much greater emphasis on ‘regularity, order, and prompt obedience’ engendered by the invention of firearms.

Before the invention of firearms, that army was superior in which the soldiers had, each individually, the greatest skill and dexterity in the use of their arms. […] In modern war the habit of ready and instant obedience is of much greater consequence than a considerable superiority in the management of arms.1

Regularity, order, and obedience could only be achieved through routine training and systematisation, progressing towards a new professionalism. Smith describes a shift away from the glory of the individual warrior toward the power of a unified and un-individuated body of troops. He attributes these developments to improvements in technology, an important factor, but the nature of the changes he describes is fundamental and has ramifications for society and culture. Indeed, the military man has long been one of the archetypal figures of literature. This study considers representations of the military man in British and French fiction as he evolves from embodying a non-national archetype (warrior, knight, noble) to becoming a member of a nationalised profession (officer, soldier, sailor) in the decades leading to the emergence of the popular mass army. It will demonstrate the manner in which different societal forces and institutions form different masculinities, and therefore, different military men, as reflected in the dominant literary genres of the period.

The military man bears the inscription of the forces that shaped him because his is a masculinity demonstrated through compulsory, prescribed ← 1 | 2 → action. Writing in 1757 Jean-Jacques Rousseau lamented the constitution of contemporary men generally: ‘si l’on compare la force des hommes anciens à celle des hommes d’aujourd’hui, on n’y trouve aucune espèce d’égalité’ [if one compares the strength of the ancients to that of today’s men, there is no equality to be found].2 Turning his lens to the military man he wrote, ‘qu’on trouve à présent un seul homme de guerre capable d’en faire autant. Nous sommes déchus en tout’ [but that we could find at present a single military man capable of doing as much. We are fallen in everything].3 Rousseau reflects a sense of loss at a perceived degeneration in the quality of men and uses the representation of the military man, no longer capable of performing military valour in the manner of the ancients, to illustrate his thesis. He was not the only one to turn to the figure of the military man to express a society whose military institutions were at the crossroads of two overlapping political systems which were simultaneously antagonistic and complementary: the dynastic realm and the nation. Both have relevance for the way the changing function of the military man was understood, valued and represented.

My study focuses on the representation of the British and French military man in imaginative prose literature. It asks questions such as: why does fictional narrative in the eighteenth century frequently include military characters? What function does this military character play? How do these characters reflect more general changes in the function and understanding of the military in the period? My analysis of representations of military men moves away from ‘types’ largely inherited from theatre, towards a broader range of contemporary images.4 Karen Harvey contends that ← 2 | 3 → ‘there is a need for more attention to be paid to status, sorts, and class in the history of masculinity’.5 Equally, she argues for more work to be done on the relationship between war and masculinity in the eighteenth century, particularly in order to problematise the received narrative within the history of masculinities of the ‘shift from the seventeenth-century man of honour to the eighteenth-century man of refinement’, which she believes has been overstated. This study lends further support to Harvey’s argument by analysing the still powerful role of honour as an important element of eighteenth-century masculinity both in Britain and in France. It does so by considering a literary corpus that, for the most part, places the military man in a contemporary setting marked by the last two European wars before the French Revolution: the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and the Seven Years War (1756–63). Though the dates of the wars span the years 1740 to 1763, the study concludes at 1789 because the questions raised by these wars had an afterlife that endured and developed till the French Revolution, and in some cases beyond. History teaches that the social and cultural reverberations of wars can be slowly unfolding and of long duration.

The evolving representation of the military man in British and French literature is a subject that presents ideological similarities while also calling ← 3 | 4 → attention to national differences. In a recent study of cultural transfer between eighteenth-century France and Britain, Ann Thomson and Simon Burrows maintain that ‘the history of France or Britain […] cannot be understood without taking into account the neighbour across the Channel’.6 Edmond Dziembowski argues that ‘a comparative study of British and French history reveals striking ideological and political convergences as the English model, which fascinated not only literary circles but also the French government, became ever more influential’.7 This influence would magnify after the Seven Years War because of the enormous victory for Britain and demoralising loss for France. As Linda Colley maintains, Britain and France had each formed their national self-image in opposition to their cross-channel ‘other’ largely by means of military performance on the European and world stage, accompanied by the gradual move toward patriotic nationalism.

Britain and France, simply put, were ancient rivals, a relation created by their parallel ambitions and status. Among rivals, a grudging respect is acknowledgement of their ‘other’ as a worthy rival. British military officer James Wolfe, veteran of the War of the Austrian Succession and eventual hero of the Seven Years War, went to Paris between the two wars, in 1752, to study the French language, horsemanship, fencing and dancing. As Stephen Brumwell asserts, Wolfe’s written observations about the French during this visit reflect ‘the ambivalence with which Englishmen of his class viewed their old enemies. Whilst scoffing at the foppish superficiality of the French, they nonetheless acknowledged the superior sophistication of their culture – and flocked to Paris in hopes that some of that polish would rub off on them’.8 Britain and France can be likened to two men of ← 4 | 5 → honour who make fitting duelling opponents, an analogy which will have significance in this study.

While old notions of honour were still very much integral to representations of military figures in the literature and culture of this period, they were increasingly coming under pressure from a new model of nationalism. As Benedict Anderson has argued, this emergent nationalism engendered the need for new genres to better reflect the individual’s new relation to time and place; in particular the newspaper and the novel. Previously the high genres – the heroic forms and history paintings – were the established genres for depicting military valour; they, and history, had been the gatekeepers to glory. Heroic depictions, however, were challenged by two new elements: the modern battlefield and the new demand for moral instruction, both of which problematised the idea of the heroic. In his article ‘Modern Warfare in Early-Eighteenth Century Poetry’, John Richardson demonstrates that as early as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), established high genres were no longer able to depict modern warfare. Although poets continued to use heroic forms to represent the face of modern battle, Richardson argues, ‘the two aims proved incompatible […] evidence exists that contemporaries felt the same’.9 Writers had to confront the presence of firearms and gunpowder on the battlefield, greatly restricting the scope for glorifying the military hero. Fiction also encountered competition from increasingly detailed newspaper accounts: Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim got ‘blanket media coverage’, giving both writers and readers access to technological and tactical particulars straight from the front line.10 Richardson argues that attempts at heroic poetry diminished after this period and writers of the mid-century looked for new forms for representing warfare: ‘the history of eighteenth-century literature is not just a history of the temporary dominance of satire, the (possible) rise of the novel, and the emergence of the Romantic, but also one of the decline of the heroic’.11 ← 5 | 6 →

From the mid-century, British and French literature was also marked by an increasing demand for moral themes, contemporary contexts, as well as characters representing a broad range of class positions and in possession of a developed sense of inner subjectivity. This trend was most fully conveyed in the rise of sentimental fiction, a popular new genre in both nations, and one that is important to this study. In France, sentimental fiction accompanied the cultural movement known as ‘anglomanie’. What started in the 1730s and 40s as an admiration for British culture became more trenchant after the Seven Years War when the British model seemed to offer an attractive option for solving France’s woes. Sentimental fiction, Josephine Grieder explains, emphasised ‘sensibilité and benevolence as natural, individual – not socially determined – characteristics; and they hail the British as the chief exemplars of these virtues’.12 Within a comparative framework, recognition of national differences can, for example, be seen in the distinctive function of sensibility in French and British literature. In France, the theme of sensibility could be deployed as a weapon in the Enlightenment campaign against absolute rule and oppressive religion. A didactic use of sensibility was manifested most prominently in the moral tale, a genre pioneered in France, and one in which narratives tended to demonstrate new measures of personal worth not based on wealth or rank, but rather on virtue. Katherine Astbury maintains, ‘the moral tale’s concern with social morality places it firmly within an Enlightenment tradition that paved the way for the French Revolution’.13

Britain, however, as J. G. A. Pocock contends, ‘was too modern to need an Enlightenment and was already engaged upon the quarrel with modernity itself’.14 ‘Modernity’ brought luxury and leisure, but it came at a price: specialisation in the workplace, a new political economy based on credit, a global trade dependent upon a professional standing army ← 6 | 7 → supported by bureaucracy and funded through taxation and debt. A standing army comprised of professional soldiers and paid for by the state, Pocock stresses, ‘was something new in the world’.15 Modernity shook traditional values and was difficult for eighteenth-century Britons to morally assess. In Britain, therefore, as Markman Ellis argues, ‘sensibility was one of the tools of a thorough-going and self-conscious analysis of the emergent consumer-economy of British society and culture’.16 Throughout this study the emergence of new moral contexts that resulted from political and social shifts will be seen to influence literature as writers adapted genres to contemporary subject matter.

Critical Context: Judith Butler and Benedict Anderson

In addition to thinking about status, sorts and class, it is necessary to think about how ‘military-ness’ can be represented. Judith Butler’s central tenet is that ‘the substantive effect of gender is performatively produced […] gender is always a doing’.17 Referring to ‘styles’ of performing gender, she explains that ‘styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities’.18 Different styles of masculinity attain power and coherence through repetition over time: their performance must be continually repeated to retain vigour and coherence. Gill Jagger argues that within Butler’s theories, ‘the political possibilities and agency stem from the inherent repeatability of these signifying practices and the possibility of ← 7 | 8 → resignification’.19 This is especially important for the changing landscape of the eighteenth century in which, as I will argue, the ability to ‘perform’ and ‘repeat’ the ‘signifying practices’ associated with the military identity were considerably stretched. To what extent could the identity of the military man be changed while maintaining its coherence? I consider the continuing attraction of honour culture and its importance for the representation of the military man in Chapter 1 where I trace the ritualistic demands of honour via its fetish object: the sword. The duel was a compulsive form of behaviour, situated at the intersection of what Butler describes as ‘norms that are entrenched versus norms that are vulnerable to resignification’.20 A stylised and violent performance, the origins of the duel can be traced to the chivalric tradition. Attempts to keep honour culture and the duel alive exposed a belief in an originating, foundational masculinity that needed to be incessantly copied and repeated. However, if, as Butler notes, there is no original, foundational gender, then the ‘original’ is revealed to be a copy, and an inevitably failed one, an ideal that no one can embody.21 Attempts to copy an originating style of masculinity can thus be seen as a type of compensation, one that engenders anxiety, loss, social segregation or death to those who either cannot or will not meet its demands.

Simultaneously, traditional conceptions of military masculinity were being confronted with factors that made attempts to perform it increasingly difficult. These included changes in military technology and practice, as well as the categories of honour, glory and nobility which became increasingly problematic due to their association with inherited privilege and violence. Opposing honour-based culture was the emerging conception of the ‘man of merit’, a subject of the second chapter of this book. How can merit be iterated or recognised by others? What could it look like? In terms of gender identity, Judith Butler argues that ‘it is clear that coherence ← 8 | 9 → is desired, wished for, idealized’.22 Some of the military figures in this study lack coherence because their authors were attempting to ‘resignify’ them. The incoherence is in itself instructive – what signs were writers attempting to endow with meaning? Attempts at resignification lead to certain narratives in which the performance of masculinity remains ‘traditional’ but its context is not, complicating attempts to ‘read’ the performance. The extent to which eighteenth-century authors conceived of military masculinity as an essentialist, innate, ‘original’ masculinity is a question posed by certain military characters analysed in this study. In the new moral contexts found in eighteenth-century literature, another question posed is whether the possession of an innate warrior masculinity is a benefit or a detriment to society? Equally, does the conception of an essentialist sword-wielding masculinity serve as a benefit or a detriment to the individual man himself? As Butler forcefully pronounces, ‘gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences’.23 It is not difficult to see how the performance of gender can have punitive consequences for the military man.

As alluded to above, this study has also been influenced by Benedict Anderson’s account of the rise of nationalism and its relation to culture. Alok Yadav suggests that Anderson has been popular with literary scholars because he offers the ‘new theorization of the cultural dimension of nationalism’.24 According to this view, culture is not merely a product of society; it is a performer, contributing to national identity and subject formation, a process whose origins cannot be located. As Todd Reeser argues, ‘the nation creates masculinity at the same time as masculinity creates the nation’.25 Because Anderson locates the beginnings of the shift toward nationalism in the late eighteenth century, he takes the reader back, articulating the nature of the ancient and deeply held relationships that pre-existed the modern state, relationships that are imperative to understanding the place of the warrior. The developing ‘imagined community’ ← 9 | 10 → of the nation engendered a new relation to warfare, culminating in the increased scale of warfare seen in the French Revolutionary Wars. Mary Favret describes Napoleon as the ‘general willing to sacrifice the lives of a million men’.26 But it is my contention that numbers of dead soldiers on the battlefield do not disclose the entire substance of warfare in a particular time and place. There are certain basic questions that can be applied to warfare in any country and any century: these include the factors that cause a man to be recruited and the kind of compensation he expects in return. I will attempt to reclaim the specificity of the last two European wars before the French Revolution through an analysis of the fictional military men that populated the literature of these decades.

The Dynastic Realm as a Political System

Understanding the dynastic realm reminds us that emergent nationalism articulated in part a class struggle against deeply ingrained power structures. In this study I will refer to a tension between high and low genres in the eighteenth century; high genres were about members of the dynastic realm, either explicitly in heroic fiction or chivalric romance, or allegorically in neo-classicism. Low genres such as the picaresque represented a wider range of class positions, but only in a humorous context. The dynastic realm was composed of the ancient nobility of Europe, families united by centuries of inter-marriage and whose power was cemented through war and land ownership; at the upper echelons, they ruled Europe. Marie Antoinette was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I (Duke of Lorraine), and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, a couple whose struggle for power had provoked the War of the Austrian Succession. George II was born in Germany and was simultaneously King of Great Britain and Elector of Hanover. According to Benedict Anderson, ‘these days it is perhaps ← 10 | 11 → difficult to put oneself empathetically into a world in which the dynastic realm appeared for most men as the only imaginable “political system” [because] it lies transverse to all modern conceptions of political life’.27 In the dynastic realm, monarchies were organised around centres, ‘borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another’.28 This is in contrast to modern societies, which are constructed within sovereign states, sovereignty demarcating borders and uniting everything contained within them. Throughout the eighteenth century, borders were gradually hardening; nonetheless dynastic relationships continued to have an impact on the nature of warfare.

Carl Schmitt gives a compelling illustration of warfare in early modern Europe, describing what he calls ‘war in form’. By no means bloodless, war in form was ‘bracketed’ or limited, not threatening the civilian population and observing rules of conduct. Bracketed war was permitted by the development of a new spatial order that Schmitt calls jus publicum Europaeum (European public law) which emerged as the respublica Christiana declined and the European sovereign state increased its dominance and enjoyed the freedoms and land-appropriations offered by the New World.29 For Schmitt, the foremost distinction between different types of war is the context in which the enemy is viewed by his adversary, a theory that is crucial to the study of the military man because of its class and moral implications. Schmitt employs the terms justus hostis and justa causa to illustrate his argument. Justa causa belli describes a war whose cause is thought to be ‘just’, and the enemy, therefore, is deemed to be ‘unjust’, a moral distinction which paves the way for the kind of unlimited war found in religious and creedal wars. David Antaki explains that ‘prior to the rise of the state, religious wars had torn apart the continent of Europe’.30 Wars of justa causa belli ← 11 | 12 → are fought with ‘enmity’, meaning that there is no friendship, no legal community, no hospitality, no treaties or conventions between combatants. In contrast, a justus hostis is a ‘just enemy’, and is the term Schmitt uses to describe military opponents who view one another as sovereigns and equals.31 Schmitt makes an analogy between the European ‘war in form’ and the duel, an institution which was felt by its participants, who were co-equals, to provide justice.32 Mutual recognition as co-equals was established by the fact that ‘European sovereigns remained personally a close-knit family, through consanguinity and succession’.33 Schmitt argues that the status of European monarchs served to lend their states an increasingly powerful sovereign identity, bringing an eventual fixing of territorial divisions, a (necessary) precursor to national identity.

The centrality of relationships whose origins are found in the dynastic realm is articulated by Voltaire in the ‘Discours Préliminaire’ to his Poëme sur Fontenoy (1745), in which he can be said to be describing ‘war in form’ between justus hostis:


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 244 pp.

Biographical notes

Karen Lacey (Author)

Karen Lacey received her first degree from Birkbeck, University of London, and her PhD from King’s College London, where she is currently a Visiting Research Fellow.


Title: A Class Apart