"The Janeites", Battle of Loos, Bride and Prejudice, Claudia Johnson, Clueless, Emma, Finding Jane, Humberstall, Jane Austen, Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, Kipling, Pride and Prejudice, World War I, World War I literature
Which young girl who encounters Miss Eliza Bennet in Pride and Prejudice does not find herself as intrigued and charmed by her personality as is Mr. Darcy? Who hasn’t imagined themselves to be as witty, independent, intelligent, thoughtful, and spirited as this much beloved literary heroine?
While perhaps not a book to fuel young men’s dreams, its writer Jane Austen is one of the very few pre-twentieth-century female writers accorded male respect (and any others who come to mind are all mid-to-late Victorian writers: E.B. Browning, C. Bronte (E. Bronte considered too wild!), G. Eliot, H.B. Stowe, E. Dickenson; as a Regency writer, Austen seems to have somehow startled the Establishment into finally including a woman among the ranks of fine writers.
Even then there’s a caveat – that, while she wrote well, the content of her books were too frivolous for serious thinkers – courtship, romance, and the importance of marriage has, after all, remained firmly chick-lit into the 21st century despite the absolute significance of marriage to the male gender as well.
Therefore, I found it surprizing to read that soldiers in WWI carried Jane Austen’s novels into the trenches, and they were especially recommended to soldiers suffering from shell-shock. What is it about these novels that they were prescribed by doctors as a form of treatment for those whose profession, arguably, can be considered the most masculine?
Claudia Johnson, a professor at Princeton recently reviewed in The Economist July 21st 2012, writes about how people have responded to and re-created portraits of Austen and tracks the reception and value of Austen’s work in Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures. From the Victorian belief in Austen’s idealized pastoral England as a contrast to the grimness of a more industrialized age (an idea we are familiar with given that the opening ceremony of the London Olympics made that very contrast in the first 20 minutes) to her being seen as the epitome of all things English worth fighting for in WWII or more currently re-imagined in movies such as Finding Jane or Emma (with such different actors as Gwenyth Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless playing that role), it appears that Austen’s writing weaves its magic on every generation of readers. While writing about a very class-driven society at a particular moment in British history, Austen’s very English stories have also been translated by other hierarchically structured cultures as we see in the Indian made Bride and Prejudice. Perhaps that ordered structure translates well on the battlefield, where trusting others was literally a matter of life and death?
The connection between WWI soldiers and Austen has been fictionalized in a short story by Kipling, who himself lost his son in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. Kipling used reading Austen’s books aloud to his wife and daughter as a means to soften his guilt for helping his son enlist despite his son being rejected twice because of his poor eyesight. Published in 1924, “The Janeites” is about a group of soldiers connected through their love of Austen regardless of their social class. When battle leaves one sole Janeite survivor, Humberstall, his love of Austen endears him to a nurse who helps to smuggle him onto a hospital train, thereby saving his life. To remember the dead, Humberstall continues to read the novels when back home in England.
As for Humberstall, it is not just a generation of readers who come to a book with new insight; one individual can have very different experiences reading the same book later in life, and, while it might have been a salve, an escape, when first read – a reminder of home – or a means to bind soldiers in an neo-Augustan brotherhood , if a WWI veteran picked up her works once again, Austen would become a reminder of the horrors he had faced in Ypres, Verdun, or Loos. Austen had entered the trenches.
– Eleni Anastasiou, August 21st 2012