The topic for my local Jane Austen group’s March meeting was “Jane Austen in the trenches” which, I realise, sounds a bit anachronistic, given she died in 1817, nearly a century before the trenches we’re talking about. But, you see, Jane’s fame didn’t start in 1995 with Colin Firth and that wet shirt. No, her popularity took off around the late 19th century and has continued ever since, albeit with a huge spurt in the late 20th century. As Claire Harman states in Jane’s fame, she is the only writer “who is instantly recognisable by her first name”.
Anyhow, into the trenches. Our discussion was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites”, first published in 1924. It’s a little tricky to read, being peppered with Cockney voices, but it’s worth the effort – and not just for Janeites. It is set in a London Masonic Lodge in 1920, during a weekly clean-up of the premises. There are three main characters – Brother Anthony, a veteran of army service in the Holy Land during World War I, now a taxi driver; Brother Humberstall, a hairdresser who is a veteran of artillery service in France and who suffers somewhat from shell-shock (now, PTSD); and the first-person narrator, ostensibly Kipling. Humberstall tells the others of his induction, during the war, into a secret society, the Janeites. He explains how he came to join this society, which included members from all ranks, and the tests he had to pass to do so. He tells how this society kept them sane during the war, and how it, in fact, saved him, when, after a terrible attack, he was his group’s only survivor:
… I walked a bit, an’ there was a hospital-train fillin’ up, an’ one of the Sisters—a grey-headed one—ran at me wavin’ ’er red ’ands an’ sayin’ there wasn’t room for a louse in it. I was past carin’. But she went on talkin’ and talkin’ about the war, an’ her pa in Ladbroke Grove, an’ ’ow strange for ’er at ’er time of life to be doin’ this work with a lot o’ men, an’ next war, ’ow the nurses ’ud ’ave to wear khaki breeches on account o’ the mud, like the Land Girls; an’ that reminded ’er, she’d boil me an egg if she could lay ’ands on one, for she’d run a chicken-farm once. You never ’eard anythin’ like it—outside o’ Jane. It set me off laughin’ again. Then a woman with a nose an’ teeth on ’er, marched up. “What’s all this?” she says. “What do you want?” “Nothing,” I says, “only make Miss Bates, there, stop talkin’ or I’ll die.” “Miss Bates?” she says. “What in ’Eaven’s name makes you call ’er that?” “Because she is,” I says. “D’you know what you’re sayin’?” she says, an’ slings her bony arm round me to get me off the ground. “’Course I do,” I says, “an’ if you knew Jane you’d know too.” “That’s enough,” says she. “You’re comin’ on this train if I have to kill a Brigadier for you,” an’ she an’ an ord’ly fair hove me into the train, on to a stretcher close to the cookers. That beef-tea went down well! Then she shook ’ands with me an’ said I’d hit off Sister Molyneux in one, an’ then she pinched me an extra blanket. It was ’er own ’ospital pretty much. I expect she was the Lady Catherine de Bourgh of the area.
Of course, you have to know your Jane Austen to get the Miss Bates reference … !
Throughout the story Austen is only ever described as Jane, which bears out Harman’s comment above. There’s an entertaining description of Austen’s subject matter –
’Twasn’t as if there was anythin’ to ’em, either. I know. I had to read ’em. They weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even interestin’
– and some amusing references to various Austen characters, particularly Reverend Collins, Lady Catherine de Bugg (de Bourgh), General Tilney and Miss Bates. There’s also a comment that Austen did “leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son”, and that was Henry James. Fair enough. At one stage, Humberstall chalks their guns with the names of Austen characters. His Janeite superiors approve, though there is some discussion about whether he’d accorded the right name to the right gun. For example:
… they said I was wrong about General Tilney. ’Cordin’ to them, our Navy twelve-inch ought to ’ave been christened Miss Bates …
Of course, much has been written about this story, including its secret society setting, the Masons, and Kipling’s intentions about that – but these other issues are not my focus here.
What is of interest is Humberstall’s statement late in the story:
“… You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. …”
It is this that inspired our meeting because, while Kipling’s story is fiction, it is the case that Austen’s novels, among others, were provided to soldiers to read for morale. On the Kipling Society’s website is this:
In 1915, John Buchan and George Mackenzie-Brown, co-directors of Nelson, launched the highly successful Continental Library series, designed to be carried in soldiers’ pockets. Gassart [who wrote an article for the TLS in 2002] quotes the papers of W.B. Henderson, a Glaswegian schoolmaster attached to a Siege Battery in the Royal Garrison Artillery, in arguing that a book’s solace:
was its power to transport the infantryman from a world of “sergeants major and bayonet fighting, and trench digging and lorry cleaning and caterpillar greasing” into the fantasy of the novelist – and none was better at it than Jane Austen.
Her novels were also used during the war as part of therapy with shell-shock victims. Indeed, the above-mentioned Clare Harman says that three of Austen’s novels were “at the top of a graded Fever-Chart”. Academic Claire Lamont (in her paper, “Jane Austen and the nation”) suggests that this was because Austen’s “Englishness expresses itself as the standard of where and how one might live…”. Other critics have other ideas – though many of them are variations on this theme. One member of my group found a report that novels like Austen’s were used to gee-up damaged soldiers to get them back to the front! That shocked us somewhat. Bibliotherapy, it seems, is not a new thing.
Kipling, himself, was, not surprisingly, an Austen fan. As well as his story “The Janeites” (which term was coined by a critic back in the 1870s), he wrote a poem, whose final lines are used as an epigram for “The Janeites”:
Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And while the stones of Winchester – or Milsom Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!
OK, so it’s a bit sentimental I admit, but he wrote it and that’s my excuse for using it to close today’s little commentary!
First published: Hearst’s International, MacLean’s, and the Story-Teller Magazine, May 1924
Available: Online at UWYO