Rudyard Kipling, The Janeites (#Commentary)

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”.

Rudyard Kipling

Kipling (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

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 … !

Jane Austen by sister Cassandra

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!

Rudyard Kipling
“The Janeites”
First published: Hearst’s International, MacLean’s, and the Story-Teller Magazine, May 1924
Available: Online at UWYO

Rudyard Kipling, An interview with Mark Twain

Rudyard Kipling

Kipling, somewhat older than 23! (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

How could I resist reading this offering from the Library of America, featuring as it does two giants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Both are writers I know well in a superficial way: I’ve really read only a little of their works. This essay, I thought, presented an interesting opportunity to get to know them from a different perspective.

“An interview with Mark Twain” was published in 1890, the year after Kipling, then 23 years old and on his overseas tour to Europe and the USA, interviewed the great man. Twain was 54, and staying in Elmira, NY, at the time. We know from the opening lines that Kipling idolises Twain:

You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V.C., and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain … Understand clearly that I do not despise you, indeed I don’t. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward …

Clearly this is going to be a positively reported interview! The essay starts though, rather humorously, with the challenges Kipling faced in locating Clemens (as he was known) but, one-third of the way into the essay, we finally meet Twain who, despite his grey hair (that “was an accident of the most trivial”) looked “quite young”.

Kipling’s next comment rather continues his hero-worship – and reflects the way many of we readers think when we think of our favourite writers:

Reading his books, I had striven to get an idea of his personality, and all my preconceived notions were wrong and beneath the reality. Blessed is the man who finds no disillusion when he is brought face to face with a revered writer.

You might think, from all this, that the rest of the interview will be rather hagiographic, with Kipling hanging on Twain’s every words. But, while there is an element of that, Kipling is delightfully self-conscious and there is a lovely sense of like minds engaging. Kipling reports on a conversation that ranges over a number of issues, including copyright, about which Twain has strong feelings, believing that a writer (and his heirs) should maintain control over “the work of his brains” (Kipling’s words) in much the same way as you might own “real estate” (Twain’s analogy). If you search the Internet, you will find a number of references to Mark Twain and copyright. As an (ex) librarian/archivist, I have a complicated relationship with copyright. I believe in abiding by it, I believe that creators need recompense for their work and that copyright is one way they can ensure that, but I also like people to be able to access the works they wish. According to my Internet research, Twain did not seek perpetual copyright, but enough to protect/provide for his immediate heirs. That sounds fair enough to me. And, it sounded fair enough to Kipling, though he was a little tongue-in-cheek in reporting that he saw Twain’s point, because he follows it up with “When the old lion roars, the young whelps growl. I growled assentingly”.

[If you are interested in copyright in the USA, check this timeline prepared by the Association of Research Libraries.]

Anyhow, they move on to discuss Twain’s books, and the possibility of a sequel to Tom Sawyer. Twain, teasingly, suggests that he hasn’t decided, that he could “make him rise to great honour and go to Congress” or he could “hang him”! This was too much for Kipling who says “I lost my reverence completely” arguing that Sawyer “was real”. Ah, fiction and reality I thought! This essay is speaking to me again.

Twain replies that Sawyer “is real … he’s all the boys that I have known or recollect” but then goes on to say that:

Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically, according to the joggle, turn out a rip of an angel.

He calls this Kismet, and asks whether Kipling agrees. Kipling does to a degree, but suggests that Sawyer isn’t Twain’s property any more, “he belongs to us”. Hmmm…I’m not sure that this is the aspect of “reality” in fiction that interests me, but the discussion (which is not reported further) is interesting, if only because it reflects topics that engaged these two writers.

They they go on to discuss “truth and the like in literature” but the discussion focuses more on autobiography and Twain’s view that no matter how much an autobiographer may lie about him/herself, the “truth” will out. Ain’t that the truth! All of us writing blogs give ourselves away, regardless, I think, of how we may try to “present” ourselves… But, I think I’ll move on from this possibly murky mire!

And then, in a fascinating little discussion of novel-reading comes this point which may interest we bloggers. It’s about assessing novels. Twain says:

You see … every man has his private opinion about a book. But that is my private opinion. If I had lived in the beginning of things, I should have looked around the township to see what popular opinion thought of the murder of Abel before I openly condemned Cain. I should have had my private opinion, of course, but I shouldn’t have expressed it until I had felt the way.

Is he saying what I think he’s saying? A little later in the essay, and on a slightly different topic, Kipling says “and I am still wondering if he meant what he said”! Knowing a little of Twain, I must admit I’m wondering what was “true” in his comments, and what wasn’t … so much of his “truth” is behind rather than in his words.

Twain goes on to talk about fiction and fact, implying that he prefers the latter, that he doesn’t “care for fiction”. He then gives this advice which I love:

“Get your facts first, and” – the voice dies away to an almost inaudible drone – “then you can distort ’em as much as you please”.

I can’t think of a better point upon which to close this post … but, by way of conclusion, I found at The Huffington Post this comment made by Twain, many years later, about the meeting:

I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before–though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would. . . . He was a stranger to me and to all the world, and remained so for twelve months, then he became suddenly known, and universally known.