Prepared by member Marilyn
Among the British authors whose works were read by British soldiers in the trenches in World War 1 was Jane Austen. Her novels were included in book boxes supplied to the troops by British and American services for readers who sought books of strong domestic interest as well as other tales of adventure and comedy. Portable sized books were distributed to troops – to the extent that Jane Austen’s books were in short supply during wartime.
This idea that Austen was read by soldiers during WW1, is reported frequently. Claire Harman in her book Jane’s fame argues that the trenches were full of Janeites who took solace from reading Jane Austen in the trenches (p. 181.)
Why, was one of the questions we explored. Some commentators argue that it’s because her books were seen as a reflection of national character, with seductive descriptions of the calm eighteenth century landscape. They are nostalgic and provided a place of tranquility, with decent codes of behaviour and normality to retreat to during periods of anticipating conflict. They reinforced the idea that the survival of the society was more important than the survival of the individual. Harman claims that Jane Austen’s novels enabled the reader to ”feel the benefit of this grave intellectual voice speaking out of a profound eighteenth century calm.” (p. 181)
Further, it is argued that reading Austen in the Great War served a political objective of reinforcing through her writing that England and its way of life, its decent codes of behaviour and its calm, ordered manner of existence was worth fighting for.
It is not unexpected that intellectuals caught up in the conflict would have chosen to read Austen. She was perhaps seen as a grave intellectual voice speaking from the eighteenth century providing solace from reality. Intellectuals such Siegfried Sassoon and R W Chapman were thought to have chosen to take their own copies of her novels to war with them.
David Owen sees a propagandist use of the works that promote an idealised view of home and gives a sense of meaning out of the chaos at the front. He argues that out of the trenches, soldiers recovering from war damage were given Jane Austen to read as bibliotherapy. It was seen as salubrious reading for the wounded and an aid to convalescence.
Austen’s books were selected from a list of works compiled by Herbert Francis Brett-Smith (an Oxford history lecturer exempt from active military service) and thought to be beneficial reading for recuperating soldiers. We have little evidence, however, on how these works were used or what effect they had. We noted, however, that Austen’s works were conscripted to convince the recuperated soldiers to return to the war to fight for values worth defending .
Inevitably those writing on this subject commented on Jane Austen’s lack of detail of Napoleonic wars in her novels. However, we’d argue that war intruded into her novels when necessary, such as the references to the Meryton camp, in Pride and Prejudice, and the naval families who were frequently introduced.
Also, from our point of view, the argument that Austen was the literature of consolation denies the feisty reading of her work. The inner struggles of characters, that give the novels their power, were perhaps not appreciated by a superficial reading of her as escapism.
Unfortunately, as far as we could research, there is no evidence to support the degree to which soldiers reflected on Austen nor is there any evidence to suggest what proportion of soldiers read Austen.
Part of our meeting was devoted to discussing Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites” about a garrison of soldiers who form an allegiance based on their knowledge and understanding of Jane Austen’s novels. In Kipling’s story, the lone survivor of this group, now a hairdresser, tells its story during a regular cleaning session of a Masonic Lodge to which he belongs.
He tells how this group cut across rank and social levels, how he had come to read all six books, and how all but he were killed in an horrific attack. He describes how weapons were named after Austen’s characters – with one gun being named after “Lady Catherine de Bugg“ and he asserts “there’s no one to touch Jane when you are in a tight place.” This story suggests that Jane was popular then and perhaps predicts the fandom that emerged later. “The Janeites“ was denounced by CS Lewis as a cunningly contrived story.
(We noted that the term “Janeite”, itself, was coined back in the 1870s by a critic named George Saintsbury.)
- Claire Harman, Jane’s fame: How Jane Austen conquered the world, Canongate, 2009
- Rudyard Kipling, “The Janeites”, first published in 1922. (Available online)
- David Owen, “Conscripting gentle Jane: Getting the Austen treatment in the Great War” in David Owen and Cristina Pividori (ed), Writings of persuasion and dissonance in the Great War: That better whiles may follow worse, Leiden, 2016