Happy Tuesday to you all! I hope everyone is making progress on their Austen in August goals. I’ve made it through two books thus far, so you can expect reviews very soon. Giveaways will return this week as well, but for now let’s welcome Lauren to the Austen stage for a little chat on the comforts of Jane Austen. You can visit her book blog at Esther’s Narrative and her writing blog at The Renegade Word.
I’m pretty sure 2013 was my most Austenian year ever: I read 3 Austen novels, joined my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), attended a series of lectures on Austen, saw Austen’s portrait and writing desk in the flesh, and even traveled to Chawton. This year has paled in comparison on the front of Doing Big Austen Things, but it’s given me time to process that information and parse out what kind of Janeite I am.
I know that “Janeite” can be a divisive term among Austen adherents, but I consider it a badge of honor and proudly self-identify as such. In February of this year I read Among the Janeites, where author Debora Yaffe poses a question that’s stuck with me about Janeites: “Were all of us just seeing what we wanted to see, finding ourselves reflected in an Austen-shaped mirror?” Karen Joy Fowler seems to think so; the prologue to her novel The Jane Austen Book Club begins with “Each of us has a private Austen.” This isn’t exactly a bold statement: after all, the strictest Austen purists coexist with fans that have never picked up one of the original novels.
For our local chapter’s meeting this month, we held a discussion on Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites.” I’d been hoping to use our discussion as a jumping off point for a post on something like “Janeites Through the Ages.” Maybe I’d talk about how Alfred, Lord Tennyson went to Lyme and demanded to be taken to the spot where Louisa Musgrove falls in Persuasion. Or how philosopher Gilbert Ryle, when asked if he read novels, replied, “Oh yes. All six, every year.” But reading “The Janeites” didn’t really fit into that paradigm the way I’d expected.
“The Janeites,” first published in 1924 and then in the collection Debits and Credits in 1926, is a story of a group of Great War veterans meeting at their local Freemason Lodge to swap war stories (full text here). Humberstall, one of the veterans, describes what he believed to be a sort of secret society on the front. In fact, a common love of Jane Austen among the men broke down their class distinctions. In fact, Humberstall’s offhand reference to Emma to a nurse ends up saving his life. It brings him comfort in the present day:
“‘[It’s] a very select Society, an’ you’ve got to be a Janeite in your ’eart, or you won’t have any success. An’ yet he made me a Janeite! I read all her six books now for pleasure ’tween times in the shop; an’ it brings it all back—down to the smell of the glue-paint on the screens. You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was.’”
Many of my fellow JASNA members agreed this story was not at all what we’d expected. For one thing, I was under the mistaken impression that Kipling had coined the term “Janeite,” which isn’t the case. (It was critic George Saintsbury in 1894.) For another thing, Austen really could be replaced by any other author who depicted English country life. The reverence is deep but not unique; the in-jokes don’t provide as big a payoff for contemporary Austen adherents as modern re-tellings do. And it’s very jargon-y, both in terms of written dialect and slang of the period. (There are excellent notes provided by the Kipling Society, but it’s not very smooth reading.)
The men in Kipling’s story aren’t the kind of Janeites we picture today—especially because today we don’t picture many men reading Austen. Humberstall is ill-educated and has suffered head trauma. Of course, Austen’s prose is smooth and showcases that discerning Austenian narrator—not a word out of place. Humberstall’s story feels chaotic. His voice is equally strong, but in a way that grounds him in reality rather than lifting him above it. I first found it jarring, but then poignant.
The reason behind our JASNA chapter discussing “The Janeites” was to mark the centennial anniversary of the beginning of World War I. But it was the perfect foundation to continue our discussion on the comforts of Austen. From the notes published by the Kipling Society, Kipling read Austen’s novels aloud to his wife and daughter to get through the grief of losing his son in the war. Austen novels were given to soldiers suffering from shell-shock after the war.
Connecting Austen with the Great War really kind of drove home what any Austen fan already knows. My fellow JASNA members and I talked about the comfort we take in Austen: how we re-read and re-watch. Why we do it must have to do with our own private Austens. Some people talk about the comfort of simpler times, but I wouldn’t trade places with any of Austen’s heroines. I think instead of simplicity it’s the feeling we enjoy of all narrative: the deserving are rewarded, the ridiculous are mocked incessantly, and all the plot points pay off. And it’s all done flawlessly.
And, like Humberstall says, each re-reading is visiting an older version of yourself. Seeing my college version of Mansfield Park transported me to the nineteenth century, but also back to my senior year. There’s kind of a feeling when you re-read, that even though you won’t be dealing with mortar fire and mustard gas, Austen will see you through.