When we hear “Jane Austen,” we tend to think of country manners, happy endings and Colin Firth in a wet shirt. So, when posters announcing the third lecture in the Princeton University President’s Lecture Series went up several weeks ago-“Jane Austen and War” given by Claudia Johnson, the Murray Professor of English and Department Chair-people were perplexed. The juxtaposition of Austen and warfare seemed a little far-fetched.
As it turns out, not only did Austen live the entirety of her adult life during the Napoleonic wars (even watching her brothers go off to fight as naval officers), but she also experienced an extremely posthumous popularity during World Wars I and II, and especially among soldiers. This was the focus of Johnson’s lecture on March 3.
I took Professor Johnson’s “Jane Austen in Context” class last semester, in which a scant 10% or so of the class population was of the male persuasion (nice odds for them). Most guys I talk to on campus get flustered when I ask them if they like Jane Austen and mutter something about her being more of a “girl’s writer.” However, while Austen’s novels may indeed feature female heroines whose stories inevitably end in marriage, her work is also crawling with subtle moments of satire and sharp wit. Additionally, as Johnson detailed in her lecture, Austen places a positive emphasis on “reticence, temperance, composure and self-command” in her works, qualities which men might actually find admirable.
Johnson explained that these traits were of particular importance to soldiers in World Wars I and II, who read Austen not merely as a means of escape from the grim reality of trench warfare, but instead as a way to endure it. Austen’s world was not a fantastical one of balls and flirtations but, as Johnson stated, “part of the real world under duress.” “Some people despise Austen as callous,” Johnson commented after quoting a letter Austen had written after a particularly brutal battle in 1811: “’How horrible it is to have so many people killed and what a blessing it is that one cares for none of them.’” Johnson stressed that the letter does not display a “coldness, but something more like sangfroid,” which soldiers, living under the unbearable stress of life in the trenches, took to heart. Johnson cited the writings of Reginald Farrer, a World War I veteran who wrote about Jane Austen’s importance to him during his time in the trenches. “Everything false and feeble withers in her grey gaze,” he said about the ‘divine Jane.’
Johnson claimed that, for soldiers faced with unimaginable horrors, Austen represented a “commitment to poise in the face of de-idealization,” and cited an instance of Farrer’s quoting Austen in reaction to seeing a large pile of dead bodies.
She also discussed a short story by Rudyard Kipling entitled “The Janeites,” in which the main character, Humberstall, becomes inducted into a ‘secret society’ of Austen-reading officers in World War I. The only club member to survive the war, Humberstall clings even more fervently to Austen, who reminds him of the fellowship he experienced in the trenches. “There’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place,” he proclaims. According to Johnson, during World War II-which, with the Blitz, became the first war to come to native soil-Austen’s literature served to “mobilize national feeling with a sense of privacy being invaded.” Johnson even cited a letter written to a London newspaper from a man “boasting that he was the only man in London to be bombed off a lavatory seat while reading Jane Austen.”
Austen’s significance as a national icon continued after World War II, particularly with the growing importance of the preservation of Austenian property. Johnson explained that Chawton Cottage-Austen’s home from 1809 until her death in 1817-was saved from its run-down state by a man whose Austen-loving son had died in World War II. The father purchased Chawton in his son’s memory, making it, in essence, a war memorial. Johnson concluded her lecture by pointing out that today, the only wars involving Austen are “culture wars.” Austen has become “someone we must protect from radicals and philistines who love her in the wrong way” she said. Which leaves us to ponder which side each of us, as Austen-loving readers, falls on. Do we look to Austen as a means to escape or, as Johnson suggested, recognize “how her novels signify courage and consolation?”