Jane Austen During World War One

Jane Austen is one of Britain’s most well-known and best loved authors. Alongside Dickens, she is definitely my favourite author. There is something happy and uplifting about her novels. It also helps that you can find lots of other things to fill your Austen need. You can so easily find sequels, academic articles, merchandise, virtually anything related to Austen or her novels. Admittedly this ‘Austenmania’ started in the 1990s with a number of TV and film adaptations, with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice being the one that comes to mind the most. However, this type of fame has been hard come by and the beginnings of it certainly didn’t come into force until the late nineteenth century.

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Engraving of a young Jane Austen based on a sketch by Cassandra Austen from James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoirs, Wikimedia Commons

The term ‘Janeite’ that is usually given to Jane Austen fans was only invented in 1894 by George Saintsbury, a writer and literary historian.[1] Whilst this was nearly 80 years after the author’s death, this was mainly due to her unpopularity in the Victorian period. To the Victorians, Jane Austen’s novels didn’t conform to their ideals as her heroines were “ungenteel” and they often made fun of the clergy.[2] It was only after the publishing of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his little known aunt in 1870 that her image began to change to a domestic woman, reflecting Victorian expectations of femininity.[3] Whilst this helped to increase Jane’s popularity, it was only seen in a select group of people. The types of people known to be Janeites at this time were mainly men, which is surprising as contemporary society views Austen’s fans as largely women. These men were largely publishers, professors, novelists and other literati, including Montague Summers (novelist and clergyman), R. W. Chapman (editor of Jane Austen’s works) and E. M. Forster.[4] The status of these admirers meant that they flaunted the idea that they were part of a select cult who viewed her works as miracles that were above that of authors who others read.[5]

With the outbreak of the First World War, ideas on reading began to change. The National Home Reading Union’s Annual General Meeting just three months after the start of the war invited Michael Sadler, a recognised educationalist at the time to be a guest speaker. In his speech he suggested that reading was needed to keep “minds fresh and sane” and that reading “good fiction” would do this.[6] This appeal applied to those at home and on the front lines. The speech was then published and distributed to many soldiers’ camps to know this also applied to them.[7]

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John Warwick Brooke, Highland Gas Sentry Reading a Letter from Home, National Library of Scotland

Reading fiction became a part of war life as it was an easy way to distract and provide entertainment but also bolstered patriotic sentiments.[8] The patriotic feeling this brought was by an increased understanding of what British culture was and what was at risk. To some, reading books was just as important as letter writing to loved ones back home as it helped to “overcome perceived boundaries between home and battle fronts” and helped maintain pre-war identities and interests.[9]

For Jane Austen’s novels, they often became a lifeline for fighting soldiers. Siegfried Sassoon was one of many who would have read Austen during his time in the trenches.[10] It’s claimed that Pride and Prejudice was the most read of all books by soldiers during the First World War.[11] There may be some truth in this as Austen and Dickens were the main authors prescribed by doctors to wounded soldiers and those suffering from shell shock.[12] Perhaps these choices were made because by the time of the First World War, Jane Austen had come to represent Englishness that soldiers were fighting for and helped give a nostalgic view that England had remained unchanged from the past which was seen in these Georgian era novels.[13] Unfortunately, those serving in the trenches were living a very different reality of war than George Wickham’s militia regiment. Surely though it would have made some difference of distraction to those who were bored or injured.

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C.E Brock, ‘Love and Eloquence’ from Macmillan’s 1895 edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, British Library

The 6 novels of Jane Austen may have even been read out in groups. Reading in the trenches had to be more informal than people at home as it had to fit around active service.[14] To ensure this happened many charities were set up to send mainly donated books to the front lines. These included the Camp Libraries, Red Cross Library, St John’s War Library Committee and Worker’s Educational Association, who between them sent active and wounded soldiers, as well as prisoners of war.[15] Jane Austen’s books would have been included in these as ensuring that soldiers read good quality fiction was seen as a way of stopping them from seeking unacceptable entertainment elsewhere, particularly in taverns and brothels.[16]

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World War One: Islington Public Library used as a hospital ward. Photograph by Langfier Ltd., 1916. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Regardless of the reasons why Austen was given to soldiers to read, there is no doubting the unity a love of the author can bring, either today or in the past. This was something Rudyard Kipling knew in his story The Janeites he wrote about a group of WW1 soldiers who found solidarity over their love of Jane Austen. The story was published in May 1924 in an international magazine called Storyteller. The men purposefully named a loud gun Lady Catherine de Bugg as a joke about the infamous Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice.[17] The idea for the story came from a visit Kipling took to Bath in 1915 and from his time researching the history of his son John’s regiment, following his death in the First World War.[18] Following his son’s death, Kipling read aloud all of the Austen books to his family, using it as a tool for solace, just as many of the soldiers on the front also did.[19]

Just as we today often read Jane Austen as a source of refuge and distraction from difficult times, so did the soldiers having to endure the hell of the trenches. I only hope that it really did offer the comfort they craved and helped to be a defence against the war environment around them.[20] What is certain is that the popularity of reading books during the First World War had been vital for helping soldiers and civilians alike. By the end of March 1919, Britain had sent 16 million books to the front.[21] The Red Cross alone had sent 2.8 million donated ones and 1.2 brought ones to fill these frontline libraries.[22] Even on the Homefront the amount of patronage for public libraries increased.[23] Jane Austen’s works would have played a part in this. As William Dean Howells notes, Austen “has not yet died” because of her enduring popularity and this is even more the case during WW1 as it helped those in their time of extreme need and possibly even in their own dying moments.[24] No wonder that at the time she was seen as a redemptive figure who was part of England’s bygone glory and a symbol for a soldiers duty to protect it.[25]

[1] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 8.

[2] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2013), pp. 22-23.

[3] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 23.

[4] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, p. 8.

[5] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, pp. 8-9.

[6] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort: The National Home Reading Union During the First World War’, First World War Studies (2015), p. 2.

[7] National Home Reading Union, ‘Work Among the Troops’, HRM, XXVI, no. 4 (Jan 1915) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[8] J. Potter, Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literary Responses to the Great War, 1914-1918 (2005) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[9]  Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, pp. 9-10

[10] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[11] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[12] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front: Books and Soldiers in the First World War’, Paedagogica Historica (2016), p. 5.

[13] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24; Roper, M., ‘Nostalgia as an Emotional Experience in the Great War’, The Historical Journal, 54.2 (2011), p. 441.

[14] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 10.

[15] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 11.

[16] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front’, p. 5.

[17] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[18] Lewis, L. and Kieffer, G., ‘The Janeites’, http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_janeites1.htm

[19] Lewis, L. and Kieffer, G., ‘The Janeites’, http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_janeites1.htm

[20] Roper, M., ‘Nostalgia as an Emotional Experience in the Great War’, p. 439.

[21] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front’, p. 4.

[22] British Red Cross, What We Did During the War, https://vad.redcross.org.uk/en/What-we-did-during-the-war

[23] A. Ellis, Public Libraries and the First World War (1975) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[24] William Dean Howells cited in Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, p. 8.

[25] Johnson, C. L., ‘Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures’ in Copeland, E. and McMaster, J. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 239.

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