Jane Austen in the Trenches?

Ever since the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Janeites’ – a short story about a secret society of officers in the First World War with an overwhelming devotion to the works of Jane Austen – it has been rumored that Tommy Atkins was a big fan. It is an idea that appears to have been given historical credibility 70 years after the war. In a letter to the TLS (3 Feb. 1984), Martin Jarrett-Kerr recollected having been told five decades earlier by his non-combatant tutor at Oxford, H.F. Brett-Smith, that the latter had been employed to recommend suitable works for the rehabilitation of shell-shocked troops. Brett-Smith had apparently confided to his student that ‘His job was to grade novels and poetry according to the “Fever-Chart”. For the severely shell-shocked he selected Jane Austen.’ In the 1930s, when Jarrett-Kerr was an undergraduate at Oxford, the relatively young subject of university English Literature still had a relevance problem. This was also a period when the scars of another battle at Oxford (between Eng Lit and German Philology) were still raw. All in all, the conditions were rife for peddling a belief in the patriotic credentials of Pride and Prejudice.

In 2009, Brian Southam wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement asking whether anyone had documentary evidence for Brett-Smith’s ‘fever chart’. No reply appears to have been forthcoming. Since which time the myth of the First-World-War-Austen has been reproduced, recycled, and embellished countless times. John Mullan, picking up on Jarrett-Kerr’s anecdote, wrote in The Guardian in 2013 that ‘It is impossible not to speculate as to his reasons for thinking Austen the best solace for those who were severely traumatised.’ From The Telegraph to The Daily Mail, newspapers were soon jumping on the bandwagon and Oxford professors were happy to oblige them with soundbites: ‘She was read in the trenches. She was a prescribed script for tortured, troubled souls . . . . She’s always been adored by the academic community and the popular community and there are few people who do inspire that kind of devotion.’

Soon the same myth was being peddled with ever greater confidence, a story that became truer in the retelling. In 2016 an exhibition at The Folger Library on Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity took for granted the novelist’s special status in military circles, dedicating a section on ‘Will and Jane go to War’. While admitting that the ‘fever-chart’ story has ‘very little evidence to go on’, one critic in the following year went on to write a whole book chapter on ‘Conscripting Gentle Jane’ speculating why Austen might have been popular with troops. The collision of the novelist’s bicentenary and the memorialization of the First World War made the connection almost irresistible to copy writers in and around 2017. Since which time, the dubious story of real troops with an overwhelming passion for her works was being taken for granted in certain quarters.  

Anyone who knows anything about the changing fortunes of the ‘immortal Jane’ can be forgiven for their skepticism. Although it is not impossible that there were some Austen devotees among the millions of men at the Front, there is scant evidence for a Janeite cult in the trenches: in soldier’s accounts I have found only two references, one of which includes ‘Austin’s [sic] Pride and Prejudice’ among an otherwise long list of titles that one man encountered. All of the evidence would seem to suggest that Austen’s fiction held far less popular appeal among troops than Charles Dickens, Rider Haggard, and Nat Gould, who figure in their diaries and letters with far greater frequency. And that, of course, was the whole ironic purpose of ‘The Janeites’ which was not meant to document the way that soldiers identified with the gentil world of Georgian middle-class respectability but was, in fact, Kipling’s conceit on the anomaly of polite tea parties and marriage proposals in the heat of battle.

It seems that Kipling scholars have always got the joke. In 1959 J.M.S. Tompkins remarked about the way that the horrors of war “contrast in every way with the exquisite art of Jane Austen, the strange but natural resource of the men whose duty it is to deal familiarly with carnage.” In 1971, Charles Carrington remarked that “the story would have the same point if it had been called ‘The Trollopians’.            

After the war Kipling himself sent a consignment of books to the Western Front for the entertainment of the occupying force, a full inventory of which can be found in the YMCA Archives at the University of Birmingham. Margaret Ballie-Sanders, Violet Jacobs, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Stanley Weyman and a host of other popular writers were sent, but Kipling didn’t think to include a single volume of Jane Austen.

3 thoughts on “Jane Austen in the Trenches?

  1. On April 20, 1915, a Times article mentions that Jane Austen was very popular with wounded soldiers. This could be one of the sources that people were going on

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  2. Thank you very much for drawing this to my attention. It is an interesting article indeed. The nurse recounts how well received her readings of Austen, Trollope and others were by wounded soldiers. It is a rare mention of Austen at the Front, so I am very grateful to have it.

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