i am sitting down to write my Editor’s Note on the afternoon of Remembrance Sunday—the first Sunday after 11 November (Armistice Day)—the day set aside for remembering those who died in war. Specifically, the ceremonies commemorate the dead of the two world wars of the twentieth century, but at this time people remember the dead from all wars, including the one raging in Iraq. In terms of war, 2004 is a watershed year for commemorations: in June, there was the 60th anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy Invasion, and in August there was the 90th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. The press is already full of stories about the big commemorations of 2005: the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two, and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, an episode in British naval history that personally touched Jane Austen, and a war that figures prominently in her novel Persuasion.
Reading Jane Austen in a time of war recalls for me Rudyard Kipling’s remarkably witty short story “The Janeites.” In this story, set in 1920—that is, only two years after the guns fell silent at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918—a couple of brother Masons who had somehow survived the Great War begin to reminisce about the terrain of war and their brother soldiers and officers. One ex-soldier, a bloke named Humberstall, nostalgically recalls “Jane”—“this Secret Society woman,” “this Jane woman.” He tells his buddies about how the mere mention of the name “Jane” could break down barriers in the Mess, particularly when at least one of the officers is “bosko absoluto” (I’m sure you can guess what that is!). With great humor, he recounts how a few junior and senior officers and some soldiers—those in the know, so to speak—formed a secret society—the Janeites—with special ranks and dues and passwords and secret signs and countersigns. The sole purpose of this society was deeper knowledge about Jane’s books. “They weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d even call interestin’,” Humberstall says. But he, too, pays up to be part of the brotherhood of readers.
Like Janeites today, every one of Kipling’s original Janeites has an opinion about Jane Austen’s themes and characters. In what is actually an astute literary analysis, Humberstall, the only Janeite to survive the war, reflects upon the fact that, regarding the novels, “there was nothin’ to ’em nor in ’em.” And Jane’s characters, he announces, “was no use! They was only just like people you run across any day.”
Well, yes. And perhaps that is why we find so much to say about this “little old maid ’oo’d written ’half a dozen books. . . .”
We offer in this issue of Persuasions On-Line a variety of opinions and ideas about ways to read and to interpret Jane Austen’s novels and to understand the time she lived in. The essays included here range from the interior worlds of the big houses to the exterior worlds of the British Empire, from the interior psychological spaces of the characters and families to the exterior natural landscapes they inhabit. In addition, we offer essays that develop comparisons and contrasts between Jane Austen’s novels and the work of contemporary writers such as Laclos and Mary Wollstonecraft. All of the essays presented here will, we hope, generate a greater understanding of text and context. What seems on the surface to be so simple in Jane Austen’s novels is always psychologically, socially, and theatrically complex, and the authors here analyze setting and symbols, vices and virtues, character and motivation. As the arch-Janeite Humberstall reminds us, “They’re all on the make, in a quiet way, in Jane.” It is that “quiet way” that general readers and literary critics alike find irresistible.
The soldiers in Kipling’s story are well aware of the fact that “we couldn’t expect to av’rage more than six weeks’ longer apiece” at the Front during the Battle of the Somme, and they defy military codes in favor of Janeite loyalty. In fact, they demonstrate their dedication to Jane by naming their guns after the characters in the novels. What would Jane Austen have thought of a ten-inch gun named “Bloody Eliza”? or a “cut down Navy Twelve” named “General Tilney”? or a Nine-point-two called the Reverend Collins? or a Skoda named “The Lady Catherine De Bugg”? The men actually “chalk” (mark) the guns—and get into trouble with the authorities for “writin’ obese words on His Majesty’s property, on active service.” Sic.
Reading Jane Austen in the time of war makes me think about how much joy the half a dozen books have provided for Janeites—for those who have always loved the novels as well as for those who have been conscripted into our society (high school and university students, perhaps?). What with a new film of Pride and Prejudice in the making, and an exuberant Bollywood Bride and Prejudice already released in England, and Bridget Jones and the Edge of Reason topping the film ranking, Jane Austen is in the ascendancy. As Kipling’s Humberstall reminds us, “there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place.”
When, ultimately, Humberstall “cops it” during the spring “push” of 1918 and ends up waiting in a seemingly endless queue to secure a place on a over-crowded hospital-train, his run-in with one of the nursing Sisters juxtaposes perfectly the Austen-Kipling tensions between comedy and tragedy:
“I was past carin’. But [the grey-headed nursing Sister] went on talkin’ and talkin’ about the war, an’ her pa in Ladbroke Grove, an’ ’how strange for ’er at ’er time of life to be doin’ this work with a lot o’ men, an’ next war, ’ow the nurses ’ud ’ave to wear khaki breeches on account o’ the mud, like the Land Girls; an’ that reminded ’er, she’d boil me an egg if she could lay ’ands on one, for she’d run a chicken-farm once. You never ’eard anythin’ like it—outside o’ Jane. It set me off laughin’ again. Then a woman with a nose an’ teeth on ’er, marched up. ‘What’s all this?” she says. “What do you want?” “Nothing,” I says, “only make Miss Bates, there, stop talkin’ or I’ll die.”
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