Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 44-47
Kipling, “Jane’s Marriage,” and “The Janeites”
Department of English, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky 42101
In the summer of 1987 I stayed several days with American friends in Lyme Regis while my students and I were making a Persuasion visit there. My friends had told the owner of a small art gallery in Lyme that I was coming there and that I was interested in Jane Austen. This lady asked them to bring me to her gallery and told them she had a poem she wanted to give me. When we dutifully stopped at the gallery, I was introduced to her, and she gave me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jane’s Marriage,” which I had never seen before. In the course of our conversation, the lady mentioned that she could never read this poem without weeping. With a somewhat wry smile on his face, my American friend suggested that I read the poem aloud for her. And I did, without having any idea of where the poem was going. When I looked up from the page after finishing my impromptu performance, the lady was beaming, and tears were quietly streaming down her cheeks. And I must admit, sentimental as I am, that I was rather moved myself. Here’s the poem as it was printed on the page I was given, apparently copied from a collection of Kipling’s poetry:
Jane went to Paradise:
That was only fair.
Good Sir Walter followed her,
And armed her up the stair.
Henry and Tobias,
And Miguel of Spain,
Stood with Shakespeare at the top
To welcome Jane –
Then the Three Archangels
Offered out of hand
Anything in Heaven’s gift
That she might command.
Azrael’s eyes upon her,
Raphael’s wings above,
Michael’s sword against her heart,
Jane said: “Love.”
Instantly the under-
Laid their fingers on their lips
And went to look for him.
Stole across the Zodiac,
Harnessed Charles’s Wain,
And whispered round the Nebulae
“Who loved Jane?”
In a private limbo
Where none had thought to look,
Sat a Hampshire gentleman
Reading of a book.
It was called Persuasion,
And it told the plain
Story of the love between
Him and Jane.
He heard the question
Circle Heaven through –
Closed the book and answered:
“I did – and do!”
Quietly but speedily
(As Captain Wentworth moved)
Entered into Paradise
The man Jane loved!
Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And, while the stones of Winchester – or Milsom Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!
The more I thought about the poem, the more I began to wonder. How are we as readers to take it? Is it ironic? Is it tongue-in-cheek? Who is the speaker? Not being familiar with many of Kipling’s works, I was puzzled by what I took to be the subtitle, “The Janeites.” I knew that Kipling could often be sentimental in his way, but I also knew that he could be cuttingly sarcastic and ironic as well. Is the poem an expression of sentiments about Jane Austen which he attributes to “The Janeites,” or is it a sincere statement of his own? So I decided to do some investigating.
“The Janeites” is a story by Kipling begun in 1922 and completed in 1923 (Birkenhead 297), published originally in 1924, and subsequently included in a collection of stories and poems entitled Debits and Credits published in 1926 (Carrington 362). Stories and poems alternate in his collection, and in most cases each story is both preceded and followed by a poem after the title page of the story. Thus most of the stories are framed by poems. “Jane’s Marriage” immediately follows “The Janeites,” except that the last four lines of the poem as printed above are omitted from the text of the poem and instead are placed as an epigraph for the story. In a sense, then, the complete text of “Jane’s Marriage” frames “The Janeites.”
“The Janeites” is a story within a frame story, as the story itself is framed by “Jane’s Marriage.” The frame story is set in a London Masonic Lodge, the Lodge of Instruction attached to “Faith and Works No. 5827 E.C.,” on a Saturday afternoon in the autumn of 1920 when the brethren and visitors have gathered to conduct the weekly clean-up. There are three major characters: Brother Anthony, a cockney taxi driver and a veteran of army service in the Holy Land during World War I; Brother Humberstall, a cockney hairdresser and a veteran of artillery service in France who suffers occasionally from a mild case of shell-shock; and the first-person narrator, apparently Kipling himself, who was in fact a member of the Masons and is also the narrator of another Masonic story earlier in the collection. As the narrator joins the other two with their duties in the organ loft, Humberstall is telling Anthony of a Secret Society he was initiated into during service with his artillery battery in France, and his story is the inner story of “The Janeites.” Humberstall had been assigned as acting mess-waiter in the officers’ mess under the supervision of Sergeant Macklin. He overhears his battery commander, his captain, a junior officer, and Macklin heatedly discussing a lady named Jane, Macklin arguing that this lady was not barren but left as her lawful issue a son whose name was Henry James. In response to questions from Humberstall, Macklin agrees, for a fee of one cigarette, to give him the password of the First Degree in the Society of the Janeites. The next time Macklin asks Humberstall what is on his mind, Humberstall is to reply “ ‘Tilniz an’ trap-doors.’ ” The question and response are exchanged that afternoon in the officers’ mess as Major Mosse, the battery commander, is finishing his lunch. Mosse looks at Humberstall quickly and then leaves him a half-dozen Turkish cigarettes as he exits. From that point on, Humberstall’s instruction begins in earnest. Macklin assigns him all of Jane Austen’s novels, quizzes him on them, and even requires him to commit passages to memory. Eventually Humberstall names each of the battery’s guns after a Jane Austen character by chalking a name on each weapon – Lady Catherine de Burgh, Reverend Collins, Miss Bates, and so on – and Major Mosse commends him for his initiative. It is implied that both Macklin and Humberstall continue to receive special favours from the three officers because of their status as Janeites. And for all five of the soldiers, the ongoing exchange about Jane Austen and her novels makes the horror of war not only bearable but occasionally even pleasant.
Later in the war, half of Humberstall’s battery is killed in a German offensive, and he is the only one of the five Janeites to survive. As he stumbles along wounded, he attempts to board a hospital train but is prevented by a nurse who babbles on to him at great length about the train being over-crowded and all her other problems. He turns to the head nurse and asks if she can stop Miss Bates from talking. The password works again. The head nurse helps him up and vows she will get him on the train if she has to kill a Brigadier for him. As Humberstall finishes his story and prepares to leave the organ loft, he says to Anthony:
“Well, as pore Macklin said, 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 …. 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. (146)
Part of the tragi-comic charm of “The Janeites” lies in Humberstall’s amusing comments about Jane Austen’s novels. But it is also a story about the appeal of secret societies, which fascinated Kipling (Birkenhead 364), in which some people share special knowledge from which others are excluded. All three of the characters in the frame story are Masons. Humberstall and Anthony share the brotherhood of experience in World War I from which the Kipling narrator is excluded. The narrator and Humberstall are both knowledgeable about Jane Austen, while Anthony is the outsider. But the principal secret society in the story is made up of Humberstall and his four companions in combat whose devotion to Jane Austen gives them a common bond of civilization and humanity in the face of the demoralization of war. Even in the most unlikely places and among the most unlikely people, the story seems to say, Jane Austen’s novels can be a source of reassurance, joy, and even survival. “The Janeites” seems clearly to be a tribute to Jane Austen.
Now to return to my original question. How are we to take “Jane’s Marriage”? The content of the poem raises several questions. Is Captain Wentworth “a Hampshire gentleman”? Why would he be reading about himself in Persuasion? And there is the rather serious problem that Wentworth is presumably already married. Be that as it may, the speaker in the poem would seem to be Kipling himself. No tongue-in-cheek or irony here. He was apparently a devoted reader of Jane Austen and is reputed to have said, whenever he passed through Winchester, that it was the second most hallowed place in England after Stratford because Jane Austen and Isaac Walton are buried there (Carrington 366). And the poem would also seem to be a sincere tribute to Jane Austen in which Kipling, as an admirer, gives her the one thing she missed in her life – the love of her ideal man. That man, in Kipling’s view at least, is the hero of her last novel.
Birkenhead, Frederick Winston Furneaux Smith, 2nd Earl of. Rudyard Kipling. New York: Random House, 1978.
Carrington, Charles Edmund. The Life of Rudyard Kipling. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.
Kipling, Rudyard. Debits and Credits. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, 1926.
Southam, B.C., ed. Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, Vol. 2, 1870-1960. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987. (Southam briefly describes Kipling’s story and poem on p. 103.)