Two hundred and forty years ago today Jane Austen was born. As many of you know I am an ardent admirer of her work, and consider her wonderful books as a brilliant window onto her times. But I am not going to consider that period today, rather go back only one hundred years, when her works found a new, and surprising audience.
By 1915 the First World War had settled down, the trench lines had been established, effectively cutting Europe into two, and the British Army faced an unexpected problem – Boredom!
For most of the time, along that long line from the North Sea to the Alps, nothing happened. Troops were marched down to the front line trenches, waited there for a day or two and marched back. There was only so much training that could be done, and soon the authorities realised that something was needed. Various activities were arranged to keep the troops amused, from embroidery to Morris Dancing, and of course books by the thousand.
Appeals were launched, the public were urged to take books to the post office where they would be forwarded to where they were most needed. Soon it became apparent that some authors were more popular than others, and topping many lists was Jane Austen. Her followers ‘The Janeites’ of Rudyard Kipling’s First World War story were to be found in all the theatres of war, bringing light and laughter to the grimmest of places.
A set of early twentieth century pocket editions, the type that went to war
In a dugout just behind the lines a captain reads Jane’s letter to Elizabeth and worries more about the effect the news of Wickham’s elopement with Lydia will have on Darcy, than on the shells hurtling overhead. Indeed many a junior officer, who liked the ladies a little too much, gained the nickname Wickham.
On a gunboat on the Tigris, a sailor swelters in the heat, thinking of Lyme where he sailed only a year or so earlier and imagines Captain Wentworth carrying Louisa, and hope he will come to his senses and marry Anne, ignoring the Turkish bullets that bounce off the ironwork just above his head.
On an airfield in Salonica a pilot, waiting for the storm to pass, looks out at the storm shrouded mountains and doesn’t think of the bitter fighting in that key, but forgotten, part of Europe. Rather he feels with Emma as, broken hearted, she watches the storm batter the shrubbery at Hartfield.
And in the hospital, the sister who is nicknamed Lady Catherine by some of the Janeites on the ward, reads to gas blinded soldier, and sees him smile for the first time as Catherine Morland declares that the has just ‘learned to love a Hyacinth.’
‘You take it from me, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ’er.’ (Kipling)