Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rudyard Kipling and The Janeites

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!
-- Rudyard Kipling

It's always interesting to find old books by British authors at estate sales.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across a paperback anthology of short stories by Rudyard Kipling that I wasn't familiar with. I opened the book to a story called The Janeites.

The title stopped me for a moment.  I knew that a "Janeite" is someone who really likes Jane Austen's novels -- it's either a compliment or an eye-rolling insult, depending on whether the speaker also enjoys Miss Austen's works.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

I don't usually associate Rudyard Kipling -- he of the classic children's stories, poetry and tales of the British military in the 19th and early 20th century -- with gentle Jane Austen.  

The Janeites is about a group of World War I veterans recounting how they came to know and appreciate -- even love -- Miss Austen's novels.  

Jane Austen's writing table

A short scholarly analysis of The Janeites is on the website of the Rudyard Kipling Society (UK):

This article breaks the story down for us:

The story has three main themes. First in literary importance, it contains a deep appreciation of Jane Austen [1775-1817] which is made all the more pointed and piquant by being put into the mouth of a very simple-minded and uneducated man in the ranks who has been induced to study her works under the impression that her admirers form a kind of secret society which it pays to join. Secondly, the story gives a good account of the working of heavy artillery in France in 1918 and pays a great tribute to the men who manned the guns.... Thirdly, there is the Masonic background against which the story is told.

Kipling wrote the soldiers' conversations in dialect.  The veterans of the Great War take the long way 'round to explain why they like Jane Austen's novels: it's because the characters are so realistic.

'They was only just like people you run across any day. One of ’em was a curate—the Reverend Collins—always on the make an’ lookin’ to marry money. Well, when I was a Boy Scout, ’im or ’is twin brother was our troop-leader. 

'An’ there was an upstandin’ ’ard-mouthed Duchess or a Baronet’s wife that didn’t give a curse for any one ’oo wouldn’t do what she told ’em to; the Lady—Lady Catherine (I’ll get it in a minute) De Bugg. Before Ma bought the ’airdressin’ business in London I used to know of an ’olesale grocer’s wife near Leicester (I’m Leicestershire myself) that might ’ave been ’er duplicate. 

'And—oh yes—there was a Miss Bates; just an old maid runnin’ about like a hen with ’er ’ead cut off, an’ her tongue loose at both ends. I’ve got an aunt like ’er. Good as gold—but, you know.'

More subtle, but important to an understanding of the story, is that reading Jane Austen and other classic works of English literature provided soldiers with a much-needed escape from the horrors of trench warfare.  Collections of pocket-sized books, the most famous being the Nelson's Continental Library series, were printed for British soldiers in World War I.   

Jane Austen's House, Chawton, UK

You can read Kipling's story The Janeites here, on the website of the Jane Austen Society of North America: 

And if you want to read a short scholarly article on the story, here's the website of the Rudyard Kipling Society (UK): 

The authors of the scholarly article tell us of critics who liked The Janeites, and others (including C.S. Lewis) who found the "insider," secret society angle in Kipling's work to be insufferable.  

This article also notes that Kipling and his wife found solace in reading Jane Austen's novels after their oldest son, John, was killed in World War I.  

Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen is buried

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