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Doing battle with Jane Austen

In Australia last Wednesday, it was Anzac Day, when we commemorate those who served and died in all wars and conflicts. (For those of you who don’t know, the acronym stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and Anzac Day – 25 April – marks the date of the ill-fated Gallipoli landings in 1915). The Anzacs also fought fiercely in France and last week, speaking at Villers-Bretonneux, where green fields sit upon what were once the bloodiest battlefields of WWI, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave the most heart-rending and evocative speech about the young men who now lie buried half a world away from their native lands.

What’s this got to do with Jane Austen? Those poor, frightened young men had to distract themselves from the horrors of trench warfare by whatever means they could and one of those means was by reading. Orderly, peaceful lives in gentrified Georgian England are as far removed from the mud, blood and guts of the trenches as anyone can imagine but it was an escape of sorts, a dream of better days. Of course, they didn’t just read Austen - Shakespeare, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling and others were there to evoke the England they knew.

In 1917, Kipling himself found solace in Jane Austen, reading aloud her novels to his wife and daughter as he awaited the inevitable tragic news of his ‘missing, presumed dead’ soldier son. In his short story The Janeites, written after the war, Kipling has a group of WWI soldiers bound together by their deep admiration and extensive knowledge of Jane Austen's novels, which are a source of consolation and support as they undergo the horrors of war.

Post-war, the ‘soothing nature’ of JA’s novels were used as a balm to treat injured and maimed soldiers. As Oxford Fellow and author of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, Dr Paula Byrne says: “I think we do find great comfort in [her] work. Jane Austen was prescribed to shell-shock victims after the First World War as an antidote to mental trouble. She was a prescribed script for tortured, troubled souls.’

In World War II, shipments of used books for camp libraries gave way to lightweight paperbacks designed to fit in the pocket of a battle-dress uniform. Will and Jane were in those pockets! Jane was part of Penguin’s 'Forces Book Club' series for British servicemen, as you can see from the two pictured above.

Her detractors imply Jane Austen lived in a bubble because she didn’t directly reference the wars that were happening in her lifetime, but she was aware (with two brothers actively serving in the Royal Navy, she knew only too well!) and surely she would be humbled as well as proud to know that her works could give solace in such appalling circumstances.

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