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In "The Janeites," Kipling tells of a group of soldiers who are also Masons. They have formed a shadow Masonic lodge based on 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 World War I trench warfare. Initiates of this shadow lodge recognize each other by references to her novels, and admission to the Austen fellowship is gained by an examination on them. Beneath the comic, ordinary surface of the narrative lies the random brutality of the Great War; almost all the Janeites are killed in action, and the surviving Janeite who tells the story is damaged psychologically. Having learned about Austen while at the front, he asserts, "There's no one to touch Jane when you're in a tight place."

The Cult of Janeites, though not the name, has its origins in the Memoir written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1870. He sentimentalized his aunt to make her conform to Victorian values, which had become more rigid and repressive by mid-century, so that she would not offend Victorian sensibilities. Also in 1870 and in a similar vein, Anthony Trollope assured readers that the novels were "full of excellent teaching, and free from an idea or word that can pollute.... Throughout all her works, and they are not many, a sweet lesson of homely household womanly virtue is ever being taught." This domestic view of her was extended in the same year by Richard Simpson, who described her as "unconscious of artistic merits" and not minding being interrupted as she wrote because her "powers were a secret to herself." Because of this supposed modesty, she was grateful and surprised to earn any money from her novels.

The softening of Austen's image can be seen literally. Jane Austen's sister Cassandra had painted a miniature of her, in which she looks rather severe. For his Memoir Austen-Leigh commissioned a contemporary artist to redo Cassandra's portrait so that Jane looks less intimidating.

            Cassandra's Portrait                                            Touched-up Portrait

The sentimentalized view of the Victorians and of the Janeites ignores the reality of Austen's novels, which portray illegitimate children, adulteries, seductions, and various cruelties. It also ignores her letters, in which she wanted to know what friends and family thought of her novels and in which she speculated about possible payment for her novels as well as carefully tallied her actual earnings.

January 26, 2009