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.
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