Solace in Austen

Solace in Austen

Did you know that during World War I, Jane Austen’s novels were recommended as an antidote for soldiers coping with shell-shock? And during the Second World War, sales of her works in England tripled? If you are unfamiliar with it, I highly recommended reading Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Janeites, which provides insight into the importance Austen held to soldiers in wartime. It is believed that when Kipling’s own son, John, died in WWI, that it was the writer’s reading of Austen’s books aloud to his grieving family that helped them to overcome their grief. I know in my own life, whenever tragedy strikes, I immediately turn to Austen for escape. She led me through my first and most agonizing miscarriage, helped me conquer the debilitating bouts of depression I suffered in my 20s, and provided a much needed outlet in 2014, forever in my mind branded as the year of death (I lost three beloved grandparents within six months of each other, as well as a host of other relations and friends). There is no doubt in my mind that Austen’s books provide solace and comfort when little else can, but what is it about her stories that endows them with this extraordinary power to heal?

Jane Austen herself lived in a time of massive upheaval. Revolutions were changing the world, and England was at war for almost her entire life. Uncertainty about what the future might bring was rampant and justified. In many ways, it was a lot like our own time, when her popularity and devotion to her has reached unprecedented heights, yet such chaos rarely makes an appearance in Austen’s books. Many believe it is precisely this almost blithe dismissal of the world’s dangers in which lies her appeal: allowing readers to escape present angst and replace it with drawing-room etiquette, witty observation, and timeless romance. But are Austen’s novels so very void of turmoil? Certainly, the Dashwoods’ entire existence is thrust into uncertainty with the loss of their home and financial security, and the Bennets’ live beneath the specter of the same real threat. Only Emma Woodhouse, of all Austen’s heroines, lives a truly charmed existence. Nevertheless, despite the fragility of her characters’ financial status, it is inarguable that Austen rarely confronts the horrors of war that permeated her world. Yes, most of the books contain a fairly strong military presence, but the dangers these soldiers and sailors face in the line of duty are barely addressed. There is almost no acknowledgement that they might die, or be maimed, yet we know from primary sources that limbless former soldiers littered the city streets, begging for the assistance that the government refused to provide. Of course, Austen knew the very real consequences her naval brothers faced when she saw them off to sea, but nothing of that concern is imparted to sensitive and intelligent Fanny Price, when she says good bye to William, her own sailor brother. Indeed, Fanny’s sorrow in seeing him off seems all based in selfish concern for her own comfort, which is really rather bizarre in a character as selfless and sacrificing as Fanny:

Before the week ended, it was all disappointment. In the first place, William was gone. The Thrush had had her orders, the wind had changed, and he was sailed within four days from their reaching Portsmouth; and during those days she had seen him only twice, in a short and hurried way, when he had come ashore on duty. There had been no free conversation, no walk on the ramparts, no visit to the dockyard, no acquaintance with the Thrush, nothing of all that they had planned and depended on. Everything in that quarter failed her, except William’s affection. His last thought on leaving home was for her. He stepped back again to the door to say, “Take care of Fanny, mother. She is tender, and not used to rough it like the rest of us. I charge you, take care of Fanny.”

William was gone: and the home he had left her in was, Fanny could not conceal it from herself, in almost every respect the very reverse of what she could have wished. It was the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety. Nobody was in their right place, nothing was done as it ought to be.

Typically, the military is highly glamorized in Austen: dashing men, handsome in their uniforms, off to make great names for themselves while exploring the world. Pride and Prejudice gives us some inkling of the nuisance the military (particularly a militia) can prove, but generally it is all pomp and circumstance. Indeed, it is only in Persuasion that Austen gives us some true inkling of the dangers associated with war. We receive a sense of uncertainty in Captain Wentworth’s future in chapter four, when Anne’s recalls the arguments used to persuade her to break off their engagement, yet these can be interpreted as fear of financial insecurity rather than of the possible loss of life. Wentworth rather flippantly jokes about the possibility of his death when dining at Uppercross, but even this might be read as merely a way to poke at Anne for her abandonment of him and test her sensibilities: “Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me.”

It is only in the very last lines of the novel that the true perils inherent to Captain’s Wentworth’s career are seriously expressed:

His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less, the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.

There are two casualties of war in Austen, both in Persuasion:. The first is Richard Musgrove, lost sometime, somehow, at sea. However, his death is little lamented:

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

Doesn’t exactly evoke sympathy, does it?

The other casualty is Captain Harville, a fully developed and relatable character, but his injury acts more as a plot device than anything else: “Captain Harville had never been in good health since a severe wound which he received two years before, and Captain Wentworth’s anxiety to see him had determined him to go immediately to Lyme.”

Yet even though Austen never fully confronts the realities of war, she does give us the tools, modeled in her best heroines, to cope with such shattering anxieties: Elinor Dashwood’s stoicism while her relations fall apart, Elizabeth’s determination to follow her heart despite external pressure, and, more than any of the others, Anne’s philosophical approach to loss, resignation, and survival. I think this is why Persuasion has always been my favorite of the six novels. Anne imbibes the reader with strength when all seems lost, and gives us hope that we may triumph in the end, even when the future appears immeasurably dark. I think not just of her advice to Captain Benwick, or even of her moving words to Captain Harville on constancy (so often overshadowed by “the letter,” which immediately follows), but the unwavering example she provides in her conduct of humanity’s ability to endure sorrow with grace and resilience. Yogis would call her zen. Many ask, “What would Jane do?” But in my mind, the question is always, “What would Anne do?”

How has Austen’s writing provided solace to you in times of sorrow? Which characters galvanize you the most? Please share your stories in the comments. Like Austen’s novels, they might prove just the inspiration another needs to carry on.

23 Responses to Solace in Austen

  1. I understand completely! Jane Austen is very comforting. I’ve taken her books to read in waiting rooms and when I need a pick me up Jane is there.
    It would certainly take my mind off of war. I’ve never read that story by Rudyard Kipling but maybe I’ll pick up a copy.

  2. Yes, JA brings me consolation in a distressed hour. I even told my doctor, that I was doing everything for myself that I could — gardening, getting fresh air and exercise, and reading all of Jane Austen.

  3. My husband read a book about Winston Churchill, and it said that during WWII, Churchill often read Austen to get his mind off the war. He had a similar reason to the soldiers in WWI. I wish he’d saved me the quote, but it was in an audiobook, so it would have been difficult to find again.

    Persuasion is my favorite too. I found it touching that Anne would read all those military reports. I can’t remember what they were called–naval lists or something like that. I believe I read somewhere that Jane did the same thing. She probably was a bit sheltered from the horrors of the military and further sheltered her readers it seems. I believe men kept a lot of details from the women in those days.

    I used to read Anne of Green Gables as literary comfort food. Now I read Austen. I often read when I get something like influenza because I have a hard time actually resting, and it is the only thing that will keep me in bed. I think that the more horrific my life becomes, the less I want to read about murder and violence, and the more I want something happy like Jane Austen.

  4. I started reading Austen at a very difficult time in my life when I was very ill and unable to work, yet I’d identified so closely with my profession, I saw it as a personal failure. This brilliant wit and snarky observer of human nature changed my life. I discovered Austenesque stories and started writing my own as therapy. I developed hobbies of studying Regency history and became a Regency costumer. Austen’s influence on my life and many like mine continues far beyond just reading of six novels. Thanks for a wonderful article, Alexa.

    • You’re welcome, Suzan, and thank you for sharing your story. It’s amazing how intimate a relationship Austen has with her readers, isn’t it? Though I first read her books when I was quite young, it was only when I was in my 20s, struggling with a job I detested, and really lost for direction that I became a true Janeite. And yes, writing that first Austenesque story forever changed me, making my life fuller, more beautiful, and my a stronger person. How I wish she could see the momentous influence she has had on so many! The power of words should never be underestimated.

  5. Hadn’t heard about the connection between Jane and the wars before. My mother is very ill with heart failure at the moment and I have a few other difficulties as well and I find myself turning to my JAFF friends and reading to take my mind off things. Thank God for Jane. Lovely lovely post.

    • Thank you, Teresa. I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. Best of luck at this time of struggle, and yes: thank god for Jane and the Janeite community! May you find the comfort and support in her and them that you need. You’ll be in my thoughts.

  6. Yes, Jane Austen’s novels and JAFF are a constant source of joy! I have been reading Jane Austen since my grandmother gave me Pride and Prejudice when I was just 13. I have always loved her stories, her characters, her language, her wit, her humor, her observations about humankind. When in distress, though, I reread Persuasion. There’s a special comfort in a heroine, who despite all her own many difficulties, is unfailingly kind, empathetic, and compassionate AND gets her heart’s desire in the end.

    • I find Anne so inspirational. Not only does she give me hope for better days, but she makes me strive to be a better person. Elinor is similar, but Anne is the more mature, relatable version, for me at least. I also have been reading Austen since a very young age, though I discovered her through Northanger Abbey. She’s given me a lifetime of guidance. So grateful! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Lovely post, Alexa. 🙂 I have to say that writing JAFF (and other stories) is often how I cope with stresses and sadness and the like.

    I did want to add my thoughts on that section of Mansfield Park — kind of like we did with books in the read alongs. 😉 (I have been rereading bits and pieces of MP because I am working on some MP related stories.) When I read that section, I read sorrow — that same “this can’t be happening” sort of feeling you get when someone or something is taken suddenly. Fanny’s one bright spot is being ripped away form her and sooner than she has had time to prepare for. What’s left is life, but it is bleak — and made bleaker because of her loss of William.

    • I miss are discussions, Leenie! You and I tend to read things rather differently, but I hope our divergent perspectives were as enlightening for you as they were for me. I don’t doubt Fanny’s sorrow, I just think it’s sort of weird she expresssed no concern for William’s safety. Seems rather un-Fanny like to me. Maybe it was something Austen had trouble facing herself? Far easier to dwell on what’s at hand than contemplate possible tragedy, and probably much more pragmatic, too.

      • We do read differently — which is awesome and created interest in the discussion for me 🙂 It could very well be a reluctance to even contemplate the idea of his safety — an avoidance perhaps. I think I tend to be that way — think of everything else rather than the “big scary.” (It is one of the things that helped me get through several years of my mom’s poor health before her death.)

    • I had no idea you found JAFF through such tragedy, Jen. What a terribly loss to have suffered: I think of Cassandra, saying goodbye to Jane. So painful, but I know what a comfort JAFF can be. Thank goodness you found it – this community would be very different without you. We are all grateful for your presence amongst us. Much love.

  8. I had never heard that her books were recommended for soldiers before but I am not surprised as I too turn to her books in times of great stress. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Austen’s novels have seen me through a lot of ups and downs over the years, some major upheavals and some more minor disappointments. There’s just something about her writing, her characters, that allow you to escape from the real world. And yes, I agree that the strength of her heroines helps. It’s nice that we have a friend in Jane and her heroines when times get tough. It’s no surprise that JAFF has become so popular when considered in this context!

    • I completely agree, Anna. I also think it’s why she us so popular now. The world is changing so fast, and she gives us something calm, encouraging, and enduring to cling to. Quite an anchor. Thanks for commenting!

  10. I am pleased to see that Jane Austen helped the survivors of war so much and also helped you Alexa.
    I have read all her books although Mansfield Park and Northanger Abby only once each, but I have also watched them on TV. I have read and watched Emma, Persuasion and Sense & Sensibility several times but my favourite is P&P. This was the first one I read many years ago and has been re read many timed. I love both the 1995 & 2005 versions and can’t count the number of times I have watched them both.
    Then in 2014 I found JAFF! Oh what a joy! Now stories about Darcy and Elizabeth are mostly all I read and I now have a large number, many of which I read over and over again.
    Thank you for this fascinating post Alexa and I hope you continue to find solace and inspiration in her books.

    • You’re very welcome, Glynis. I am so grateful for all the Austen has given me, and the amazing world of JAFF I found as a result. Such good friends! Nothing’s better than a Janeite. Thanks for sharing your discovery of our community.

Your thoughts are precious!