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.