Austen and the First World War

When I was in Stratford this summer, I picked up a copy of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman (Henry Holt, 2009). It’s a neat book, in which Harman looks at the various permutations of Jane Austen’s appeal from early anonymous success to her current status as a pop culture/nostalgia juggernaut. One thread that runs through the story is how much perceptions of Austen and of her novels have been shaped by expectations of womanly behaviour – both in the moment and projected backwards onto the start of the nineteenth century.

Since it’s 2014, the centenary of the start of World War One, I thought it most appropriate to quote from the book’s reception during that war. Plenty of fans of Jane Austen (or “Janeites”) found the books comforts (though some felt them out of step with the times), but

the therapeutic potential of Austen’s novels in wartime was recognized on a wider scale when they were chosen as “salubrious reading for the wounded” and prescribed as an aid to convalescence for the most severely shell-shocked soldiers. Thus Pride and PrejudiceEmma, and Sense and Sensibility appeared at the top of a graded “Fever-Chart” drawn up for use in military hospitals by an Oxford don exempted from military service, H.F. Brett-Smith.

It was all part and parcel of Austen’s canonization, as well as confirmation that the novels were to be viewed through the lens of Jane’s femininity: being considered good reading for those considered hurt and in need of treatment with kid gloves connected to the not entirely complimentary perception of Austen’s novels as particularly gentle and feminine.

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