Reading Jane Austen in Wartime
Mary A. Favret, Indiana University-Bloomington
Why teach Jane Austen in wartime? An old commonplace has it that Jane Austen's
novels showed little awareness of a world disrupted by revolution and war.
There are many versions of this thought, but I will cite only one of the more
sophisticated, coming from another wartime novelist, Virginia Woolf:
In 1815 England was at war, as England is now [she writes in 1940]. And it is natural to ask, how did their war—the
Napoleonic war—affect them? Was that one of the influences that formed them.
. . ? The answer is a very strange one. The Napoleonic wars did not affect a
great majority of those writers at all. The proof of that is to be found in the
work of two great novelists—Jane Austen and Walter Scott. Each lived through
the Napoleonic wars, each wrote through them. But, though novelists live very
close to the life of their time, neither of them in all their novels mentioned
the Napoleonic wars. This shows that their model, their vision of human life,
was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves. . .
. . Wars were then remote, wars were carried on by soldiers and sailors, not by
private people. The rumours of battle took a long time to reach England. . . . Compare that with our state today. Today we hear the gunfire in the Channel.
We turn on the wireless; we hear an airman telling us how this very afternoon
he shot down a raider; his machine caught fire; he plunged into the sea; the
light turned green and then black; he rose to the top and was rescued by a
trawler. Scott never saw sailors drowning at Trafalgar. Jane Austen never heard
the cannon roar at Waterloo. Neither of them heard Napoleon's voice as we hear
Hitler's voice as we sit at home in the evening.
That immunity from war lasted all through the nineteenth century.
passage suggests that the war-torn writer of the twentieth-century has a more
immediate experience of war than her counterparts from the previous century;
even the "private person" cannot now escape the war. But look closely:
Woolf''s war is mediated by the wireless radio, by disembodied voices in the
air. It is heard rather than seen. (Has she witnessed sailors drowning? Planes
crashing into the sea?) The media for broadcasting war had changed, but did they
offer a greater immediacy? Woolf and her contemporary audience "sit
at home in the evening"—not unlike Jane Austen and her contemporaries—and
try to envision the violence happening elsewhere.
Immune or not, both the Romantic
novelists Woolf cites did write about war, and both did refer to the
contemporary wars: Austen most notably in Persuasion, but also, more
obliquely, in the other novels; Scott, in The Antiquary, in reference
to the alarm scares of the 1790s, and more jingoistically, in his post-war poem, The
Field of Waterloo. So why does Woolf work so hard to deny all this? And why
have so many readers in subsequent decades been so willing, especially in the
case of Austen, to accept this denial? I try to address such questions when I
teach Jane Austen, and the past few years have added another, obviously topical
question to the mix, to complicate the first set. Why have so many readers
turned to Austen in wartime? For among the remarkable feints and pirouettes in
the passage above is Woolf's confession that she has herself been reading
Austen (and Scott) in wartime; the end of her essay insists, in fact, upon such
Though I accuse Woolf of denial, the
plausibility of her case should be admitted. Jane Austen lived through the
turmoil of the American War of Independence (she was born in 1775) as well as
the unpopular wars conducted by British troops in southern India (her aunt and
cousin were then living in Calcutta). She wrote nearly all of her novels
during the two decades while Britain was engaged in war with Revolutionary
and then Napoleonic France. And yet, even though she had two brothers
serving in the Royal Navy during these latter wars, only in her last
complete novel, Persuasion
(1818), written after the decisive victory at Waterloo, does the author provide
any explicit reference to the suffering of military men and their families.
Yes, there is the militia camped in Meryton; and Pride and Prejudice
ends with reference to an undated "restoration of peace."
In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price's brother William is seeking
preferment in a still hierarchical Royal Navy; of her father, a retired
Lieutenant of the Marines, we learn that "he swore and he drank, he was dirty
and gross"; like Fanny Price's father, the business and ugliness of the great
naval port, Portsmouth, leaves an indelible impression (OJA 3:389). With
General Tilney and his son Captain Tilney in Northanger Abbey, Austen
sketches more elite military officers, though not without some wariness.
Finally there are the admirable navy men of Persuasion, sent home during
the brief peace of 1814. In all these cases, however, warfare itself remains
distant; Austen's references themselves seem on leave from the great military
conflict of the age. They remain
indirect, at a remove from guns, smoke and blood.
Unlike her predecessor Charlotte Smith, Austen never takes her readers to the
scene of fighting; unlike her contemporaries Scott, Felicia Hemans or Robert
Southey, her imagination gets nowhere near a battlefield, ancient or modern.
Against this indirection and the
mainstream of commonplaces, we nevertheless find a recurrent linking of her
novels to a time of war, a sustained understanding of these as wartime novels.
Even Woolf is reading Austen in wartime, and urgently advising her own readers
to follow suit. To grasp this association between wartime and reading ("We do
not need till the end of the war," Woolf asserts, "We can begin now. We can
begin, practically and prosaically, by borrowing books from public libraries. .
. . .") requires an understanding of war as something that exceeds the actions
of the battlefield, as something experienced by Woolf's "private people" on the
home front as well as by active (and inactive) soldiers and sailors; as
something pressing itself into the corners and contours of everyday life (Woolf
154). In this sense the concern of wartime is not necessarily about whether or
not a war is justified or well-run; the concern is how one is to "sit at home
in the evening" and live through a war. Austen's novels are in fact an ideal
conduit for leading students to discover the underlying structures and
preoccupations of a population experiencing a distant war, living through
wartime. Together with the traditions of reading they have launched, Austen's
novels also open up the questions of why and what we choose to read, sitting at
home in the evening in times of crisis.
The first part of this essay will loosely
chart a current of criticism and response to Austen's novels which reads them
as novels for wartime, deeply imbued with the experience of Britain's involvement
in a distant and lengthy military conflict. This experience is not
limited to Austen's own wartime; it extends into and haunts the
twentieth-century as well, in the wartimes of the First and Second World Wars.
The wartime Austen is a phenomenon not necessarily limited to Britain; it crosses
the Atlantic to be embraced by that other Anglophone empire, the United States.
In turning over this history of reader-response, student readers can benefit
from several lines of inquiry. Most pointedly, it raises the question of what
we mean when we designate a text "wartime literature." And in analyzing the
ways in which previous readers have constructed them, students can try to
deduce what motivates associations between Austen and world war. To what extent
do Austen's novels themselves allow for these (often contradictory)
associations? To what extent are the reader's own preoccupations determining
the connection? And on what grounds can we separate such reader response from
the work of the text?
My gambit, offered to the class for their reflection, elaboration and refutation,
is to argue against Virginia Woolf. In the end, I want students to discern in
these novels the temporality of war, the way living through war re-configures
the feel of time. Perhaps this is my own provisional answer to what it means to
identify a "wartime literature." Because I teach at a large research
institution, with a terrific collection of nineteenth-century works and a
wealth of online databases, I tend to ask my students to make use of the
collection of periodicals available, in part because these media, however
dated, accord with their own sense of where and when war "happens." But I think
the attempt is worth making even without such access, and my hope is that some
of the material in this essay will help teachers with fewer resources and less
time at their disposal. Precisely because of this sense of war as something
mediated, arriving with the newspaper or the journal, Austen and her
contemporaries in the Romantic period helped forge our modern conception of
wartime as something more than a datable span of time (from declaration of war
to cease-fire): something that becomes a felt experience, a particular
awareness of time. This concern will form the second section of this essay.
Finally, as a sort of provocation, I offer a few brief interpretations
by famous critics and fellow novelists that find in Austen's writing
the mechanisms and effects of war itself. How students—and instructors—situate
themselves in relationship to these interpretations of a war-like Austen
may prove contentious, but illuminating, and I think important in this
particular historical moment. I hope they serve as a way to test a culture's
fascination with the technologies of war, as well as a way to reflect
on the boundaries of reading and interpretation, especially in wartime.
Reading Austen in Wartime
For inspiration about what a wartime
Austen might look like, I take inspiration from a cartoon drawn by James
Thurber: it depicts "The Costumes of 'Pride and Prejudice,'" for the smash hit
play of the 1936 Broadway season, recently arrived from London.
I offer it now to all teachers of the novel.
On the brink of a new
war in Europe, Thurber sees in Darcy a brooding Bonaparte and Willoughby a
flashy, highly-decorated officer of the Napoleonic period. [n.b. Thurber is not
mimicking the actual costumes for the play]. It's well worth asking your class
about the design and implications of this cartoon. Why the facelessness of
these characters? Does it suggest that the roles were presently—and possibly
always—open? Why the stark red background? Why Darcy as Napoleon? What sort
of history, past, present and future, surfaces in Thurber's vision of the play,
"Pride and Prejudice"?
If you have less time, you might choose
from the series of readings, some short and some even shorter, provided here
as a sort of sampler of wartime readings of Austen. You might want to
read Helen Jerome's play, first performed in London then revised on Broadway;
reviews of the performances are easy to locate.
The play prompted the
1941 Hollywood film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but its script
was radically rewritten by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin. With an English cast
and Gone with the Wind costumes, the film too is a powerful version of Austen
in wartime, though which particular wartime is harder to determine. (Pay
attention to repeated shots of a globe in the Bennett family sitting room
during certain emotionally wrenching scenes).
Yet an earlier and more overt
coordination of Austen's novels with wartime takes place in Rudyard Kipling's
short story, "The Janeites," where a group of British soldiers serving in an
artillery battery in France during the First World War forges allegiances over
their shared love of Austen's work.
They understand Austen as
both sign and protector of their secret club. They name cannons after
characters from the novels (Lady Catherine de Bough is, of course, one big gun,
though her name is tellingly misspelled as "de Bugg"). They speak in Austenian
shorthand (usually using characters' names); they share a secret password: "Tilniz
an' trapdoors" (taken from Northanger Abbey) ("Janeites" 132). As
Claudia Johnson points out in her essay "The Divine Miss Jane," Kipling's
artillerymen read Austen in wartime in support of an obviously homosocial but
also national sense of identity.
Reading Pride and Prejudice is here considered not escape from but training for the demands
of world war. Humberstall, the one Janeite in his cohort who survives a German
shelling, continues to read Austen after the war in order to "bring it all back—down to the smell of the glue-paint on the screens. You can take it from me, Brethren,
there's no one to touch Jane when you're in a tight place" ("Janeites," 137).
For students new to Austen, this story can be revelatory: Jane Austen has not
always meant what we think she means now. Placing her novels on the
battlefield, as Kipling does, rearranges many of our twenty-first century
assumptions about why reading Austen matters.
Just prior to World War I, before
Humberstall was sent to the trenches, a British critic could see Austen as a
"heartless little cynic. . . . penning satires against her neighbors while the
Dynasts were tearing the world to pieces and sending millions to their graves."
The image critiques the novelist for her solipsism even as it elides her local
heartlessness with the more global destructiveness of imperial powers at the
beginning of the nineteenth century. Once the Dynasts were at it again, at the
beginning of the new century, Austen could be recruited to the side of battered
fighting men, like Kipling's humble Humberstall. Then, after the First World War,
Austen's novels became prescribed reading for veterans suffering trauma. "For
soldiers whose minds were shattered by dynastic history," Johnson suggests,
"Austen's fictional world could feel rehabilitative"—though its active
ingredients were never fully spelled out (33). No longer heartless accomplice
to nor protective companion in war, Austen's world was rewritten as restorative
therapy in the wake of a disastrous war. It may be helpful to point out that
the initial printing of the Oxford University Press edition of her collected
works appeared shortly after the war in 1923 (the first such collection by OUP
of a writer's work), a sign of her arrival as a fully canonical but also
culturally crucial author.
Examples of reader response to Austen
during the Second World War provide even more complex understandings of a
wartime Austen, as Virginia Woolf's contribution and the 1941 Hollywood film
version both indicate. Sales of Vanity Fair in Britain doubled in the first year of World War II, but sales of Pride and Prejudice nearly
tripled, and the newspapers kept score. While London was being
bombed, the English were reading novels set during that century-old war, when
Dynasts were tearing the world to pieces. It is hard to know how to read these
facts, especially given the linking of what might at first glance seem tonally
disparate works. Were those reading Austen also reading Thackeray, or were the
two in competition for a readership? Could Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennett
belong to the same world? Perhaps wartime readers sensed a connection between
Becky and, say, Lydia Bennett (or, if Sense and Sensibility were in the
lottery, why not Becky's sharp precursor, Lucy Steele?) What happens when we
put side by side a ballroom scene from Pride and Prejudice with the
famous ballroom scene on the night before Waterloo, as depicted in Thackeray?
Regardless of the specific answers to
these questions, it is certain that Austen's novels mattered and were moreover
reported to matter to the wartime readership. In his sickbed, Winston
Churchill, prime minister of a nation under siege, turned to reading Jane
Austen and wrote, echoing Woolf, "What calm lives they had. . . . No worries
about the French Revolution, or the crushing struggles of the Napoleonic wars.
Only manners controlling natural passions as far as they could. . . ." (qtd. in
Southam 10). Yet the fact that he was reading Pride and Prejudice was
widely reported. Other individuals wrote to the literary journals to report
that they too were reading—and re-reading—Austen's novels, often at a
terrific rate. War years in England provoked an energetic discussion of the
merits of re-reading; and though she wasn't the only re-read author, Jane
Austen always figured in the discussion. There was an assumption
at the time that re-reading books from Britain's tremendous literary past
served as fortification against the upheavals of wartime. Austen provided
something additional, at least in the eyes of British novelist Rebecca West:
her work demonstrated an "underlying faith that the survival of society was
more essential to the moral purpose of the universe than the survival of the
individual," and such faith could prove crucial in wartime.
The public re-read Austen in particular, writes a London paper in 1943, because
"Her books are full of the drowsy hummings of a summer garden, which can deafen
ears even to the hummings of the aeroplane overhead."
Something ominous lurks in the repetition though, and it's worth spending time
on this sentence: the summer hummings might mimic even as they deafen, might
echo as much as they deflect the sound of bombers. What sort of drowsiness runs
through these novels? This attempt to recapture the rhythm of Austen's world
cannot help but respond to the rhythm of the present moment of reading (before
bed, sitting in the living room, listening to Hitler on the radio). In these
wartime years, consolation and anxiety seem to follow the beat of the same
When bombs had destroyed libraries and
warehouses, and paper and publishing in Britain had been severely restricted,
most readers could not buy new books: to read at all they had to re-read. For
the first time since her death, one bookseller lamented in 1942, Jane Austen's
novels were out of print in England (this is more a symbolic than a historical
fact). These numbers were
conscientiously reported in the daily press, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.
But why, it's worth asking a class, this concern over novels
in wartime? It's almost as if the newspapers offered these numbers as an
alternative—and more economical—form of publication, another way to keep
Austen, and a certain image of Anglo-Saxon "civilization," in circulation
amidst the bombs.
The matter of scarcity pushed Austen into
a new wartime role, one that recalls the dilemma of, say, the Dashwood women
at the outset of Sense and Sensibility as they try to make do
with a severely tighter domestic economy. Yet there is something else,
something beyond Kipling's sense of companionship "in a tight place," something
akin to her rehabilitative post-war role and yet, because this war is
not over, more troubling. A 1943 article in the London Times, "Miss
Austen for the Forces," hints that anxiety over the scarcity of Jane
Austen's novels could be aligned with anxiety over a general scarcity
of life itself; as if the unavailability of Austen novels—and not
the war itself—were responsible for
a stark decline in life expectancy. "It is harrowing,"—the Times does
not mince words—"it is harrowing to learn" that young men and women in
the forces cannot get copies of her novels. "Here is a chance of sowing a crop
of happiness for the rest of their lives and the seed is apparently hard come
For Austen has obviously written, the article continues, "the best and most
reviving literature for times such as these[.]"
The fear is patent: what will happen if those best and most reviving doses of
Austen are not to be had? Might a greater supply of Austen add happier days,
if not years, to lives in wartime? War indeed brings a need for reviving, for
giving life back to young service-men and women. There is good reason to fear
that little time is left them to sow seeds of happiness, that the "rest of
their lives" is urgently approaching, that the lives of individuals will be
sacrificed for the survival of British society. But if they cannot read and
re-read Austen, will the members of the armed forces not only forfeit their own
future, but also future generations of devout Janeites?
If this is a line of thought compelling
to your students, and if you have the resources (newspaper databases may be a
good source) you might give a research assignment that asks them to track
references to Austen or her novels in specific wartimes. Look for more than the
mere mention of her name: look for allusions to titles, mention of distinctive
characters; catchphrases (truths universally acknowledged) and see if,
combining what they find, they might draw their own picture of Austen in
Reading Wartime in Austen
Thus far, I have given a survey of ways
that Austen was read, and the ways that reading Austen was invoked in
relationship to wartime in the first half of the twentieth century. There is
another way of proceeding here, one that takes the novels themselves as
uniquely representative of a time of war. The temporal structure of wartime—what it looks like, how it feels—is rarely discussed, even in courses on
wartime literature. A careful reading of Austen can yield at least two ways of
approaching war time: as a time of waiting and a time of alarm.
The most evocative suggestion I have
found of wartime in Austen was proposed by Nina Auerbach in 1978, in her study Communities
of Women. Referring to a moment in a drawing room at Pemberley, where
Elizabeth Bennett sits with Darcy's sister and the Misses Bingley, Auerbach
reads the drawing room as in fact a wartime scene. She contemplates the several
women sitting uncomfortably, a palpable tension in the air as they wait for the
men to return from activities elsewhere. "In presenting these drawing rooms
full of women watching the door and watching each other," Auerbach notes, "Jane
Austen tells us what an observant, genteel woman has to tell about the
Napoleonic Wars: she writes novels about waiting."
Pride and Prejudice constructs a world where "the period of protracted
waiting is not a probationary interim before life begins; waiting for a male
is life itself," Auerbach's formulation does not allow us to differentiate waiting
for men to come home from war from waiting for a man to marry you (Auerbach,
40). And if waiting is life, and not prelude to life, then what might
the end of waiting be? Marriage or peace or, at its most simple, the end of the
story? Auerbach makes the drawing room scene a paradigm for Austen's world:
"their shared world is a limbo of suspension and suspense" (33). It seems
fitting then, that the last page of Pride and Prejudice talks of "the
restoration of peace," as if wartime had ended. Given that Austen wrote the
first version of this novel in the late 1790s, and rewrote it in 1811-1812,
with "punctilious observance of the calendars" of those latter years, we know
peace was not an available historical reality at either period of composition.
Auerbach's observations not only suggest an affective frame for wartime
(suspense, and the feeling of limbo) but also cast a new light on Austen's
famously equivocal endings.
When possible, I like to transfer
Auerbach's emphasis on what we might call the intensification of one's sense of
time during war and apply it to another of Austen's novels, Northanger Abbey.
Look at Henry Tilney teasing his sister and Catherine Morland for the fears
they have absorbed, presumably from their reading of gothic novels:
"And you, Miss Morland—My stupid
sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected
horrors in London, and instead of instantly conceiving, . . . that such words
could only relate to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to her
self a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George's Fields, the Bank
attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a
detachment of the 12th Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation)
called up from Northamptonshire, to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Capt.
Frederick Tilney . . . knocked off his horse by a brickbat . . . . " (OJA
have glossed this passage variously, in some cases citing the lingering memory
of mob violence from the Gordon Riots (1780), in some cases, citing the more
recent insurgency across the Channel in France. But R. W. Chapman notes that
there is a factual bit in Henry's flight of fancy: because of the war with
France, cavalry barracks had been built in Northampton in 1798 (though the 12th
Light Dragoons were nowhere near, having been posted to Portugal in 1796) (OJA
5: 291). More crucially, in the years when Austen worked on this novel (1798
and 1803), England was, in fact, subject to two serious (and other minor)
invasion scares. The press—encouraged by the Pitt Administration—broadcast
Napoleon's intention to invade England, take over the Bank of England, and
flood the streets with English blood. In other words, gothic novels and
circulating libraries were not the only sources for these alarming scenarios;
and Catherine and Eleanor were not alone in their fears.
In fact, one effective (and short) complement to the rush of "expected horrors"
that Henry Tilney unleashes is William Wordsworth's sonnet, "Anticipation,
1803." Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Fears in Solitude, written in April
1798, during the alarm of an invasion" is another, but longer, fantasy of
horrors descending on England. Or consider Henry Tilney's speech in comparison
with James Gillray's 1795 engraving, "The Blessings of Peace, the Curse
In all these instances, the speaker
vividly imagines what might happen and that imagining not only pulls away from
the lived present into some other temporal possibility; in doing so it also
provides a certain rush of excitement or decisiveness otherwise lacking to the
present (recall the restlessness of Elizabeth Bennett in those drawing rooms).
In a later pivotal (and very funny) scene in the second volume of Northanger
Abbey, where Emily excitedly approaches the chest of drawers in her room
looking for documents of horror, a similarly proleptic imagining takes place,
though Catherine's imagination turns more to an imagined past, to what might
have happened (JOA 5: 163-171). Noting that Austen worked on this
novel during various "alarms of invasion," when the rhetoric of alarm was
everywhere in the contemporary media, gives special force to the (large) number
of times Austen plays on the word "alarm," and the variety of emotional registers
that accompanies these "alarms." The novel joins alarm to curiosity, eagerness,
and even hope—as well as dread. The core of this famous chapter is the
desire that fuels Catherine's sense of alarm, and the alarm that in turn
nourishes her desire. It is her desire to know more, to know better, to
eliminate doubt with the discovery of a story—even the bleakest, most
shocking story. For Austen's heroine—as for the heroine of Radcliffe's Mysteries
of Udolpho—the searching out of a violent story, the hunger to discover
a dead body, might be viewed as a way of allowing someone who otherwise can
only sit at home in the evening to foster an awareness, however filtered, of
distant dangers. The time of alarm is more active, more punctuated, than the
time of waiting; it lives on the alert not for a man to arrive, but for
disaster, violence, something terrible that will not only put the alarmist into
the thick of the story, but also tell her unequivocally what this story is: not
marriage and the building of society, but perhaps death and the destruction of
Reading with this awareness, one begins
to sense the distinctive modes of time that can take hold in wartime: a time of
suspension (waiting for men to come home) as well as a time of rush and alarm (expecting
disaster to emerge at every turn). In these ways, I find Austen's novels
extremely topical as wartime novels. How plausible—and how satisfying—is the
announcement of an end to waiting and the "restoration of peace"? How
satisfying, on the other hand, the rush to fear? Catherine's sense of alarm
does invade the most mundane aspects of her life, and the narrator gently mocks
her for it: but if she's living in wartime, under the fear of invasion, is
Catherine in fact registering something more culturally pervasive, if
unacknowledged? Might fear and alarm—as much as anxious waiting—legitimately
shape one's experience of wartime? Or should the constant recourse to alarm (in
our time, such alarm is given levels and colors) serve only as the object of
Reading War in Austen's
In teaching us to see Austen as a writer of wartime, in shifting the scene of war
from the battlefield to the home front, Auerbach takes her lead from an essay
published a decade earlier. In 1969 (during the war in Vietnam), British
novelist and critic V. S. Pritchett had—in strict opposition to Virginia
Woolf's reading—made a case for considering Jane Austen's novels in the
context of the coincident wars with France. "I think of her as a war-novelist,"
writes Pritchett, "formed very much by the Napoleonic wars, knowing directly of
prize money, the shortage of men, the economic crisis and change in the value
of capital." This is a handy
statement of the various forms war could take on the home front for someone,
like the novelist, alert to social and economic fluctuations. Such knowledge
and awareness, Pritchett barely has to add, must derive in part from the fact
that Austen had two brothers in the Royal Navy at the time of the Napoleonic
Wars. It could also derive from Austen's reading and conversation: both the
newspapers and the literary magazines available at the time gave continual news
about the progress of the wars as well as their effects at home. But to nail
his point, Pritchett pushes the military association in an unexpected
direction: "I have even seen," he continues, "a resemblance of that second
visit to Darcy's house as [to?] a naval battle; for notice there how the
positions of the people in the drawing room are made certain, where Elizabeth
like a frigate has to run between the lines" (28). Few scholars have
picked up on Pritchett's hint here, to consider Austen's heroine as a frigate
engaged in martial maneuvers.
The ease with which he
concocts this analogy of Elizabeth Bennett as frigate reveals the power of his
nautical imagination; suddenly one is asked to imagine the entire cast of
characters as sloops, privateers, and ships of the line, engaged in movements
hazardous to themselves yet vital to the nation. The walls, doors and floors of
the drawing room give way to this other theater of operations. The stakes of
Elizabeth's situation are higher than we might have realized.
We might dilate a bit on Pritchett's
claim here, and notice that warfare seems to enter Pride and Prejudice
through the imagination not of the characters or the narrator, but the active
reader. Here the biases of an individual reader, the inheritor of a history of
warfare and observer of another distant war, can be revealing of a more general
wartime phenomenon: how war penetrates our reading, our writing, and our habits
of mind. How much weight can we put on Pritchett's sense of resemblance between
a scene in Pride and Prejudice and acts of war? The question, here and
elsewhere, may boil down to the value and limits of analogy as a form of
interpretation. Using a slightly different range of reference, and without any
claims to historical accuracy, one might feel inspired to say that during this
visit to Pemberley, it's as if Elizabeth is walking through a minefield. The
analogy is so hackneyed that one feels no obligation to imagine an explosion
that flings body parts and earth into the air. Pritchett's analogy, less
expected, does fling us out of the drawing room into this unsettling, hazardous
place. What would motivate a reader to say that back on the home front, the
heroine too is fighting for her life and the security of England?
Pritchett's interpretation may not be as
idiosyncratic as it at first looks. Consider this description of Austen's
fiction from the Victorian era: an anonymous reviewer mentions "struggles" and
"conquests," insisting that "the individual mind can only be represented by
[Jane Austen] as a battle-field where contending hosts are marshalled and where
victory inclines now to one side and now to another." For critic Lionel
Trilling, who gives us this reference in his essay "The Heroic, the Beautiful,
and the Authentic," the military analogy "does not ring true," and he calls
attention to the (misguided) work it performs:
it does not accurately convey the nature
of moral activity as Jane Austen conceives it. We have no difficulty in
understanding why the critic resorts to the large military simile—it is a
handy way of asserting that the novels are momentous in their significance, of
claiming for them the respect that is traditionally given to works in the
heroic mode, of which the military virtues are ultimately definitive, and most
readily given to tragedy, the genre originally defined by its reliance upon the
heroic mode. The critic . . . is constrained to communicate the true state of
the case in language not appropriate to it.
is probably right to identify the inflationary rhetoric introduced by the
comparison to warfare. He is also warding off the thought that there is
anything at all tragic or destructive about Austen's fiction. Yet to refute the
anonymous, bellicose, reviewer, Trilling cites—no doubt with some sense of
the irony—Jacques Barzun's pronouncement that the novel as a form, and as
practiced by Austen "has persistently made war on two things—our culture and
the heroic" (83). Trilling's dismissal of the heroic seems to have missed the
point: even without a sense of tragedy the war continues, but it has shifted
ground from "the individual mind" to the genre of the novel. The martial
metaphor still works, but to what end?
Other twentieth-century readers have found in Austen's style and plot means of
destruction more potent than the mere words of a heartless cynic. Here is
American novelist Eudora Welty, writing like Pritchett in 1969 as she watches
on television (Woolf's radio updated) news from the Vietnam War. Welty is
fascinated by the "noise" and "velocity" (rather than the humming) of Austen's
fiction; for her it resembles the formidable technology of a trans-historical
military industrial complex:
Each novel is a formidable engine of
strategy. It is made to be—a marvel of designing and workmanship, capable of
spontaneous motion at the lightest touch, and of travel at delicately
controlled but rapid speed toward its precise destination. It could kill us all
. . . it fires at us, all along the way, using understatement in good aim. Let
us be thankful it is trained not on our hearts, but on our illusions and
vanities. . . . She could be our Waterloo; she is our Waterloo. . . . 
And here is respected Austen critic Walton Litz, himself a veteran of
World War II, characterizing the violent effects of Austen's style in
similar, if more concentrated fashion. He praises the development, in
Austen's Persuasion, of "a rapid and nervous syntax, designed
to imitate the bombardment of impressions upon the mind," specifically
Anne Elliott's mind.
Though the damage here is limited to the main character (the reader,
presumably, suffers no collateral damage), the suggestion nevertheless is that
Austen's writing simulates—at least in some psychological realm—the
operations of war. In a sense, Litz simply updates the observations of
Trilling's anonymous Victorian: the individual mind is the site of organized
and destructive violence.
These examples, it seems to me, share
with Catherine Morland a certain fascination with violence. In the later
twentieth-century cases in particular, the fascination seems to linger on the
technology or machinery of war as a model for the technical mastery of Austen's
style. Yet in drawing out the implications of the nineteenth-century view that
Austen presents the individual mind as the terrain of terrible struggles and
conquests, these examples also tell us something we have perhaps too easily assumed
about the modern, human mind. In doing so, they refute Woolf's sense that the
"vision of human life" was not "disturbed or agitated or changed" by these
distant wars. You don't need to go to the battlefield to experience war, these
metaphors say: thanks to writers like Austen, war is in your mind, every day
The layered difficulty of such analogies might
render them illegitimate as classroom tools. They lack facticity and perhaps
authority. They seem irresponsible in their appeal to psychological or abstract
states as the terrain of war; they blur the usual sense of boundaries. But war
too (responsibly or not) blurs boundaries; and in the modern era, in the wake
of trauma theory, we have learned not to dissociate the terrain of the mind from
the terrain of battle. The likes of Pritchett, Welty, Trilling and Litz—no
less than Virginia Woolf or Rebecca West—are not irresponsible readers
or writers. Their analogies and metaphors are worth testing and pondering: how
far do the effects of war extend? Into our habits of mind? And to what extent
does writing and reading register those effects? When students and instructors
search for analogies and metaphors to extend their reading beyond the page,
which come "naturally?" Which seem strained or unnatural? What habits
of mind dictate our ease with such associations?
We too are reading and teaching Austen in
wartime. For our classes, Austen's novels deserve to be read in the light (or
dark) of war. They might lead this generation of readers—as they have led
others—to use Jane Austen to make sense (and feeling) of something that
continues—even, as Woolf tells us, wirelessly—to invade our words and
 Virginia Woolf, "The Leaning
Tower," in The Moment and Other Essays (San
Diego and New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975), 130-31.
The Battle of Britain, with its incessant bombing campaign by the German Luftwaffe,
lasted from 9 July to 31 October 1940. Woolf wrote her essay before this period,
and delivered it as a speech in May of that year.
 The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 6 vols.,
(Oxford and New York; Oxford UP, 1954), v. 2, p. 387. Hereafter referred
to as OJA, followed by volume number and page. See Chapman's appendix
on "The Chronology of Pride and Prejudice," where he discusses
the elusiveness of this reference, OJA 2: 400-407.
 In Persuasion Austen introduces
an officer wounded at sea and refers—with
disturbing comedy—to the death of a young midshipman, a son of the Musgrave
family. For extensive treatment of Austen's relationship to the Royal Navy,
and to the war conducted in those years, see Brian Southam, Jane Austen
and the Navy (London and New York; Hambledon and London, 2000). On Mansfield
Park in particular, see Jill Heydt Stevenson, Austen's Unbecoming
Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History, (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2005). My own thoughts on Persuasion are developed in "Everyday
War," English Literary History 72.3 (Fall 2005).
 James Thurber, "The Costumes of 'Pride
and Prejudice,'" Stage 13 (January) 1936: 44-45.
 Helen Jerome, Pride and Prejudice,
adapted from the novel by Jane Austen. (New York: Doubleday, Duran & Co.,
 This movie and its multiple wartime contexts
are discussed in my "Free and Happy:
Jane Austen in America," in Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees,
ed. Deidre Lynch (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), 166-187.
 Rudyard Kipling, "The Janeites," in Debits
and Credits, ed. Sandra Kemp (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), pp.
119-40. The story was written in 1922-23 and first published in 1924.
 Claudia Johnson, "The Divine Miss Jane: Jane Austen, Janeites, and the Discipline
of Novel Studies," in Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees,
 Frederic Harrison, letter to Thomas
Hardy, 10 November 1913, cited in Johnson, 33.
 Herbert W. Horwill, "News and Views of
Literary London," New York Times
Book Review, April 28, 1940.
 Woolf again, in her essay "On Re-reading Novels," written during the war, begins
by noting a reprinting of Austen's novels—and Meredith's and the Brontës'. The
Moment and Other Essays, 155.
 Rebecca West, from The Court and the Castle, rpt. in Ian Littlewood,
ed. Jane Austen: Critical Assessments, 4 vols. (East Sussex: Helm
Information, Ltd. 1998), v. 1, 467.
 From a London paper, possibly The Times April 43, "Miss Austen for
the Forces," from the notebooks of Augusta Burke, Goucher College Libraries.
 "Few Books in England," Baltimore Sunday Sun,
August 2, 1942; clipping from the notebooks of Augusta Burke.
 "Miss Austen for the Forces." from the London Times, marked "April
1943"; clipping from the notebooks of Augusta Burke.
 Nina Auerbach, Communities of
Women: An Idea in Fiction, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978), p.
39. The passage she cites is in OJA, 2: 341.
 Chapman speculates that in rewriting the manuscript from the 1790s. Austen might
have been imagining the Peace of Amiens (1803) as a future horizon for the events
of the novel. Of course, in 1811-1812, when she was revising, the failure of
that peace was palpable (OJA 2:407).
 A terrific resource for the invasion scares is Harold
Wheeler and Alexander Broadley, Napoleon and the Invasion of England,
2 vols., (London and New York; J. Lane Company, 1908); see also Mark Rawlinson, "Invasion!
Coleridge, the defense of Britain and the cultivation of the public's fear," in
Philip Shaw, ed., Romantic Wars: Studies in Culture and Conflict, 1793-1822,
(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 110-137.
 V. S. Pritchett, George Meredith
and English Comedy (New York: Random House, Inc., 1970; c. 1969),
28. I thank Deidre Lynch for passing on this reference.
 Southam, who also cites these lines from Pritchett, adds: "I have made no attempt
to follow Pritchett in the pursuit of naval metaphors" (Southam, 10). The OED
gives this definition of "frigate": "A war-vessel. In the Royal Navy, formerly
a vessel of the class next in size and equipment to ships of the line, carrying
from 28 to 60 guns on the main deck and a raised quarter-deck and forecastle.
As subsequently used, the term no longer denoted a distinct class of vessels,
being often applied to ships of much larger size than those that were so designated
early in the nineteenth century. Since 1943, a naval escort vessel, a large
corvette." It is likely Pritchett intends the nineteenth-century sense of the
 Lionel Trilling, "The Heroic, the Beautiful, and the Authentic," in Sincerity
and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972), 81-82.
 Eudora Welty, "The Radiance of Jane Austen," The
Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (New York: Random House,
 Quoted in John Wiltshire, Jane Austen and the Body (Cambridge and New
York: Cambridge UP, 1992), 164.