Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Reading Jane Austen in Wartime

Mary A. Favret, Indiana University-Bloomington

  1. 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. [1]

    The 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.[2]

  2. 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 re-reading.

  3. 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."[3] 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.[4]  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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    I. Reading Austen in Wartime

  8. 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.[5] I offer it now to all teachers of the novel.

    Figure 1: "The Costumes of 'Pride and Prejudice,'" James Thurber, 1936

    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"?
  9. 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.[6] 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).[7]

  10. 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.[8] 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.[9]  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. 

  11. 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."[10]  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.

  12. 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.[11]  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?

  13. 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.[12] 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.[13] 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."[14] 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 drum.

  14. 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).[15] 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.

  15. 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 by." For Austen has obviously written, the article continues, "the best and most reviving literature for times such as these[.]"[16] 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?

  16. 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 wartime.

    II. Reading Wartime in Austen

  17. 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.

  18. 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."[17] 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. [18] 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.

  19. 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 5: 113).

    Editors 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.[19] 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 of War" (figure 2).

    Figure 2: "The Blessings of Peace, The Curses of War," James Gillray, 1795.

  20. 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 societies.

  21. 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 mockery?

    III. Reading War in Austen's Novels

  22. 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."[20] 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.[21] 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.

  23. 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?

  24. 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.[22]

    Trilling 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?

  25. 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. . . . [23]  

    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.[24] 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.

  26. 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 and everywhere.

  27. 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?

  28. 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 minds.


[1] Virginia Woolf, "The Leaning Tower," in The Moment and Other Essays (San Diego and New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975), 130-31.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

[5] James Thurber, "The Costumes of 'Pride and Prejudice,'" Stage 13 (January) 1936: 44-45.

[6]  Helen Jerome, Pride and Prejudice, adapted from the novel by Jane Austen. (New York: Doubleday, Duran & Co., 1936).

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] Claudia Johnson, "The Divine Miss Jane: Jane Austen, Janeites, and the Discipline of Novel Studies," in Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, 31-35.

[10] Frederic Harrison, letter to Thomas Hardy, 10 November 1913, cited in Johnson, 33.

[11] Herbert W. Horwill, "News and Views of Literary London," New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1940.

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] From a London paper, possibly The Times April 43, "Miss Austen for the Forces," from the notebooks of Augusta Burke, Goucher College Libraries.

[15] "Few Books in England," Baltimore Sunday Sun, August 2, 1942; clipping from the notebooks of Augusta Burke.

[16] "Miss Austen for the Forces." from the London Times, marked "April 1943"; clipping from the notebooks of Augusta Burke.

[17] 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.

[18] 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).

[19] 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.

[20] 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.

[21] 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 word.

[22] Lionel Trilling, "The Heroic, the Beautiful, and the Authentic," in Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972), 81-82.

[23] Eudora Welty, "The Radiance of Jane Austen," The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (New York: Random House, 1978), 7.

[24] Quoted in John Wiltshire, Jane Austen and the Body (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1992), 164.

About this Page

Published @ RC

August 2008