In 1775, just before America declared its independence, Jane Austen was born. She lived in, and wrote about, a world that was quite different from our own. But her insight into humanity allowed her to create characters that we might still recognize today – minus the top hat or bonnet.
But could reading about these Regency characters benefit us “modern folk?” Maybe… After the First World War, Jane Austen’s books were prescribed for returning solders who suffered from PTSD. Perhaps reading those same books could help us navigate the difficult times we face today.
At Risk of Becoming a Janeite
Jane Austin died in 1817 at age 41 and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. During her life she lived in several towns in southern England – including Bath where I live now. The city is proud of its Jane Austen connection and is like a little time capsule of the world she once walked in. Even inside my apartment, I’m reminded of Jane. We’re in a rented flat and the pictures above the desk in my study are scenes depicting people from the Regency period who look like they could be in her novels.
So, being a bit obsessive – as all good researchers are – I’ve decided to read (or listen to – since I listen to audio books to save my eyes) all six of Jane’s novels. I have to admit that until now, I’ve only been acquainted with her works through film or tv adaptations (and there is no lack of those). But that’s about to change. And maybe, I’ll do a little experiment at the same time…
Can Jane Soothe a Troubled Soul?
In reading about Jane Austen, I ran across something that piqued my interest. It seems that her novels were prescribed to soldiers returning from the First and Second World Wars who were suffering psychologically from the trauma of combat (what we now call PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Apparently, Jane’s stories had a calming effect on them.
In fact, an Oxford tutor, HFB Brett-Smith, worked with hospitals during the war years to help soldiers recover by having them read certain books. He set up a system to correlate literature with the conditions that it could benefit. Different novels or poems were suggested for different disorders. And, surprisingly, “for the severely shell shocked” the prescription was Jane Austen.
Jane Austen always had fans, but the term Janeite was coined in 1894 to describe the ever-growing circle of readers who couldn’t get enough of her works. And in the early 1900s, many Janeites were men: professors, publishers, or literary men who recognized her talent. When World War I came around, Jane turned out to be a favorite among the soldiers as well. The British government shipped loads of books to the troops to help them cope with the horrors of war, and Jane’s were among the most popular.
Her writings also helped comfort those at home. Rudyard Kipling was an Austen fan and is said to have read her novels to his family during the war. Her books helped them cope as they awaited news and hoped for the survival of their son who was “missing in action,” but never returned from the war.
Jane in the Trenches
After the First World War, Kipling wrote a short, fictional story entitled, The Janeites. It tells of a group of soldiers who were drawn together and supported by their love of Jane’s books.
The story begins in 1920 in a Masonic Lodge. It’s cleaning day and the men are reminiscing about the war as they tidy up the lodge. One of the men, Humberstall, has been left mentally damaged by his war experience, and he’s telling the others of his initiation into what he remembers as a secret society called the Janeites.
It was all to do with some girl called Jane. He and the other soldiers read all of her books and took a test to be admitted to the group. It bound them together in comradery and gave them something to talk about other than the war. When Humberstall’s regiment was attacked, he was severely wounded and was the only survivor. In his simple way, he sums up what the books did for him when he says, “You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place.”
Books and Wellbeing
All this talk about Jane Austen’s novels, and books in general, being able to give solace in traumatic times makes me think: Are some authors more comforting than others in troubling times? Will Jane still do the trick for us today? As I said, I plan to read her novels, so I guess I’ll find out. I did notice that after watching the film, Sense and Sensibility, I had a definite feeling of well-being. Was it just a coincidence, or was there really some Jane Austen magic going on there?
I do know that through these unsettling times, I’ve been reading (or listening to) a lot more books than before. I’m an Audible subscriber and for my subscription fee I get one audio book per month. Last year, listening to one book per month was plenty for me. But this year, some months I’ve chalked up four books. Of course, during lockdown, there wasn’t a lot to do, but I think reading also helped me enter into other worlds that weren’t quite as uncertain as the one I was living in.
Some of my Faves
Since we’re talking of reading, here are the top five books that I’ve read this year. They are in random order – I can’t rate them, they are all really good.
- Circe by Madeline Miller
- The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
- The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
- The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
What Do You Think?
Are there any books, authors, or genres that lift your spirits or help you through hard times? Are you a Jane Austen fan?
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