Jane Austen: Prescription for a Troubled Soul

Jane Austen (1775-1817) – Image in public domain

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…

Evening at Home by Edward Poynter 1888 – Image in public domain

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.

Janeites

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.

Poster asking for book donations for the troops – Image in public domain

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.”

The above poem is at the beginning of Kipling’s short story, The Janeites.

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.

Lady Reading in an Interior by Marguerite Gérard c 1795

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.

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller
  2. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
  3. The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
  4. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  5. 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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11 comments

  1. To be honest, I’m quite surprised you haven’t read any! I did Pride & Prejudice for ‘O’ Level (which automatically shows my age!) and have been a fan ever since. You will find P&P much better than any film version. For me it was always a competition between her and the Bronte sisters. I actually visited Howarth Parsonage some years ago and felt like I was visiting an old friend. I actually got quite emotional in there! I am still waiting to visit Jane’s house, and wonder if it’ll have the same effect?

    1. Well, I’m a bit surprised too… But growing up in America, it wasn’t in our high school curriculum, and later, I guess I didn’t read them because I had seen the films. Anyway, I’ve nearly finished Northanger Abbey which she wrote while in Bath and I’m loving it. It’s so funny – not what I expected.
      I’m looking forward to visiting the Jane Austen centre here in Bath when it reopens.
      Wishing you all the best -Margo

  2. I’ve remembered the other important thing! Some years ago the BBC made Pride and Prejudice into a series. A virtually unknown Colin Firth played Mr Darcy and there is a very famous scene where he comes out of the lake in a white shirt, soaking wet. That was definitely ‘a prescription for a troubled soul’ and all Britain’s women swooned! This is why it’s not a coincidence that Colin Firth plays Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’ Diary, a modern take on Pride and Prejudice. It might be worth a viewing if you can find it. x

    1. Oh yes, I’ve seen that series. I rewatched it again recently, and I do (vividly) remember the scene where Colin Firth becomes Mr. Darcy in everyone’s mind forever.
      I also especially enjoyed the film version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet.
      I’m looking forward to seeing how the books compare to the films.

  3. I am sure you will prefer the books if you liked screen versions, Margo. Back in March, in our first lockdown, with the libraries closed, I started re-reading my Jane Austen books, starting with Emma, as I had just seen the new movie. Although the movie was good, the book gives you so much more. As you found with “Northanger Abbey”, Jane Austen is a great humorist. I read my way through all her works and, apart from “Lady Susan”, found it was great entertainment and very therapeutic.
    Enjoy Bath. Paula

    1. Thanks Paula, I do normally like the book better than the screen version, and I enjoyed all the movies, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy all the books. Hope things are improving in your part of the world. Things have reached a new ‘normal’ here. Shops and restaurants are open, but with numbers of shoppers or diners limited.

  4. Love this!! I learned quite a few things about Jane Austen I didn’t know before, my favorite being that her novels were prescribed for shell shock way back when! This is a wonderful post and I don’t think you will be disappointed in her novels once you read them all. My personal favorite is Persuasion. It had a different feel compared to her other ones; you can tell she was a bit older when she wrote it. When I first read it in high school, my main take-away was this sense that you have to stand up for yourself and actively play a part of your life. It really did motivate me to take charge of my future. I’ve been wanting to read it again recently to see if I soak up any other pearls from it; I’m sure I will. Enjoy!

    1. Persuasion is the only book I’m not familiar with. I just finished Northanger Abbey and plan to start Persuasion next – I believe those are the two books that she wrote while living in Bath. It’s wonderful how the book influenced you in such a positive way. I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks, -Margo

  5. I’ve been a Thomas Hardy fan ever since I discovered him at 16 and soon after that I discovered Jane Austen and fell in love with her writing, too. I THINK I have all the books they ever wrote….What you said about Jane’s books being used for post war survivors is interesting; my mother never understood how “Emma” could have been prescribed as the set book for a boys’ school grade 12 learner (17-18 yrs old) in 1945 South Africa (my father). Perhaps this was just a follow-on from what was happening in the U.K. and we were still operating under the British system.
    Jeanne

    1. At first, I was thinking along the same lines as your mother: Emma seems an unlikely choice for teenage boys. But it brings up a really interesting idea…
      When did Jane Austen’s books become ‘chick-lit?’ And when did the whole idea of ‘chick-lit’ come about? As I mentioned in my article, her earliest fans were men, and soldiers in the trenches had no qualms about reading her books. Perhaps in your father’s day, books were just chosen on literary merit and not adapted to the student.
      When you think about it, how many books with male protagonists, following ‘male pursuits,’ are girls expected to read? And no one thinks anything of it.
      I rather like the idea of students being required to read things they might not choose on their own. So, hurrah for 1945 South Africa for exposing boys to good literature. 🙂 😉

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