“And-oh yes-there was a Miss Bates; just an old maid runnin’ about like a hen with ‘er ‘ead cut off, an’ her tongue loose at both ends. I’ve got an aunt like ‘er. Good as gold-but, you know.” Humberstall, Janeites, Rudyard Kipling, (1924)
Did any gentle readers catch My Boy Jack on Masterpiece Classic last night? It did not disappoint. The intense and poignant story of author and British national icon Rudyard Kipling’s patriotic ambitions for his only son Jack (Daniel Radcliffe) during WWI was all the sweeter and tragic because it was based on actual events. You can read some excellent reviews at Jane Austen Today, SF Gate, and Write Place, Write Time.
We can all thank Mr. Kipling for his interest in Jane Austen, (or should we thank Miss Austen for being interesting in the first place?), ha! He and his wife deeply grieved the loss of their only son in the battle of Loos, France in 1915, and found solace in reading Austen together. Austen was recommended reading for shell-shocked veterans, and Kipling later penned a short story in 1924 entitled The Janeites, about a socially diverse group of WWI soldiers who read Austen in the trenches and banded together as a secret group of devotees.
The term Janeite first appeared in the 1894 introduction to Pride and Prejudice written by British literary critic and historian George Saintsbury (1845 – 1933), who actually became the first Austen enthusiastic admired in print. (This is the famous ‘peacock’ edition published by George Allen, London, illustrations by Hugh Thomson). He spelled it differently as ‘Janite’, but used it as a ‘badge of honour’, adulating Austen and her characters; – declaring Pride and Prejudice the “most perfect, the most characteristic, the most eminently quintessential of its author’s works“, then, proclaimed Elizabeth Bennet as his first choice of a wife!
“In the novels of the last hundred years there are vast numbers of young ladies with whom it might be a pleasure to fall in love, – but to live with and marry, I do not know that any of them can come into competition with Elizabeth Bennet.”
One can only imagine the raised eyebrows that this pronouncement produced in literary circles! Saintsbury was a demi-god, considered the finest literary critic and historian of his time, influencing thousands of readers including his friend Kipling, who in turn is generally credited for establishing ‘Janeites’ in popular culture. Two very powerful literary figures, who were part of the early Janeite publicity machine.
(They may have raised her up, – but we ran with it. La!)
There are several excellent essays compiled into one whole book devoted to the notion that further discussion is required before the un-initiated can understand what it is to be a Janeite. So if you would like to check out ‘how deep is your Austen love’, or develop it further, check out…
Janeites : Austen’s disciples and devotees, edited by Deidre Lynch, Princeton University Press (2000) Publishers description: Over the last decade, as Jane Austen has moved center-stage in our culture, onto best-seller lists and into movie houses, another figure has slipped into the spotlight alongside her. This is the “Janeite,” the zealous reader and fan whose devotion to the novels has been frequently invoked and often derided by the critical establishment. Jane Austen has long been considered part of a great literary tradition, even legitimizing the academic study of novels. However, the Janeite phenomenon has not until now aroused the curiosity of scholars interested in the politics of culture. Rather than lament the fact that Austen today shares the headlines with her readers, the contributors to this collection inquire into why this is the case, ask what Janeites do, and explore the myriad appropriations of Austen–adaptations, reviews, rewritings, and appreciations–that have been produced since her lifetime. ISBN 9780691050065