Hard Romance

Barbara Everett writes about Jane Austen

‘The Janeites’ must be Kipling’s least popular story (though there is competition). Written in 1924 and published in Debits and Credits two years later, it is an abrupt, allusive yarn about a group of English officers and men in northern France near the end of the First World War; and it is narrated by one of them, a large working-class innocent called Humberstall, in peacetime a hairdresser. An alcoholic young lieutenant, Macklin, arrives in the battery and starts up a Jane Austen Society. Its effects embrace even the bewildered Humberstall – they save his life. The battery is wiped out by enemy action. Humberstall staggers shell-shocked away, muttering about Miss Bates, and finds the name acts like a password on a bookish senior nurse, who hauls him aboard a packed hospital train. Looking back years later, the still dazed narrator remembers his time as a Janeite as the happiest of his life.

This is a story rarely mentioned by critics, and when mentioned not much liked. The writer’s official biographer, Carrington, says levelly that it might as well have been called ‘The Trollopians’, and the editor of the recent Penguin Debits and Credits shows signs of agreeing. There is sense in their feeling. Moreover, ‘The Janeites’ is so full of ironies and ambiguities as to leave no reader quite lucid as to its merits. But the undoubted Kipling genius does glimmer somewhere in it; and depends on the unexpected light it casts on its subject. Kipling adored Jane Austen. And his story is, in its freakish, wilful, bitterly humorous way, almost a critical fiction, with something valuable to say about the novelist at its centre.

The story seems likely to have been sparked off by the first appearance of the Oxford edition of Jane Austen in 1923. It was in her review of it that Virginia Woolf referred to her distinguished predecessor as, of all writers, ‘the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’: one even culpably reserved and reticent. Woolf is hardly a Humberstall. Yet Kipling’s character finds it hardest to grapple with Austen’s sheer smallness of scale, her apparent irrelevance to anything he thinks important. In its shrugging, elusive way the story seems to be finding its own answer to Woolf’s brilliant criticism.

That answer has some particular interest now, given that we appear to be in the middle of a second Janeite movement. And the second, quite as much as the first, raises the permanent question of what it is we admire the novelist for. The first Janeites (and it is unclear whether Kipling counted himself among them) were Edwardian connoisseurs, scholars and writers, some men of real distinction like A.C. Bradley. They protested against what struck them as a mean reductiveness of judgment in the academic image of Jane Austen. They admitted no faults. Their commitment they defined by stress on the human quality of their feeling: they loved the work as they loved the woman. Edwardian gentlemen acknowledging social facts of gender, they affiliated themselves to ‘Jane’: a name of course with regrettable tones of the domestic, even patronising.

Our own movement is populist where Kipling’s was patriarchal. But its sources are comparable. During the last few decades literary criticism has dehumanised itself, seeking new sharpness in contexts of history and politics. The academic Jane Austen is conservative or radical, significant as she represents her period or not. It may be that the great new fashion in Jane Austen is a protest by ordinary readers, buying her fiction in staggering numbers, that the writer is not like that: she is only definable as a presence supremely capable of giving large pleasure. Unsurprisingly, the boom extends beyond the bookshop into the visual media which dominate the age. Most Janeites now get their most pleasure from television. If the Edwardian gentleman patronises, then the entertainment industry of course corrupts; and it is possible to feel that a Regency nightdress cut surprisingly low can’t be what Jane Austen’s art is all about. And yet the compromises of film are perhaps as tolerable as Edwardian courtlinesses. Affection always has its rights, however inaccurate its forms.

Affection is what Kipling’s story is about. It begins with a group of male workers together, one Saturday afternoon, in a churchy Masonic Lodge. To interest his friends and share his memories Humberstall starts to tell this quiet audience about a different, more extreme and desperate camaraderie, which he experienced in his last weeks as a fighting-man. This narrative insetting has effect, and is reflected in the explicitnesses of the frame Kipling gave his story when he published it in Debits and Credits. There, he prefaces it with a graceful Horatian ode, a meditation on the strange and touching survival of small things through history: ‘Mere flutes that breathe at eve ... Endure, while Empires fall.’ The story is followed by an agreeable Georgian ballad about Jane Austen going to Heaven and being joined there by her own true love.

The prose story between these two dulcet poems is something else again: obscure, funny and cruel. Humberstall passes his last few weeks in a murderous war to end wars acquiring the benefits of civilisation from a blind-drunk despairing aficionado. Hopeful of reward, like a good child, he chalks onto the great guns of the battery given names: ‘The Reverend Collins’, ‘General Tilney’, ‘Lady Catherine de Bugg’. Something in the image hints at the mingling of pastoral and violence, of passion and illiteracy which can go to make up both human bonding and human learning, especially in Kipling’s late stories of love. The writer lost his only son in the war, and many of his dark late stories mix tenderness and pain in a way that seems to relate back to his dead children.

‘The Janeites’ is at its strongest where feeling for people tangles with attachment to art or literature, with an effect of complication, pain and balancing humour. And this is precisely the point at which ‘The Janeites’ seems most to focus on its subject, the writer herself. The tribute Kipling makes to her is the bond he finds with her, that of a shared and difficult art: the art that does trivial things at most need (like the jokes of the military Janeites, which keep them sane and together).

Jane Austen made herself an artist of trivial romances, ‘the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’. Humberstall, who has to read the stuff, says resentfully: ‘Twasn’t as if there was anythin’ to ’em, either. I know. I had to read ‘em.’ But in the course of time, because the books are involved with the memory of the only class-free absolute friendship he has known, he comes to like them, and in peacetime to reread them. There is a Janeite in every reader, even the most technically sophisticated, an aspect of the mind that reads the deft and light symbolism of feeling; for this reason we respond to the simple romance of Jane Austen’s novels. We need these books to end with happy marriage, as we don’t need thousands of trivial love-fictions which were written contemporaneously or before her or after her. As we don’t, for instance, strictly need either the Regency nightdresses or the political contexts which may have generated them. Neither the nightdress nor the political explanation need be a bad thing, but both are expendable. They wear out. Jane Austen has made her romances hard, or essential – hard in other senses too: resistant, tough-minded, impartial and impassive.

Probably before the major novels, though the work is undatable, Austen wrote an excellent unromantic story. ‘Lady Susan’ is the epistolary account, at novella length, of a charming and rather brilliant (though bad) woman’s amatory adventures in stuffy aristocratic households. Like and unlike a foreshadowing of Henry James’s The Awkward Age, ‘Lady Susan’ perhaps startles most by the fact that it doesn’t seem, with all its marvellous originality, quite to come off; it leaves a reader cold. And it does so, because the story is cold. Where Henry James balances the wicked and fascinating Mrs Brookenham with her unloved but loveable daughter, Nanda, whose silences we come to understand deeply, Lady Susan’s daughter is an invisible nonentity. As a result, the whole is strangely unAustenian, because there is nothing to feel. Austen’s real novels make her a Romantic artist, and the first true 19th-century novelist. She learned a reticent symbolism of society, which holds and involves the reader; she tells little love-stories with oddly profound implications, and invents heroines who seem to matter.

Jane Austen’s poems are negligible. But her worldly comedies work like poems. She activates imagination in the reader while seeing to it that the imagined is solid, factual and just. It may be this special balance in her, of imagination against observation, which leads a poet like Tennyson to compare her to Shakespeare: a juxtaposition which is, on the face of it, and given their relative scale, as surprising in a different way as the junction with Kipling. But if we call Shakespeare our greatest literary artist, what makes him so is the equipoise his mind always held between inner and outer worlds.

The same is true of Jane Austen. What counted was not the quantity of her knowledge of her world (possibly large in itself), but the use she could make of it. Her art becomes recognisable when her crisply social novels take on a formidable and elusive power of suggestion: the prosaic grew poetic in them, and the poetic grew hard. The chief medium for these continual transactions of inner and outer was her vital irony. When Jane Austen said that she depended on her readers’ ingenuity, she meant something not far from Shakespeare’s ‘Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.’ Virginia Woolf meant kindly when she wished that her predecessor as female artist had lived longer and seen the world, so as to devise a method ‘deeper and more suggestive, for conveying ... what life is’. I want to touch on a method, perhaps hinted at in Kipling’s story, by which Jane Austen did indeed ‘convey ... what life is’; going further, it may be, than Woolf herself ever did in her fictions.

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