(Well) Being Jane Austen
Can reading Jane Austen improve our sense of wellbeing? Our guest blogger, Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm, a writer and editor who regularly speaks at the Jane Austen Festival, thinks so – and reveals that prescribing her novels is nothing new.
Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And, while the stones of Winchester – or Milsom Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!
These lines of praise for ‘England’s Jane’ come from none other than writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. What was he doing writing such praise to Austen in the early twentieth century?
The mood of the time warranted this sentiment. He was writing during and just after the First World War. Kipling, like so many people of the time, had believed that the efforts of British troops in Europe against Germany were necessary. As the war ground on, he realised that the waste of life involving the ‘lost generation’ of young people was not worth it. His son, Jack, was among the war dead. Missing in action, and never found, Jack Kipling had joined up at aged only eighteen. Initially too short-sighted to be a soldier, his father pulled strings to allow his son to perform his patriotic duty. Kipling lived with regret and intense grief for the rest of his life.
Ideals of patriotism turned to methods of healing and rehabilitation. What to do to help the traumatised and wounded when they came home from the trenches? An unlikely answer arose in the form of Austen’s novels.
What is now called PTSD was known in 1918 as ‘shell-shock’. The impact of the war filled hospitals and sanatoria around the country, and the rehabilitative powers of reading were used to help. Soldiers were issued with copies of books, such as Palgrave’s Anthology of English Poetry, and the novels of Jane Austen.
So, why were her novels deemed to be therapeutic for damaged minds?
The answer lies in the comfort and the humour they offered. Yes, her plots are predictable in the romantic sense of couples achieving a happy union at the end, but that is their strength for the reader. It’s more than just escapism. It’s about reassurance, patterns, predictability – once the trials are conquered.
We can see how this might help. What come across as mild to serious challenges that face Austen’s characters are given a satisfactory resolution. Kipling found comfort in these. He and his wife read Austen aloud as they awaited news of their son – that never came.
Reading aloud offers people a sense of comfort and has a calming effect.
There is also Austen’s wit. In his short story, The Janeites, Kipling gave voice to a group of WW1 veterans who discuss their mutual love of Austen. The characters talk about how there ‘was nothing to her’ – but everything. They talk affectionately and admiringly about the accuracy of her characters, including one of their favourites: “Lady Catherine … de Bugg [sic]”.
Amidst such loss and horror over the war years, Austen was a companion and a form of comfort. Once they returned home, her influence was still felt by the men who had been introduced to her because it gave them a shared code and a club to which they belonged that immediately stimulated friendships thanks to the experience of reading.
Austen’s work still promotes community and friendship.
Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm outside the Jane Austen Centre with her book, ‘There’s Something about Darcy’
Janeites now belong to an enormous shared-interest group that stretches around the world. Her novels, and those influenced by her, can be used as a means of calming and soothing tired or troubled minds. For some years now there have been studies undertaken that assess the impact of reading a predictable, light, romantic, or humorous story. These have been shown to affect mental wellbeing for the better.
Further reading that shows the importance of this and how Austen is integral to this understanding can be found in Professor Deirdre Lynch’s writings and studies from Harvard University and in the work of Helen Taylor, Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Reading aloud offers people a sense of comfort and has a calming effect. We use it as a way of reassuring and helping children to go to sleep. So why not maintain it into adulthood? And use the novels of a beloved author who understood friendship, fellowship, and humour better than anyone.