Jane Austen Novels Basically Cured WWI Depression

Illustration for article titled Jane Austen Novels Basically Cured WWI Depression

If the Dashwood sisters can find true love and Mr. Darcy can inspire a whole industry of erotic fanfiction, reading Jane Austen might really be the best thing to soothe one’s addled mind and remind us all that, sometimes, people really have adorable double marriages and miraculously recover from mysterious fevers. For soldiers returning from the World War I horror show, the bourgeois happiness achieved at the end of an Austen novel might have helped ease a despairing sense that the world is just a toilet bowl of human cruelty.


According to Dr. Paula Bryne, author of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things and a fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, soldiers returning from the ravaged European continent at the end of the World War I were sometimes prescribed a few Austen novels, which were supposedly able to “provide comfort” in a world seemingly out of joint. After all, Jane Austen did manage to gloss over some of the most violent European conflicts of the 19th century by not mentioning the Napoleonic Wars in any of her novels, so her work would be a safe bet for a veteran searching for a more outwardly peaceful world.

Dr. Bryne explained to the Telegraph that, for soldiers who’d spent years in a hellscape of trenches, poison gas, and machine gun fire, reading Austen’s novels would be a welcome reprieve:

We live in a crazy world. I think we do find great comfort in [Austen’s work] and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Jane Austen was prescribed to shell shock victims after the First World War as an antidote to mental trouble. She was read in the trenches. She was a prescribed script for tortured, troubled souls.

She’s always been adored by the academic community and the popular community and there are few people who do inspire that kind of devotion.

So what if Jane Austen didn’t deign to mention the Napoleonic Wars directly? Her novels basically functioned as early antidepressants, which is more than anyone can say of Stendhal’s work.


Image via Getty, Matt Cardy



I had a dinner party discussion about Austen recently, where several girls confessed to disliking her books and not getting the appeal. As we talked, I realized that her books were mostly about money, and the monetary value of perceived virtue. That is, if a young lady's virtue was damaged by even gossip, she would hurt her chances for a rich husband which would improve the economy of her family. The other girls asked if this was because of religious attitudes, but I don't think England was a particularly religious country at the time.

Anyway, I wonder of this is part of the retro-appeal of these rigid social structure: that today we have no value particularly assigned to being "good". We see all too often someone with no visible ethics make a lot of money (Kris Kardashian comes to mind). Perhaps we like seeing the good girl marry the handsome prince more than we like to admit.

not a very clear ramble there, sorry. Just thoughts.