by Lisa Lewis
and George Kieffer)
|notes on the text|
The story has three main themes. First in literary importance, it contains a deep appreciation of Jane Austen [1775-1817] which is made all the more pointed and piquant by being put into the mouth of a very simple-minded and uneducated man in the ranks who has been induced to study her works under the impression that her admirers form a kind of secret society which it pays to join. Secondly, the story gives a good account of the working of heavy artillery in France in 1918 and pays a great tribute to the men who manned the guns. The ’14-’18 war was an artillery war like none before it, nor will any ever be like it again in that respect, for two great armies were pinned to one thin strip of ground in a civilised well mapped country for over three years. In consequence the surveying departments of both sides were able to provide their batteries with accurate maps mounted on boards showing every detail behind their enemy’s lines. The meteorological departments could send frequent reports on the weather conditions as they affected the shooting, while main line railways delivered huge quantities of ammunition within a few miles of the battery positions. By 1918 all but the most senior officers were men in civil positions who had joined for the war only. Thirdly, there is the Masonic background against which the story is told.In March 1915, the Kiplings had visited Bath and he re-read the works of Jane Austen there. He wrote to a friend that “the more I read the more I admire and respect and do reverence… When she looks straight at a man or a woman she is greater than those who were alive with her - by a whole head… with a more delicate hand and a keener scalpel.” [Pinney (ed.), Letters (vol. 4, 1999) p. 296]. Meanwhile their son John Kipling had begun his military training. Seven months later, John was posted “missing believed killed” and they gradually had to accept that this meant “dead”. Mrs Kipling’s diary records that in January 1917 Kipling was reading Jane Austen’s novels aloud to his wife and daughter “to our great delight” [Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries]. There was little delight in their lives just then. They were still mourning John, and it would be another three months before the Americans entered the war, bringing fresh hope of victory. Jane Austen’s novels evidently brought a welcome break in the family’s gloom. Admiration had become affection.
"was its power to transport the infantryman from a world of “sergeants major and bayonet fighting, and trench digging and lorry cleaning and caterpillar greasing” into the fantasy of the novelist – and none was better at it than Jane Austen.Henderson’s character emerges as nothing like the drunken con-man Macklin in Kipling’s story. His papers were not an obvious source for The Irish Guards in the Great War. But that research had involved meeting a great many survivors, as well as reading the diaries and letters of soldiers on the western front. Kipling was acquainted with John Buchan and is known to have had at least one conversation with him at the Beefsteak Club. If there was really a tendency among soldiers to read Jane Austen, this could have emerged in such interviews and conversations and have piqued the author’s imagination.