The story was published in Story-Teller, MacLean’s and Hearst’s International magazines in May 1924. It was collected, with a few minor cuts and amendments, in Debits and Credits, 1926, preceded by the poem “The Survival” and followed by “Jane’s Marriage”
Not long after the end of World War I, the narrator revisits the fictional Masonic Lodge described in “In the Interests of the Brethren”, this time on the day of “the weekly clean-up”. Among the team of volunteer cleaners are two ex-soldiers, Anthony, a taxi-driver who served in Palestine, and his friend Humberstall, a hairdresser who, though he had been invalided out of the army with a head wound, had insisted on returning to his Heavy Artillery battery on the western front. Being unfit to serve, he was given the post of assistant mess-waiter. He describes, without really understanding, how a common passion for the works of Jane Austen enabled the senior mess waiter to talk to the officers on level terms, and how Humberstall himself was coached into membership of what he believes to be a secret society akin to Freemasonry. Then the battery was destroyed in a barrage, leaving Humberstall as sole surviving “Janeite”. He quoted Emma to a senior nurse, another Austen devotee, who smuggled him on to a hospital train and so saved his life. He still reads the novels to remind him of the war. He has, we learn, to be collected from the Lodge by his mother because (as Anthony explains) he is liable to “a sort o’ quiet fits”.
According to Birkenhead (1978, p. 291), the story was begun in 1922. It was finished in the spring of 1923, following a visit to Bath and a discussion with the critic George Saintsbury “about the sense of fellowship felt by people who shared a powerful joint experience – whether fighting in war, or membership of a Mason’s Lodge, or even familiarity with the works of an author such as Austen.” [Lycett, 1999, pp. 513-4].
We are indebted to Philip Holberton for pointing out that the reference to George Saintsbury is interesting, because (according to Wikipedia), he coined the term “Janeite” (as “Janite”) in the introduction to an 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice.
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.
It is possible that the idea for the story could have come out of Kipling’s research for The Irish Guards in the Great War, the history of his son’s regiment that he had just finished writing. Imogen Gassart, in “In a foreign field: What soldiers in the trenches liked to read” [Times Literary Supplement, 10 May 2002, pp. 17-9] explored the archives of the Imperial War Museum and of the publishers Thomas Nelson and Sons, showing that books of many kinds were important to the troops’ morale. In 1915, John Buchan and George Mackenzie-Brown, co-directors of Nelson, launched the highly successful Continental Library series, designed to be carried in soldiers’ pockets. Gassart quotes the papers of W.B. Henderson, a Glaswegian schoolmaster attached to a Siege Battery in the Royal Garrison Artillery, in arguing that a book’s solace:
“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.
C.S. Lewis denounced the story as a prime example of Kipling’s habit of claiming insider knowledge: “Finally something so simple and ordinary as an enjoyment of Jane Austen’s novels is turned into the pretext for one more secret society, and we have the hardly forgiveable Janeites. It is this ubiquitous presence of the Ring, this unwearied knowingness, that renders his work in the long run suffocating and unendurable.” [Lecture, 1948: reprinted in C.S. Lewis, They asked for a Paper (London, 1963); the Kipling Journal, XXV, Nos. 127, 128 (Sept., Dec. 1958), pp. 8-16, 7-11; Elliot L. Gilbert (ed.), Kipling and the Critics (New York University Press, 1965), pp. 99-117.]
Carrington, himself a survivor of the western front, rated it as one of six stories in Debits and Credits that on their own would make: “his name stand high among the world’s story-tellers.” [1955, p. 468]. He called it [p. 471] “a cunningly contrived story written with as many skins as an onion.” But he went on to comment [p. 472] that “the story would have the same point if it had been called ‘The Trollopians’ and the password had been ‘Hiram’s Hospital’ instead of ‘Tilneys [sic] and trap-doors’.”
For J.M.S. Tompkins [1959, p. 190] the horrors of war “contrast in every way with the exquisite art of Jane Austen, the strange but natural resource of the men whose duty it is to deal familiarly with carnage. They are needed, too, to suggest the full meaning of the quaint and innocently moving remark with which Humberstall, sound in body but always a little bewildered in mind, and now peaceably restored to his hair-dressing behind Ebury Street, ends his account of what was – though he could never describe it like that – the most deeply satisfying experience of his life: ‘”I read all her six books now for pleasure ‘tween times in the shop; an’ it brings it all back – down to the smell of the glue-paint on the screens. You take it from me, Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ‘er, whoever she was.’”
Philip Mason [1975, p. 210] placed “The Janeites” in the second rank of Kipling’s stories, on his “reserve team”. But later [p. 280] he confessed: “I am irritated by the characters’ habit of referring to Miss Austen as if she were a popular barmaid. And this third or inmost secret society is trivial compared with the second [the ex-soldiers]. It takes on a life of its own, and the light facetious note does not accentuate the horror – as it might – but jars with it when the enemy’s shells do at last find the battery.”