Jane Austen’s works experienced a resurgence in popularity during WWII. According to novelist Rebecca West, Ms. Austen’s works showed an“underlying faith that the survival of society was more essential to the moral purpose of the universe than the survival of the individual,” and faith that society would somehow survive was vital when war was waged on the home front, in British readers’ own very literal yards. The fears that history may repeat itself, or that it already is, is something so many of us around the world are experiencing right now, and Ms. West’s statement about Ms Austen’s books demonstrating survival of society is something many cling to today.
One of her fans who remains well-known to this day is Winston Churchill. According to Brian Southam in Jane Austen and the Navy, Mr. Churchill had stated, “What calm lives they had. . . . No worries about the French Revolution, or the crushing struggles of the Napoleonic wars. Only manners controlling natural passions as far as they could. . . .” He is further rumored to have said, “antibiotics and Jane Austen got me through the war,” while others claim he stated, “antibiotics and Pride and Prejudice have cured me.” I have not found a reputable source to back up either over the other. However, it’s not hard to believe that something that could give one a mental reprieve would play a role in helping carry one through times of great stress. Ms. Austen’s books were popular in the trenches of the world wars for helping transport soldiers back to simpler, more innocent times when such folderol was the height of drama. One only had one’s heart to break, and a chance at love to lose, rather than far worse.
Perhaps these can help explain some of her enduring popularity for many of us today. We can choose to ignore the societal issues of the regency era a lot easier than we can ignore the societal issues that pose real threats today, and in doing so, reading Ms. Austen’s works can take us to a sort of fantasy land of frolics and parties where can can consort with the busybodies or imagine being the strong lady waiting to be woo’d, while also having many peers in our modern regency societies with whom to bond over shared ideas and thoughts. Her works have, and will continue to to be, a brief time of suspending concerns while we listen in to the gossip of another era.