“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” – Jane Austen
Various news sources, both here in America and elsewhere, are claiming that Jane Austen, doyenne of English respectability, has become a heroine to the despicable group called by the all-too-euphemistic moniker the alt-right.For any rational person (and my beloved Miss Austen was nothing if not rational) her embrace by such loathsome characters is both horrifying and bizarre. Conservative as she was (Austen found her contemporary Byron’s behavior wild and reprehensible, for example, violating as it did the established social mores of Regency England), Austen undoubtedly would have found the behavior of a number of the more well known figures of the alt-right movement equally reprehensible. One has a difficult time, indeed, imagining Miss Austen feeling able to tolerate being on the same planet, much less in the same room with creatures such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.
The alt-right loves them some Jane, though – for reasons that mystify anyone capable of reading Austen’s work intelligently.
Austen scholar Nicole Wright stumbled upon the the Austen/alt-right connection by accident. After hearing Milo Yiannopoulos paraphrase the opening line of Pride and Prejudice (disgustingly and incorrectly), Wright began researching why an alt-right provocateur like Yiannopoulos would be citing Austen rather than someone more – shall we say – appropriate. What she discovered startled her:
To my surprise, invocations of Austen popped up in many alt-right online venues. Venturing into the mire, I found that there are several variations of alt-right Jane Austen: 1) symbol of sexual purity; 2) standard-bearer of a vanished white traditional culture; and 3) exception that proves the rule of female inferiority.
The alt-right’s version of Austen is a twisted one for a couple of reasons.
The culture that Austen depicts in her novels, a culture that dehumanized marriageable females into commodities, is one that she subtly attacked at every opportunity. Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine most like Austen herself, found a culture that forced women into miserable marriages in order to avoid the poverty and humiliation of old maidenhood despicable, as in this passage where she considers what Charlotte Lucas does in marrying the odious Mr. Collins:
She [Elizabeth] had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage….And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen.
As far as the “sexual purity” business goes, Austen offers plenty of examples of women from her time and social background who are drawn to the pleasures of doing what Ton-Loc charmingly terms “the wild thing” and who are willing to trade their social status for their pleasure. Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park and Lydia Bennett, Elizabeth’s sister, in Pride and Prejudice are but a couple of examples. Even a major heroine, Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, could arguably be interpreted as a character driven by her sexual desire. It can be asserted that sheer luck rather than her “purity” saves her from Willoughby.
That notion that Austen is a proponent of “white culture” is rather preposterous (of course English villages were lily white in 1812). Then, too, more recent readings of Austen suggest that she was critical of colonialism and racism.
All this leaves a rational reader puzzling over why the alt-right philistines would choose one of literature’s most elegant authors as their poster girl. Professor Wright argues eloquently that Austen’s novels warn readers against the very sort of persons that alt-right types are: smooth talking seducers like Willoughby, Wickham, and Frank Churchill.
That’s a great explanation.
For my own part, my considered opinion of why the alt-right has embraced Austen is the same as my opinion of why they embrace their benighted, horrific views of our 21st century world: