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Whose Jane Austen is It, Anyway?


Mock ad by Michael O’Donoghue & George W. S. Trow, 1971 National Lampoon

2,215 words

For the past couple of weeks there’s been a lot of media blather about how the novelist Jane Austen is an icon of the Alt Right. The distress this causes Leftist critics has been a thing of high comedy and low hysteria.

If you haven’t been keeping up, I review some articles immediately below. Otherwise, feel free to skip about halfway down, where I get into matters of cultural appropriation and Austen sex roles.

Our Story So Far

The whole kerfuffle began on March 12, when the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an offbeat essay about Jane Austen, or rather about a garbled paraphrase of Austen that Milo Yiannopoulos once uttered during an anti-feminist riff. This Chronicle piece, “Alt-Right Jane Austen [2],” was presented as humor, and illustrated with a woodcut of the novelist in a red MAGA hat.

Alas, the essay got grim and ill-tempered after the first few paragraphs. The author, a junior Professor of English, was pushing hard on her hobby-horse thesis, to wit: that Right-wingers are trying to steal Jane Austen for nefarious purposes:

By comparing their movement not to the nightmare Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, but instead to the cozy England of Austen — a much-beloved author with a centuries-long fandom and an unebbing academic following — the alt-right normalizes itself in the eyes of ordinary people.

What dark imaginings! As the English Professor explains in her essay, she didn’t actually have any evidence for her theory. (Beyond, I suppose, the widespread media narrative that the Alt Right is trying to “hide the ball [3]” and “normalize” itself.) But she Googled doggedly, and in due course found some itty-bitty Alt Right mentions of Jane Austen. One was at the Alternative Right [4] blog in 2012, and the other was right here on Counter-Currents—in 2011! The Counter-Currents citation wasn’t an article, exactly; rather, Austen was mentioned in passing in some comments [2] (!) to an essay by Greg Johnson, about women in the White Nationalist movement. Only two citations, then—but quite enough for a shoddy thesis.

A week or so after this mildly amusing piece appeared in the Chronicle, it became the subject of a New York Times [5] column by “Arts Blog” writer Jennifer Schuessler. Schuessler expanded upon the original thesis without ever really challenging it. “Some alt-right admirers hail Austen’s novels as blueprints for a white nationalist ‘ethno-state,’” Schuessler hypothesized.

[6]Things snowballed from there. A lighthearted squib turned up in The [7]Paris Review [7], complaining that WNs seemed to be grabbing all the good stuff. (“[They] took Barbour field jackets, depriving a whole generation of the joys of waxed canvas,” PR’s Dan Piepenbring wrote. “Now the white nationalists have come for Jane Austen . . .”). Websites for Deutsche Welle [8] and Boston Public Radio [9] weighed in with gasping incredulousness, and The Boston Globe [10] tweeted that White Nationalists have seized upon the “long-dead but ever-popular British author” because they “need a more marketable muse than, say, Eva Braun.”

Back at the NYTimes, the unctuous Ross Douthat tried to joke about [11] about the ridiculousness of it all, beginning a column in a bad parody of Austen’s prose style; but then quickly gave up the attempt at humor, and switched instead to sermonizing about how “when a movement like the alt-right tries to appropriate [the] past for crankish, racist purposes, it’s understandable that people would be jolted . . . Only a certain kind of racist idiot would read her novels as a brief for white supremacy.” [Emphasis mine.]


Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990)

The only coherent critique of this fuss came from Hannibal Bateman over at Radix Journal [13]. Quoting at length from the Chronicle article and its coverage at the NYTimes and The Paris Review, Bateman described the “fevered anger” of the original article as reminiscent of the atmosphere of Austen’s Northanger Abbey [14], in which the protagonist becomes slightly unhinged from reading too many Gothic novels. Bateman also traced back the Alt Right’s purported fondness for Jane Austen to a likely source: the Whit Stillman movie Metropolitan [15] (1990), in which Manhattan preppies argue the relative merits of Mansfield Park [16] vis-à-vis the other Austen novels.

Appropriation and Its Discontents

Let’s put aside the question of whether there really is an Alt Right fascination with Jane Austen—I have never detected it myself, except perhaps among Whit Stillman fans. I want to focus instead on the two muddled, goofy allegations made in the original Chronicle piece and its commentaries. One is that any championing of Jane Austen among the Alt Right is indecent appropriation. According to this line, nationalists cannot claim Austen because they have bad thoughts. If they like Austen, they probably like her for the wrong reasons. They are attempting to hijack her in order to conceal the repellent history of their beliefs. The other accusation is quasi-feminist: male Alt Righters supposedly admire the Austen universe because they think it supports their retrograde outlook in matters of marriage and social roles.

First, let’s look at the accusation of appropriation, and the inappropriateness of Jane Austen for the Alt Right. I’m going to quote two self-declared experts who have weighed in. The first is a retired teacher in Montreal, Elaine Bander, quoted in Schuessler’s NYTimes article:

“No one who reads Jane Austen’s words with any attention and reflection can possibly be alt-right,” Elaine Bander, a retired professor and a former officer of the Jane Austen Society of North America [17], said in an email.

“All the Janeites I know,” she added, “are rational, compassionate, liberal-minded people.”

Alt Righters must have crazy-bad thoughts, you see; and only rational, goodthink Lefties can claim Jane.

The same idea was expressed, more disjointedly and histrionically, by one Nancy Koehn, on Boston Public Radio, WGBH [9] (March 21). Koehn is a historian of business at the Harvard Business School. She speculated on why Alt Righters might be enamored of Jane Austen:

Here you have a world recreated in her novels that’s about— you know, quaint, right?, beautiful, all-white, you know, England! And it’s not Hitler’s Germany, it’s not Mussolini’s Italy, it’s not Franco’s Spain, it’s not Genghis Khan. It has an appeal that’s broad-based. And here you can claim, ‘Look at Jane Austen, it was understood that a society populated by white people was a good society.’ That has nothing to do with anything that Austen was writing about. Or thinking about.

Koehn didn’t bother to substantiate or expand upon this Hitler-and-Genghis Khan gibberish, or the inner lives of Alt Righters and Jane Austen. Instead she lurched forward with her roundhouse punch, insisting the Alt Right is appropriating Austen because Austen has broad appeal:

But you know, I’m always struck by how many people like, use Lincoln as a coatrack, and just hang different pieces of clothing on him—this is the same phenomenon! A very popular historical figure that has broad cross-cutting appeal, that becomes a fantastic ornament on which to hang a favorite point of view, a particular idea, a set of ideas, that may have nothing, absolutely nothing, I’m sure of it, nothing to do with the historical record.”


Jane Austen at 15

The elephant in the living room here—the subject that Koehn and Bander, and some other writers quoted above don’t wish to touch—is that their Alt Right villains, imagined and real,  have a better claim on Jane Austen than they do. Koehn and Bander are Jewish. They have attached themselves to some gems of English literature as a form of protective coloration. They’ve claimed Austen for self-serving purposes. They’ve appropriated her: done precisely the thing they project upon others.

Now, Bander and Koehn may well enjoy Austen, just as a Japanese person might, but the fact is, Jane is not part of their own cultural patrimony. This is something they are very aware of, and likely accounts for their agitation in their denunciations above. When the kids in Metropolitan argue tiresomely about Jane Austen, it rings true: their great-grandparents very likely read Jane Austen. With Koehn and Bander, it seems artificial, show-offy. Liking Jane Austen to them is like donning a stylish hat . . . or fashionable bien-pensant political attitudes.

The Facts of Life, Austen-Style

The matter of marriage and sex roles in Austen is a bit more complicated. Nicole M. Wright, that young English Professor who wrote the original Chronicle of Higher Education piece, appears to be deeply disturbed about the reactionary social beliefs that she believes are inherent to the (mostly male) Alt Right. Beginning with this idée fixe, she goes on to suggest fabulous rationales:

. . . 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.

*  *  *

Austen’s fiction serves as an escape portal from today’s Babylonian sexual excess to a vaguely delineated (1800s through 1950s) mythical era when women were wholesome and chaste.

If you believe this sort of thing—that Austen provides a reactionary escape—then an obvious counter-argument might be that Austen was some sort of proto-feminist. And that’s exactly the line we’re given. It’s an intrinsically empty argument, like saying the original Luddites were proto-trades-union organizers. The social context that the thing was meant to remedy, simply did not yet exist.

Schuessler’s NYTimes piece offers some examples of this “proto-feminist” line, and they are laughably inept:

. . . Austen has a long history of being cited in political debates, sometimes on opposite sides of a question.

In the forthcoming book “The Making of Jane Austen [19],” Devoney Looser, a professor at Arizona State University, describes the passionate debate in the British Parliament over an 1872 proposal to give the vote to widows and unmarried women with property.

A conservative quoted a line from Austen supposedly suggesting that she, like all proper British women, would be appalled by the proposal. Liberals countered that she was precisely the sort of intelligent, independent woman who was demanding the vote.

Speaking in an interview, Ms. Looser — who, incidentally, skates in roller derby under the name Stone Cold Jane Austen — said Austen’s name also appeared on a banner carried by British suffragists at a march in 1908, even as her reputation was widely discussed in upper-class London men’s clubs.

So Austen’s name was dropped in Parliamentary speeches, and raised on suffragette banners. That’s all, folks.

You can understand why someone might naïvely think there should be something “feminist” about Jane Austen. She was a woman, after all, and her novels are very female-centric. Men are basically decorative accessories, quarries to be sought after for social gain—which means marriage, property, children, and other badges of status.

But that is pretty much the way sex dynamics have always worked, at least in the West. The woman seeks and chooses (or refuses) the man, not the other way around. Thanks to modern feminist hostility toward men and marriage, and the mail-order bride model that some men have today with regard to seeking a mate, popular culture has lost sight of this. But it lives on in Jane Austen.

In “manosphere” writing and social media, one often comes across men who talk about how they want to find a young, docile, undersized woman—for sex, and maybe also for marriage. Undoubtedly this accounts for the phenomenon of Western men pairing off with East Asian doxies. But when one of these men weds one of these females, he’s not really “marrying” at all. He’s getting a pseudo-wife to share his bed and maybe make him a sandwich. He’s telling the world that in life’s great match-up tourney, he is a failure or dropout. No white woman would have him.

These terrible facts of life were routine knowledge in the world of Jane Austen—I mean her real-life West Country world, where young men were always shipping out with the Navy or Army or colonial service. If they didn’t return home, to settle and/or to seek a wife, they were basically dead to their family and community. Whether a young fellow perished on a distant shore, or propagated with a cozy concubine, he and his line were gone for good. Behind the handful of marriageable men in any Austen novel stands the queue of those who didn’t make it.

And these hard facts probably hold the greatest relevance to any Alt Right or White Nationalist reader today. As I said earlier, I’m not sure this fanbase really exists right now. And of course there are other reasons for Austen’s potential appealIt’s a matter of aesthetics, stemming from her uniqueness as a writer. Austen was the last of the great English novelists of the pre-industrial, pre-capitalist, pre-Great Western Railway age, and had no rivals working the same territory. Most of the other major English writers of her era were primarily poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, etc.) or essayists (Lamb, De Quincey). Mary Shelley and Walter Scott were contemporaries and novelists, but they wrote exotica (Shelley’s Frankenstein [20]; Scott’s medieval Waverley [21] novels). Austen may not have written the biggest classic ever about the Regency period—this would have to be Vanity Fair [22]. But Thackeray wrote that as comic nostalgia for a later generation, publishing it in 1848. If you want a Regency novel written by someone who was in situ in 1815, with an eye for social and architectural minutiaesomeone undistracted by urban fads and ephemera, out in the provinces, and thus, incidentally, in a setting not too dissimilar from much of contemporary life in America—then you have to go to Jane Austen.