Why the Alt-Right Austen Takeover Will Fail

Jane Austen

Thursday

What are we to make of American fascists appropriating Jane Austen? That was the subject of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by University of Colorado English professor Nicole Wright, who has found multiple examples. The appropriations alternate between the horrifying and the hilarious, but they raise the legitimate question of who gets to define an author.

Here’s some of what Wright discovered when she started digging around:

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.

An instance of the first is a Daily Stormer blog post that associates singer Taylor Swift, who exudes “1950s purity, femininity, and innocence,” with Austen and then contrasts them both with Miley Cyrus:

[Swift] is the anti-Miley. While Miley is out having gang-bangs with colored gentlemen, she is at home with her cat reading Jane Austen.

Wright observes,

Here 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.

Wright found Austen doing similar symbolic work for another fascist blog:

This view of Austen as an avatar of a superior bygone era is linked not only with fantasies of female retreat from the sexual whirl, but also with calls for white separatism. On the popular blog of the alt-right publisher Counter-Currents, the world of Austen’s novels is extolled as a prototype for the “racial dictatorship” of tomorrow. One commenter wrote, “If, after the ethnostate is created, we revert back to an Austen-like world, we males ought to endure severe sacrifices as well. … If traditional marriage à la P&P [Pride and Prejudice] is going to be imposed, again, in an ethnostate, we must behave like gentlemen.”

Wright doesn’t take the alt-right appropriation of Austen lightly:

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. It also subtly panders to the nostalgia of the Brexiters, with their vision of a better, bygone Britain. Such references nudge readers who happen upon alt-right sites to think that perhaps white supremacists aren’t so different from mainstream folks.

I’m not surprised that the alt-right can cite Austen for its purpose. If the greatest literary works are those that approximate the complexity of life, then one can find all kinds of support for one’s political positions, just as one does with life in general. For instance, if you believe that a woman’s highest destiny is to marry, then Austen’s novels can be interpreted as lending support to that view of the world. An apparent message of Pride and Prejudice—if you are beautiful and intelligent enough you will become mistress of an estate—doesn’t gibe well with feminism.

On the other hand, you can also see Austen’s novels as stories of women struggling for autonomy and doing their best with a limited set of options. Austen clearly is upset with a society that supports Collins’s and Willoughby’s sense of male entitlement. Fanny Price empathizes with the slaves on Sir Bertram’s plantation because she sees herself as a kind of slave, and Anne Elliot makes a strong case for women writers. These are not views that would go down well with the alt-right.

While fascist readings of Austen are out of bounds, I can understand conservative interpretations of the author. Rudyard Kipling helps us sympathize with his short story “The Janeites.” Setting it in the World War I trenches, Kipling depicts soldiers turning to Jane Austen’s novels in a desperate nostalgia for an England that is being blasted away. Class society, as defined by Darcy, Knightley and even Sir Thomas Bertram, seems far preferable to the anarchy that has been unleashed by the guns of August. Jane Austen in such situations becomes a refuge from modernism.

I think the Austen revival of the 1990’s—which has continued unabated ever since—has a similar explanation. Now her novels have become a refuge, for some, from multiculturalism and globalization. During the Reagan and Bush presidencies, William Bennett and the National Endowment for the Humanities saw Austen as a bulwark to shore up Western Culture against barbarian hoards. “Austen, not Alice Walker,” they proclaimed as they attacked college English professors for surrendering the canon to new voices.

Of course, as one of those professors I didn’t agree. In my eyes, Bennet & Co. might just as well have proclaimed, “Sense, not Sensibility” or “Elinor, not Marianne” as they elevated decorum and stability above the struggles of the heroines. Sometimes they sounded a lot like Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion, full of pretension but with little substance. Austen is a complex mixture of conservative and liberal beliefs and doesn’t march comfortably under anyone’s flag.

Since I personally prioritize individual expression over social order—people having the freedom and the support to step into their fullest selves—I believe great authors cannot be anything but progressive. The respect that our greatest authors have for truth means that a work cannot be reduced to a fascist slogan.

Within my framework, there is room for debate about how to achieve that freedom and support. Cases can be made for communism, socialism, liberal capitalism, and traditional conservatism. But not for coercive authoritarianism or fascism. Those political philosophies invariably fail to do justice to either human beings or to literature.

Which means that the alt-right will always be wrong about Jane Austen. Case closed.

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