Looking around, Ms. Wright also found more straight-faced references to Austen in alt-right paeans to racial purity and subservient wives, including a shout-out from a blogger promoting the infamous meme of Taylor Swift as an “Aryan goddess.”
Some alt-right admirers hail Austen’s novels as blueprints for a white nationalist “ethno-state.” Others cite her as a rare example of female greatness. But the bigger point, Ms. Wright argues, is the same.
“By comparing their movement not to the nightmare Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, but instead to the cozy England of Austen,” she writes, alt-right Austen fans “nudge readers” into thinking that “perhaps white supremacists aren’t so different from mainstream folks.”
Ms. Wright’s article has been cited by Reason, a libertarian magazine, and Redneck Revolt, a website that describes itself as opposing both white supremacy and the condescension of “upper class urban liberals.”
But it has prompted the most sustained chatter among Austen scholars, a more reliably liberal bunch who, like Ms. Wright, emphatically reject white nationalist readings of her novels.
“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, said in an email.
“All the Janeites I know,” she added, “are rational, compassionate, liberal-minded people.”
Juliette Wells, an associate professor of English at Goucher College and the author of the forthcoming book “Reading Austen in America,” also rejected any alt-right interpretation of Austen. But she said she was unsurprised by Ms. Wright’s article, given that Austen’s name has “long circulated on the far right,” and just about everywhere else.
“Of course the one female author who has name recognition on par with Shakespeare is the one who gets dragged into debates like this,” Ms. Wells said. “It’s the flip side of her enormous international fame.”
Austen’s connections with grubby contemporary politics are often played for pure laughs. In 2000, the online magazine Slate used the headline “Bin Laden a Huge Jane Austen Fan” to tease a column that had pretty much nothing to do with either.
The Austen scholar Mary Ann O’Farrell, in a 2012 paper, cited that headline as just one of many “ugly couplings” involving Austen, which are based on the idea that she is a safe, apolitical, “ladylike” author removed from the rough and tumble of politics.
But in fact, 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,” 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 1910, even as her reputation was widely discussed in upper-class London men’s clubs.
The question then? Not whether it was acceptable for men to like Austen — who was seen at the time as a “manly” author — but whether it was acceptable to not like her.
“When one man suggested she wasn’t that great,” Ms. Looser said, “he got angry reactions.”
Contemporary scholars have also made opposing political arguments about Austen. In the 1993 book “Culture and Imperialism,” the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward W. Said argued that Austen’s novel “Mansfield Park” glorifies the grand estates of England but is silent about the West Indian slave plantations that supported many of them.
But last year, in “Jane Austen, the Secret Radical,” the British scholar Helena Kelly argued that the novel was larded with subtle references to abolition and the Church of England’s complicity in slavery that no reader of Austen’s time would have missed.
But this kind of scholarly research does not necessarily trickle out to the broader Jane-loving public, who may have a much more straightforward reading of her marital happy endings.
Tracey Hutchings-Goetz, a graduate student in English at Indiana University, recalled working with a group of feminist literary scholars last summer to revise the Wikipedia page for Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice.” She was startled to see it described as a celebration of traditional marriage, a notion supported by multiple citations to an essay from the magazine Crisis, a neoconservative Catholic publication.
“It was a version of the novel that didn’t make any sense to us as scholars, supported by a completely unscholarly source,” Ms. Hutchings-Goetz said.
Meanwhile, the Austen-related posts that Ms. Wright found on alt-right sites link marital traditionalism to outright racism.
A post on the website Counter Currents called “The Woman Question in White Nationalism,” for example, includes a string of comments debating how the vision of marriage in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” fit with the “racial dictatorship” necessary to preserve western civilization.
“If traditional marriage à la P&P is going to be imposed, again, in an ethnostate, we must behave like gentlemen,” one commenter wrote.
In recent years, scholars have tried to find diversity in the seemingly all-white world of Austen, digging into subjects like Miss Lambe, a character in her unfinished final novel, “Sanditon,” described as a “half mulatto” heiress from the West Indies. (Yes, there is a scholarly paper with the title “The Silence of Miss Lambe.”)
But Ms. Wells said scholars teaching Austen at schools with “substantially multicultural students” still wrestled with a truth that must, perhaps, be uncomfortably acknowledged.
“Her characters are white, and her world is white,” she said. “What do you do with that?”
Continue reading the main storySource: New York Times – Politics