First they came for Pepe, and I did not speak out.
Because I didn’t really care about an odd-looking frog in a meme that had already had its moment in the sun.
Then they came for Jane Austen.
So apparently, the alt-right have decided that Jane Austen is the perfect poster-girl for bigotry, white nationalism and hate. The Huffington Post published an excellent response to this yesterday:
The alt-right is ready to ruin something else you love https://t.co/yKAGYARDBc— Chloe Angyal (@ChloeAngyal) 20 March 2017
According to Fallon’s article, the alt-right’s love for Austen focuses on these three aspects of her work:
Traditional values to do with sexual purity - Austen’s heroines wait for marriage, you see.
Traditional ‘white’ middle class concerns
“The exception that proves the rule for female inferiority.”
Now, we know that Trump’s administration has a slight problem with recognising satire:
So it stands to reason that his (even) less salubrious fans would have similar difficulties… But how on earth could a fascist read Austen’s novels and think that she would totally be on their team? Either they haven’t read them at all - I’ll admit, the idea of some Nazi horror flicking through an early edition of Emma is quite entertaining - or they have really not understood what was happening.
Austen wrote scathingly about personalities and character traits that she disapproved of. She hated snobs, vain people and unkind people. She skewered those who exploited the vulnerable, sexually assaulted women, or preyed on the underage. She mocked hysterical, selfish and narcissistic people. She punished those who lacked sense, morals and sound judgment. She looked down on those who married for money and who acted recklessly.
That doesn’t sound like someone who would suffer the alt-right fools. On the contrary, she could be describing Trump and his entire team. Don’t believe me? Let’s have a look at a few examples…
In Persuasion, the patriarch of the family is a vain, pompous and ridiculous man, who runs his home with his eldest daughter. They are terrible at budgeting, and nearly run the place into the ground. When he’s not admiring his reflection in a mirror, Sir Walter grades people on their looks:
“He had frequently observed that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five-and-thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop on Bond Street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them.”
He only begins to value the heroine, Anne, when she starts to regain her looks - but even then, his focus is on which cosmetic product she might be using, so that he can use it himself…
In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood women face a financial crisis when their half brother, Mr John Dashwood, reneges on his promise to provide for them. He has noble intentions, but weasels out of them under the persuasion of his wife - a vain and mean-spirited snob:
“I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you; for instance, such as looking out for a comfortable small house for them, helping them to move their things, and sending them presents of fish and game, and so forth, whenever they are in season. I’ll lay my life that he meant nothing farther; indeed, it would be very strange and unreasonable if he did. Do but consider, my dear Mr. Dashwood, how excessively comfortable your mother-in-law and her daughters may live on the interest of seven thousand pounds, besides the thousand pounds belonging to each of the girls, which brings them in fifty pounds a-year a-piece, and, of course, they will pay their mother for their board out of it. Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that? They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expences of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a-year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.”
So Austen’s not the greatest fan of those who screw over the poor, by taking away something they would have relied on to survive. That reminds me of the casual contempt shown by Fox recently:
Forget iPhones, this is the level of animosity Fox News has towards poor people pic.twitter.com/OIVhTu14vk— Dan Hopper (@DanHopp) 7 March 2017
In Emma, when our eponymous heroine makes a mean-spirited comment about someone less fortunate than her, she is thoroughly admonished by Mr Knightley, who scolds her for being cruel rather than showing compassion. Emma sees the error of her ways and feels ashamed:
“Never had she felt so agitated, so mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued!”
You know what this is? A liberal awakening. Not particularly alt-right, right?
Austen was pretty patronising about foolish, misguided prejudices - and maybe that’s how we should be responding to this bit of news. In Sense and Sensibility, she wrote that “There is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions.” Bless those young’uns and their silly delusions. But for now, the idea of my beloved Jane Austen being appropriated by fascists who have no bloody idea what they are talking about fills me with rage. If they are very lucky, it will only manifest in a Mrs Bennet moment. If not, well I’ll send round the big guns. Lizzy Bennet took on Lady Catherine and won - she’d destroy Milo Yiannopoulos in a heartbeat.
Austen’s writing combines morals and wit; the alt-right lack both. Austen gave us brilliant heroines, who are sensible, clever, funny and kind; the alt-right think women are inferior creatures. Austen gave us dashing literary heroes like Mr Darcy and Captain Wentworth. Who have the alt-right given us? Trump.
So to those alt-right numpties who don’t understand that pride and prejudice are FLAWS, not something to aspire to: back away from Austen’s complete works, and go back to Pepe. Like, right now. Don’t make me do my teacher eyes.