(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The clueless leading the clueless: the alt-right hijacks a fake Jane Austen from conventional scholars

Seen the latest news meteor streak across the Austen sky?:  “Alt-Right Jane Austen” by Nicole M. Wright (Chronicle Review, March 12, 2017) with this lead:  “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.”

In Austen-L & Janeites, my friend Diane Reynolds, wrote: “I go to conferences, I see the alt-right people trying to appropriate "dear Jane" and also the Victorians: some of the papers I've heard full of approval of Victorian discipline of children! Yes, they are out there".  I asked Diane if she could dig up any cites for papers actually published by these so-called "scholars", because I wanted to see what such abominations of literary scholarship might look like –even my active imagination couldn’t picture how they’d try to back up their absurd claims.

In the interim, I immediately perceived one large irony of this current wave of reprehensible hijacking of Jane Austen’s fiction by alt-right literary "scholars" –it’s that they’re cluelessly stealing from a fake, i.e. the bogus Myth of Jane Austen which still largely reigns supreme even today two centuries after her death. I’ve written about that Myth a hundred times, referring to the conventional view of a somewhat conservative, timid, pious, unambitious Jane Austen, in sharp contrast to the radically feminist, gender-flexible, fiercely proud and satirical Jane Austen I’ve been retrieving and fleshing out for the past decade, and writing about in this blog. So I can't help being reminded of the recent videos of Isis savages smashing "priceless' statues and other artifacts from ancient Sumeria, only to learn that all the godless artworks they were destroying were basically papier-mache knockoffs of the real artifacts, which are all safe and sound in Baghdad. Take THAT, Steve Bannon!

Alone among the recent mainstream article writers about alt-right Austen, Claire Fallon was very much on the right track of something very important in her Huffington Post piece:  “Jane Austen Has Become An Alt-Right Icon, Somehow” :
“To use Austen as an alt-right icon, these thinkers must either read the author’s work poorly or not at all, relying on our cultural association of her work with chaste courtship, romantic marriage, and overwhelmingly white British society to imply an endorsement of those values. In fact, white nationalists would do well to realize, her work has endured largely because it cleverly and subtly skewered them.”

Fallon is more spot-on than she realizes, because, in the shadow stories of Austen’s novels (as well as of Jane Austen’s biography), I have found not only that Austen covertly exposed the manifold hypocrisies and cruelties of the rich and titled in her world (the corrupt, gluttonous Prince of “Whales” being her most prominent covert target), all the while making them believe (as DW Harding pointed out way back in 1940) she respected, even idolized them, but also that there were also other, far more radical and subversive elements hidden just beneath the surface of her “placid” tales of the Regency Era, which make  the alt-right invasion of Austenland particularly grotesque. Let me follow Wright’s summary of the three linchpins of alt-right Jane Austen:

In a NY Times piece the other day, Jennifer Schuessler commented on Wright’s article:
“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… But Ms. [Juliette] Wells said scholars teaching Austen at schools with ‘substantially’ 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?”

I beg to respectfully but strongly differ. I suggest that it’s not just a careless choice of adjective by Austen when we read that Henry Crawford is “black”, that Mary Crawford has brown skin and eyes, and that Elizabeth Bennet has dark skin (supposedly from being, as Hamlet might have put it, too much in the sun). When we combine those and several other textual winks scattered through her novels, above all in Mansfield Park with Sir Thomas Bertram’s (slave) plantation in Antigua, the negative begins to develop, and the image that emerges is that it wasn’t just Miss Lambe in Sanditon who was not lily white. And, as I suggested in a series of posts a few years ago, even the likes of Mr. Darcy is aware of this, when he winks cruelly at one of the worst abuses of the transatlantic slave trade with his comment that “Any savage can dance”, subtly referring to the barbarism of shackling of slaves onboard:

And people of color don’t just hide in plain sight in her fiction – it is well known in scholarly Austen circles that Jane’s own father served as trustee of land in Antigua for the benefit of a wealthy neighbor, a Mr. Nibbs, who had a biracial illegitimate son (Henry Crawford, anyone?). And in their neighborhood in Hampshire, there were numerous other Creole families of means, with holdings in the West Indies – so Sir Thomas Bertram and his morally rotten offspring in Mansfield Park were not torn from headlines Jane Austen read; they were integral parts of the Austen family’s close social circle. So the alt-right and the conventional Austen scholar turn out to be strange scholarly bedfellows in their shared error in believing in an all-white Jane Austen world.

It has been my opinion since 2011 (it took me an extra few years to see it, because I was too straight to detect it sooner) that the shadow stories of all six of Austen’s novels are above all the suppressed stories of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters, who have not revealed their sexual preferences to the LGB-blind heroines through whose clueless eyes we view Austen’s fictional worlds. And it’s not just Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Morland, Austen’s Clueless Club also includes Elizabeth Bennet (who doesn’t realize Charlotte Lucas loves her) and Fanny Price (who doesn’t realize Mary Crawford loves her). Go to Twitter sometime and search for “Charlotte Lucas lesbian” or “Charlotte Lucas queer”, and you’ll find Tweets by readers of P&P who’ve never read a scholarly article about it, but who immediately “get” that Charlotte is a lesbian, and that’s the deeper reason why she could care less about which man she marries, in order to survive in her misogynistic world.

But, drollest of all, JA’s clever charade of sexuality reaches its satirical summit when we read that “truth universally acknowledged” that the jackass Milo Yiannopolis amuses himself by repeating ---What he, but also most reputable Austen scholars, have no clue about, is that many of those single men of means in want of a wife are gay or bisexual! That punster Jane Austen was unquestionably ROFL with her literary confidantes about that opening sentence of what would quickly become and remain her most popular and famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. Why? Because it also functions as a coded axiom that a rich gay man needed not only a large estate and stylish barouche landau, but also a “beard” (wife) in order to have cover to safely and discreetly express his unconventional sexuality with his like-minded friends (Bingley) in a barbarically homophobic society. And they’re far from the only gay men in the Austenian closet.

SUPERIOR, BAD-ASS WOMEN: In the breakout session talk I’ll be giving at the upcoming JASNA Annual General Meeting to be held in Huntington Beach, CA in October, I’ll be revealing that it is Jane Austen’s final writings in 1817, prior to her death in July of that year, when death stared her in the face,  where she was most revealing not only of her own alternative sexuality, but also of her own (well regulated) pride in her choice not to marry a man, and to enjoy the best company for her, i.e., other women who were not that into men (such as her old friend, and perhaps lover, Martha Lloyd, who lived with Jane and her sister for the last 8 years of Jane’s life; and also Anne Sharp, former governess for the children of Jane’s rich brother Edward, to whom Jane gifted one of the 12 precious first copies of Emma, and to whom Jane wrote the feminist/lesbian war cry, “Galigai forever and ever” in one of Jane’s final surviving letters – the power of the strong mind over the weak was Jane’s radical feminist war cry, and it was characters like the Luciferian Lucy Ferrars (nee Steele) and Charlotte Lucas, as well as Mary Bennet and Miss Bates, who were Jane’s true alter egos in her fiction—marginalized women who used their wits and audacity to level the gender playing field that was so grossly tilted in favor of men.

I could go on for pages longer in the same vein as these three examples, but suffice for today to say that Jane Austen would truly be LOL’ing at the cluelessness of the alt-right, in helping spread the fame of her writing, without realizing that she really stood for everything they despise. But, she’d also be saddened to learn that two centuries after her death, even her devoted, smart, mostly female fans haven’t read (as Lydia Bennet so aptly put it) the words under Austen’s lines--- and haven’t don’t realize just how multicultural, feminist, and gender-fluid she really was.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: