There are certain authors whom it is worth reading simply for the clarity of their writing. The supreme exponents of clear English in the 20th century were probably George Orwell and PG Wodehouse. Unlike many literary figures, they actually wrote in order to be comprehended and not just to gain a reputation for literary brilliance.
The 19th century produced many brilliant writers, few as good as Jane Austen. Her insights into the human condition are crafted in the most accessible English. The moral plots, sly humour and beautiful prose carry the reader along whether or not we are interested in the goings on of English middle and upper class family life in the Napoleonic era.
The characters are revealed in a memorable way. Oily Rev’d Mr Collins on the lookout for a wealthy wife, the imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh, charming and outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, her overbearing and ridiculous mother, brave brooding Captain Wentworth and his letter writing, complex and self-aware Anne Elliot, charming and meddlesome Emma Woodhouse, the list could go on and on. We come to know these warm and irritating characters in some of the most brilliant novels in the English language.
Sadly Professor Nicole M Wright, lecturer in English, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has got her crinolines all in a flutter because it appears that some nefarious figures whose political views Ms Wright disparages have the audacity to appreciate Jane. Worse, it appears these internet racists are using Jane as a cover for their villainous ideologies. In an article published last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled Alt-Right Jane Austen Professor Wright wrote:
‘By comparing their movement not to the nightmare Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, but instead to the cosy England of Austen — a much-beloved author with a centuries-long fandom and an unebbing academic following — the alt-right normalises 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. ’
For those not in the know the alt-right (alternative right) are the right who are further right than the far right. It is quite clear that these alt-right stormtroopers don’t actually read books because they like them. After all how often do you find a reference to Kafka, Camus or Blyton on their web pages?
Obviously the alt-right are more cunning than any of us ever realised. What a truly ingenious plot, or ‘intensive conspiracy’ as Wright terms it. It requires genius of a special order to come up with the idea of using Jane Austen’s Regency novels of late eighteenth century England as a vehicle to make Nazi ideology acceptable.
So dangerous is the plot to undermine Western civilisation through the distortion of Jane that the news spread to the New York Times, the real Times, the Paris Review, the Telegraph and Independent etc. Thank goodness that there are alert journalists like Jennifer Schuessler of the NY Times who wars us, ‘Some alt-right admirers hail Austen’s novels as blueprints for a white nationalist ‘ethno-state.’
Whilst intensely grateful for the warnings it is doubtful that many will be seduced into ethno-nationalism by Pride and Prejudice or become white supremacists through reading Emma.
While criticising the alt-right for using Jane’s work as political propaganda, Wright is not above doing the same thing. She uses what to her is the telling argument against nationalism that ‘Austen’s protagonists express little of the populist boosterism and preoccupation with ethnic heritage that foster an ethnostate’.
True enough. Austen’s genteel world of peaceful, rural southern England had just been flooded by a few thousand, eager to assimilate, French Protestant Huguenots. The silence of the clergyman’s daughter on this matter clearly indicates for our Colorado professor that Jane would be happy with unfettered open borders immigration from cultures vastly different from ours.
Within her pages, however, it is possible to find lessons worth learning. In her works we find Jane Austen rewarding caution, prudence, thoughtfulness and temperate emotions. These are values that would not come amiss today in a world where we are constantly bombarded via television with selfish celebrities indulging in gross excess and ‘reality’ programmes that reward arrogance and distort reality in the interests of emotion-based reasoning and insulting rudeness.
Our bien-pensant literateurs (it’s so easy to appear intellectual by chucking in a few foreign phrases, all it means is folk interested in literature), but I digress. Instead of condemning the alt-right for discovering Jane, our cosseted intellectuals would be more usefully employed in dissecting the type of cultural output prevalent today – which have helped produce selfish sexuality without responsibility, children growing up without fathers or a sense of dignity, little understanding of a work ethic, and a distinct distaste for reasoned argument.
That there are figures on the alt-right who appreciate the works of Jane Austen should no more surprise or distress us than that there are figures on the far Left who also appreciate her. Let us be glad that individuals, whatever their background or political viewpoints are learning to appreciate one of the great figures of English Literature.
(Image: Lorie Shaull)