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Why the alt-right has adopted Jane Austen

March 23, 2017

Members of the US "alt-right" appear to have developed a taste for British literary classics. But how do they think this will help the white nationalist cause?

Jane Austen
Image: picture alliance/Heritage Images

The "alt-right" - a movement of internet-savvy, far-right nationalists in the United States - likes to provoke. Its members gather online, exchanging extremist views on blogging platforms and message boards, sharing racist memes and trolling their ideological opponents on social media.

The latest alt-right controversy follows the group's apparent appropriation of the works of one of England's best loved novelists - Jane Austen.

Educated racists

Why the sudden neo-Nazi interest in literary classics, you might ask. It could have something to do with the fact that, in a bid to distinguish themselves from their white supremacist "skinhead" cousins, alt-righters likes to profess intellectual superiority.

"Skinheads, by and large, are low-information, low-IQ thugs driven by the thrill of violence and tribal hatred," Milo Yiannopoulos, former editor for alt-right platform Breitbart News, wrote in 2016. "The alternative right are a much smarter group of people - which perhaps suggests why the Left hates them so much. They're dangerously bright."

Milo Yiannopoulos
Milo Yiannopoulos described alt-right members as "dangerously bright"Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Papasso

The far-right's recently acquired taste for Austen was brought to light by Nicole M. Wright, an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado. Her curiosity was piqued after hearing Yanniopoulos reference the 18th-century author. When she then "ventured into the mire" of alt-right online hangouts, she found that Yiannopoulos was not alone in linking Austen's English idyll to a white supremacist utopia.

"To my surprise, invocations of Austen popped up in many alt-right online venues," Wright wrote in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. "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."

One blogger wrote of the return to an "Austen-like" world with "traditional marriage à la P&P [Pride and Prejudice]" being imposed in an "ethnostate."

Reading between the lines?

Devoney Looser, a professor of English at Arizona State University, believes it is possible to "misread" Austen's novels as being supportive of "traditional values" when it comes to politics and marriage.

"I suppose you could imagine her fiction as offering a form of escapism to a fantastical, supposedly uncomplicated past, when men were men, women were women, and everyone stayed in his own social class," Looser told DW.

"The reason I think that is a misreading of her fiction is that it completely ignores the ways in which she's a social critic who uses irony to expose the abuses by those in power."

Keira Knightley in the 2005 film adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice"
Keira Knightley in the 2005 film adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice"Image: dpa - Report

Members of the alt-right understand the importance of marketing. Why scare away potential sympathizers by quoting known Nazi ideologues, when they can point to the whitewashed, class-bound world of Austen's novels and say: See how things were in the good old days?

As Wright points out, with this kind of approach the alt-right can "normalize itself in the eyes of ordinary people."

Jane Austen's politics

Of course, how Austen herself intended her texts to be read is another question.

"Conservatives and progressives have been fighting over how to read Austen's fiction for a century and a half," said Looser, who has been researching Austen's connection to politics for her upcoming book, "The Making of Jane Austen."

"Suffragettes were marching through the streets of London in support of women's rights, carrying a Jane Austen banner, and at the same time elite men in private clubs were arguing that her genius was in her describing a limited world that celebrated women's confinement to the domestic sphere. That's quite a political contrast."

Looser adds that the earliest reference she has found to a "directly political fight over Austen" took place in 1872. "Members of the British parliament invoked Austen's name on opposite sides of the question of expanding women's right to vote," she explained.

"A conservative MP suggested Austen would never have wanted any such thing, because she was firmly on the side of traditional gender roles, but a liberal MP said surely Austen would be on the side of their era's learned women who sought to expand the franchise."

Suffragettes in Manchester in 1913
Austen was invoked by both sides of the women's suffrage debateImage: picture alliance/akg-images

As Looser explains, there is also a "robust debate" surrounding Austen's fiction and its treatment of colonialism and slavery. "There I see more evidence of her as a liberal critic of those practices and institutions, not as a conservative apologist for them," she added.

Classics out of context

Of course, Austen is not the first author to be posthumously dragged into modern debates on race and gender. Classic works of literature are regularly re-examined through a contemporary political lens, decades or even centuries after the era in which they were written.

Looser also points out that Austen wrote "fiction, not treatises."

"Even if this means the implications of her fiction are more politically slippery, I'm grateful for that," she added. "It's far more interesting to read fiction that provokes us to think about how and why we might think and feel, rather than telling us what we must think and feel."

"One mistake a few people make is in reading Austen's brilliant 'It is a truth universally acknowledged' line as a moral dictum," said Looser. "It's not. It's a trenchant piece of social commentary and social criticism, when read in the context of the novel as a whole."