Nicole M. Wright’s article, “Alt-Right Jane Austen” (The Chronicle Review, March 12), was fascinating and shocking to read in equal measure. However, I felt that she did not go far enough in challenging the Alt-Right’s appropriation of Austen for their cause. A few additional details may help reinforce exactly why the Alt-Right are so wrong.
Firstly, the “cozy England of Austen”, idealized by the Alt-Right commentators, was in fact an England beset by almost constant war, rebellions and social uprisings, where refugees from Revolutionary France were a common sight. It was also a period where feminist ideas, and calls for equality, became increasingly shared as literacy levels increased.
Not only does Austen present “sexually adventurous characters”, she openly criticises the hypocrisy which judges men and women’s behaviour differently: “In this world the penalty is less equal than could be wished” (Mansfield Park). There is also a consistent criticism throughout the novels of many of those who hold power simply because of wealth and status, and a celebration of those who succeed through education, intelligence and merit. My own research, which uses vector space models to examine the theme of independence in Austen’s novels, reinforces this, revealing a complex and nuanced discourse of criticism against inequality.
Rather than being a rare example of a celebrated English female novelist, Austen began publishing at a time when female novelists out-published men. She was influenced by Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth (whose novel Belinda includes cross-dressing female duellists and an interracial marriage), amongst other well-known female authors, and is part of a tradition of women’s writing which stretches from the early modern period to the present day.
By writing novels at a time when novel writing itself was a potentially political act, Austen places her challenge to the world in which she lived on a public stage. The Alt-Right’s misreading of Austen just shows how subversive she really is.