Is Jane Austen an icon of America’s white-supremacist alliance? That was the startling assertion made in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Nicole Wright, an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado. Wright noted that Austen’s name had popped up in several alt-right websites, leading her to surmise that these groups were enamored of the rector’s brilliant spinster daughter, because to them she was a “symbol of sexual purity” and “standard-bearer of a vanished white traditional culture.”
Essentially, white nationalists see Austen’s pastoral, white, Christian world with its parsons, picnics, debutantes, and redcoats as a validation of their ideology of a racially pure ethno-state where women know their place and immigrants aren’t welcome. They want to Make America Austen Again, never mind that it never was.
The whole connection seems belabored, and the Austen references Wright cites from alt-right websites are too random to sustain any substantial commentary on Austen and her reactionary readers. Nevertheless, the mere idea of the boys at Breitbart palling with Austen was enough to give liberal Janeites an attack of the vapors.
But hold those smelling salts—and the outrage. This is not the first time that reactionaries have sung hosannas to Austen, nor will it be the last. Who can forget that one of her most famous admirers was the arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling? “Glory, love, and honor unto England’s Jane!” he wrote, in a verse aglow with warm national pride.
Kipling, of course, is far too complex, compassionate, and protean a writer to be reduced to an alt-rightist. But there can be no doubt that his imperialist and racial views shaded in that direction. Kipling’s name and poems pop up on alt-right forums with far more frequency than Austen’s. Which is unsurprising given that his lifelong cri de coeur was the White Man’s civilizing mission, a cause he continued to stubbornly champion long after it had become embarrassingly unfashionable to do so. After the First World War, as his reputation declined thanks to his deranged anti-Hun propaganda—he demanded that Germans be referred to as “it” and not “he” or “they”—he became the target of liberal lampoon and was disparaged as a bitter reactionary out of touch with the changing times.
How ironic, then, that it was during this most illiberal phase of his life that this “jingo imperialist,” to use Orwell’s phrase, wrote a short story that popularized the term “Janeite,” coined by his friend, the revered critic George Saintsbury, as a handy label for what he called “the sect” of Jane Austen fans. Saintsbury, a brilliant scholar and vinophile, was a high Anglican and arch-conservative who categorically railed against progressive political reforms, from universal franchise to Catholic Emancipation to pay raises for window cleaners. Orwell remarked of his belligerence that “it takes a lot of guts to be openly such a skunk as that.” But since Saintsbury invented the term “Janeite” and Kipling magnified it, every Austen fan who embraces the moniker today owes these two men a debt of gratitude.
Indeed, it was Kipling’s short story The Janeites, a tour de force of comic pathos, that came to mind when I read Wright’s article; or, rather, when I saw the waggish illustration accompanying it, of Austen sporting an improbable bonnet: a red Make America Great Again baseball cap. (The cap on its own, without the slogan, is an especially fitting accessory, since Austen actually mentions “base-ball” in Northanger Abbey as one of the games played by her tomboy heroine Catherine Moreland.) Kipling’s titular Janeites are an equally improbable bunch: a group of hard-talking soldiers hunkered down in the muddy, rodent-infested trenches of World War I. There are five Janeites in all, most of whom aren’t particularly respectful of, or well-disposed to, women. Today, they’d almost certainly be called misogynists. The only woman whom they “say a good word for,” says the newbie Janeite, Humberstall, is “this Jane.”
The simple-minded Humberstall, who works as a mess waiter in the trenches, is the protagonist of the story and a quintessential Kipling hero: a conscientious, brave, and unsophisticated English soldier with a spit-and-polish work ethic, a patriot ready to die for flag and comrade. As it turns out, he is the only Janeite to survive; the other four are killed in a massive bombardment that destroys the Battery. We meet Humberstall after the war, when he has returned to his civilian job as a London hairdresser. Strong as an ox but with his mental faculties impaired by the war, he is an enormous man with “bewildered eyes.” It is Humberstall who relates, in thick and often impenetrable cockney—Kipling was infuriatingly fond of idiolect—how, despite his low rank, he had been inducted into a “secret society” of Janeites comprising his senior officers. In actuality there was no secret society (just a group of ardent Austen aficionados), but Humberstall was conned into believing one existed. They even had a password, he says: “Tilniz an trapdoors,” which Janeites will recognize as “Tilneys and trap-doors” from Northanger Abbey. Being part of this select fellowship was a source of immense pride to him and the highpoint of his war experience. “It was a ’appy little Group. I wouldn’t ’a changed with any other,” he says, invoking the happy ghost of Henry V’s band of brothers at the Battle of Agincourt.
With the war over, he finds himself returning nostalgically to “all her six books now for pleasure.” But, he grouses, becoming a Janeite wasn’t easy. He had to read all her novels—no easy task for someone like him. Initially, he found it difficult to understand why these officers were obsessed by “a little old maid ’oo’d written ’alf a dozen books about a hundred years ago.” Even worse, her quiet novels “weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even interestin’.” Nor were her characters particularly exciting.
Humberstall can’t spell (“Lady Catherine de Bugg”) or remember the names of characters or novel titles. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth of Persuasion are “Miss What’s-her Name” and “Captain T’other Bloke,” and Northanger Abbey is “some Abbey or other.” When one of the Janeites declares that Austen didn’t die barren but produced a lawful issue named “’Enery James,” he believes the novelist is her son. But Austen could not have asked for a more perceptive and loyal reader. He unwittingly pays her a tremendous compliment when he observes that her unexciting characters from a hundred years ago are just like people he comes across every day. The oily Reverend Collins from Pride and Prejudice, “always on the make an’ lookin’ to marry money,” reminds him of the troop-leader from his Boy Scout years. He could swear that the wholesale grocer’s imperious wife is the “duplicate” of “Lady Catherine de Bugg.” And as for his chatterbox aunt, she’s about as vapid as Miss Bates from Emma, “an old maid runnin’ about like a hen with ’er ’ead cut off, an’ her tongue loose at both ends.”
As Humberstall continues to read Jane (the name by which he always refers to her), she gets under his skin and he goes from being an on-the-make Janeite to a true Janeite. In the wake of the bombardment, he is sneaked onto an overcrowded hospital train by a bony nurse who is so delighted to learn that he, too, is an Austen fan that she declares she’d happily kill a brigadier to make room for him. It is with great feeling, therefore, that he bestows on Jane the soldier’s highest accolade: “There’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was.”
This gauche “cart-horse of a man,” who lives with his mother and has never had a relationship with a woman, is an unlikely Janeite. With his working-class roots and cockney accent, he would be a misfit among the trendy, tea-drinking, Bath-visiting, costume-wearing, Regency-fetishizing Janeites of today. We don’t know what his politics are but it doesn’t really matter—and that is Kipling’s whole point. There is no one kind of Janeite; no one owns her.
There’s nothing new about trying to appropriate Austen politically. As Freya Johnson wrote recently in the Prospect, Austen has been repackaged down the years as “a radical, a prude and a saucepot, pro- and anti-colonial, a feminist and a downright bitch.” Did she acquiesce to the slave trade by not denouncing it in Mansfield Park, where the titular estate is owned by a sugar plantation owner? Or was she a covert abolitionist for naming it after the reformist judge Lord Mansfield who described slavery as “so odious”? One can’t be sure, and these debates will go on forever. There will always be those on the far left and far righ—the alt-right included—and others on the make who will try to refashion Austen in their own ideological image, but as Humberstall would no doubt assure us, the “old maid” doesn’t need protecting. She’d certainly scorn anything as fatuous as a safe space.
It should be a truth universally acknowledged that anyone at any point on the political spectrum can derive pleasure and laughter and wisdom from Austen’s sharp and beautiful prose, her moral plots, her sly humor, and her lethal insight into human nature. Take that one devastating line from Emma that so thoroughly exposes societal hypocrisy: “The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed.” As Humberstall says wonderingly, “some’ow Jane put it down all so naked it made you ashamed.”
Published in 1924, Kipling’s ode to “England’s Jane” was rendered all the more poignant by the tragic circumstances it had grown out of. In September 1915, after Kipling’s beloved son John went missing in action and was presumed dead, it was Austen’s novels that brought the grieving family some small measure of comfort. On those long and unbearable war evenings, after the slow drawing down of blinds, Kipling read aloud to his wife Carrie and their daughter, bringing them, in Carrie’s words “great delight.” Austen saw them through their “tight place” just as she would see Humberstall through his.
America is in a bit of a “tight place” of its own today. What better time to return to Jane Austen?
Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.