Should Jane Austen join Ayn Rand among conservatives' favorite writers? A National Review Online article has opened up a debate that touches the literary and political worlds, making us wonder: Can anyone really claim Austen as an ideological heroine?
In an interview with NRO's Kathryn Jean Lopez (which we discovered via Irin Carmon's Twitter), Elizabeth Kantor, author of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, makes Austen's oeuvre out to be the anti-Sex and the City, the anti-Girls, and the anti-Cosmopolitan. Essentially, Helen Gurley Brown's worst nightmare. Kantor's Austen is all about traditionalism:
LOPEZ: I noticed a Huffington Post headline from a column from a “dating and relationship coach” asking, “Hey Ladies, What’s Stopping YOU From Proposing?” What would Jane say?
KANTOR: I don’t think she’d advise us to throw out one of the few remnants of traditional courtship that have persisted into the 21st century — our intuition that it’s the man who has the responsibility to declare his love and propose marriage.
Not so fast. Feminist writer Sarah Seltzer shot back on her Tumblr in a post called "Jane Austen Does Not Adhere to Your Ideology." Seltzer argues that Austen, obviously, is a product of the time in which she was writing: "In her day, those mistakes were deeply sublimated and bursting with sexual tension. In ours, they’d be more explicit." She also points out that Kantor's implication that few women are "completely fulfilled" by work just doesn't make sense in the context of Austen, who "spent her whole life writing and never got married." It's hard not to side with Seltzer and scoff at Kantor if you've always seen Austen as somewhat of a feminist hero, a woman writing strong women in an era when women did not have the same rights they do now.
But political talk in relation to Austen is nothing new. Earlier this year, Amy Elizabeth Smith, writing for The Huffington Post, explained that Austen's family was Tory, which "adds up to conservatism." She thinks if Austen had lived in 2012 she "would be the equivalent of a Swing State, attentive to each specific issue up for vote—more conservative than feminists and progressive admirers would hope, disappointingly liberal for those who want to label her with their definition of family values."
Whatever their follies, the people of Austen’s time at least had enough sense to acknowledge what so many moderns have forgotten: Men and women are different. And that’s not something to wring one’s hands about, but to celebrate. A society that ignores or denies such a huge, basic fact is going to be a society with a lot of dysfunction. You end up with divorce and abortion and people numbing the pain with every imaginable drug.
The debate hasn't just been fought on the Web: It's also been scholarly. Take, for instance, this essay published in 1989 by scholar Gene Koppel from Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, which evaluates how both interpretations can be legitimate readings:
How can Claudia Johnson present Jane Austen’s works as basically liberal – for example: “Pride and Prejudice is a passionate novel which vindicates personal happiness as a liberal moral category” (77) – while I argue that these same works are basically conservative, that Christianity and natural moral law permeate all of Austen’s fiction, without one of us being dreadfully wrong?
As to which view of Jane Austen’s novel is more helpful – mine or Claudia Johnson’s – both Gadamer and common sense tell me that it is neither cowardly nor falsely humble to reply that the reader must be his own judge. I honestly believe that both Johnson’s and my interpretations are “on the field” – that they were both generated by what we experienced in Pride and Prejudice, as well as what has come from our personal approaches to life and literature.
So where does that leave us? Would Jane Austen be watching Fox News, decrying the destruction of the American family? Or would she stand with Sandra Fluke fighting for access to birth control? Would she be totally into Girls? Or would she think the protagonists were all a bunch of loose women? Seltzer, for one, splits the difference: "She’s neither on Team Feminist nor Team Conservative. We’re all just on Team Jane."
Sure, it is fun to wonder how our favorite authors would react to the modern world, but Seltzer is right. Trying to guess what they think about concepts that they probably couldn't even fathom is reductive and turns their works, beloved by generations past, present, and future, into hollow talking points for ours.