Helena Kelly grew up in North Kent. She teaches classics and English Literature at the University of Oxford and lives in Oxford with her husband and son. Her new book, Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, will be available May 2.
In April 1968, a British politician called Enoch Powell gave a speech opposing immigration, one which remains infamous in the United Kingdom. It’s known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Powell decided to try to make his racism sound a little bit classier by referencing a scene in the Roman epic poem the Aeneid, wherein a prophetess has a vision of a river ”foaming with much blood” – an omen of forthcoming war. Powell’s attempt to co-opt a great work of literature is particularly objectionable because the Aeneid in fact heroizes immigrants and refugees; it praises intermarriage between ethnic groups as the source of Rome’s strength. Powell was a classical scholar of some distinction; he knew what the poem was about and using it as he did was an act of profound readerly betrayal.
I can’t view the recent attempts of the “alt-right” commentator Milo Yiannopoulos to co-opt Jane Austen to his political cause as the same kind of betrayal. Yiannopoulos does seem to have genuinely misunderstood what kind of books Austen wrote. He thinks they’re modest, womanly novels about marriage and family, that they’re domestic, demure. And Yiannopoulos is not alone. In fact, he’s in undeservedly good company.
Austen’s most famous misreader is probably the British wartime leader Winston Churchill, who, when he was confined to bed with pneumonia during the dark days of World War II, got his daughter to read him Pride and Prejudice aloud. “What calm lives they had, those people!” he remembered thinking afterward. “No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars.” The fact that a regiment of militia are quartered in the heroine’s home town early on in the novel seems to have completely escaped his notice. So do the later references to a vast military encampment on the south coast.
It is astonishingly easy to misread what Austen actually wrote – or to miss it altogether, even when you’re looking for it. Take Mansfield Park, published in 1814. This novel mentions the slave trade. Characters travel to an estate in Antigua. The title seems to recall the name of Lord Mansfield, the judge who made slavery illegal in England. This is about where the current critical consensus tends to stop, though; further analyses are tentative, oblique. But actually Austen isn’t tentative and oblique at all, not here. Her extended family had connections to a number of slave owners but she doesn’t swerve from the issue. She keeps jabbing at her readers. If a poem is quoted, it’s one that can be linked to slavery; when a Roman emperor is named, it’s the only one who had visibly African ancestry; of the plays that are mentioned, almost all of them feature characters who are black. All of this culminates in the loaded image of a chain and a cross linked together in what looks very much like a deliberate reminder that the Church of England owned a slave plantation of its own.
Events over the past year on both sides of the Atlantic have shown how difficult it is to understand other people’s political views – how wrong we can be, when we assume that we comprehend someone else’s thinking.
Austen has been dead for almost two hundred years. She was a woman of her time. But we can say, on the evidence of her writing, that very few of her ideas would have coincided with those of the “alt-right.” Her novels argue for openness and compromise. They skewer the faults of parents and clergymen. At the end of Persuasion she waves one character off to a life of sin in London with barely a hint of judgment. The language she uses to talk about the “gypsies” in Emma is slightly distasteful to modern sensibilities but it’s considerably kinder and more considered than the language her contemporaries used and she refuses to follow the usual racist stereotyping.
This isn’t anachronistic wishful thinking. It’s there in the text.
We have no way of knowing what story Austen had in mind for Miss Lambe, the mixed-race heiress who is about to appear in the final, unfinished novel Sanditon, but that’s the Austen we should hold onto – no matter who tries to take her from us.