Nonsense & Sensibility: How the Alt-Right found Jane Austen

The British writer has become a favourite of the growing conservative movement in the US and UK

Nonsense & Sensibility: How the Alt-Right found Jane Austen

The portrait of novelist Jane Austen by James Andrews, that will be appear on the new Bank of England £10 note from 2017 [ Laura Lean/PA Archive/PA Images]

Best known as one of the most important female novelists in the English language, Jane Austen has become increasingly popular of late with a new community of readers: the Alt-Right.

“As a Victorian novelist might have put it,” explained Milo Yiannopoulos, the right-wing provocateur who recently faded into obscurity after being abandoned by the hardline conservatives who were once his champions, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an ugly woman is far more likely to be a feminist than a hot one.”

This was how Yiannapolous was co-opting the celebrated opening line from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice during his recent Dangerous F***** university tour of the United States, incorrectly referring to Austen, a pillar of Regency literature, as Victorian. But it transpires that the Alt-Right movement, not content with idolising a bug-eyed green frog, have adopted Jane Austen as their new literary figurehead.

Pride and prejudicial views

The unusual choice, given that the female protagonists central to Austen’s novels are often observed as exerting a feminist identity within the patriarchal structures of 19th-century British society, was first reported by writer Nicole M Wright in the Chronicle of Higher Education. According to Wright, the Alt-Right movement has developed a fondness for the British writer for three reasons:

“Venturing into the mire, 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.”

All three of these variations, like points made at a book club where books are burned, play up to the ultra-conservative right’s current rise to political prominence, fitting in under both Donald Trump’s MAGA mantra and the UK’s decision to Brexit.

Normalising hate through Austen

As a female writer observing the rigid framework of 1800s Britain, Austen’s characters fulfil traditional gender roles, with the women bound by marriage before any hint of sex, lest they be shamed and scandalise their families. The “exception that proves the rule” interpretation of Austen is described as a defence against criticism that the Alt-Right movement is misogynistic, while also allowing conservative readers to not actually have to engage with the real needs of women in the modern world, while streamlining dangerous and racist beliefs by couching them in the comedies of manners that Austen wrote.

“By comparing their movement not to the nightmare Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, but instead to the cosy England of Austen – a much-beloved author with a centuries-long fandom and an unebbing academic following – the Alt-Right normalises itself in the eyes of ordinary people,” says Wright.

“Such references nudge readers who happen upon Alt-Right sites to think that perhaps white supremacists aren’t so different from mainstream folk.”

While the Alt-Right community’s feelings about Colin Firth stepping out of a pond remain unclear, for now, it seems, they’ve found their go-to literary muse in Austen.

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