"As a Victorian novelist might have put it, it is a truth universally acknowledged that an ugly woman is far more likely to be a feminist than a hot one."
Why was Milo Yiannopoulos, right-wing provocateur, quoting Jane Austen? A policeman had denied me entry to the latest stop of the notorious "Dangerous Faggot" campus tour, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, so I perched nearby with my laptop to live-stream it. Yiannopoulos, then still a darling of Breitbart News, held forth.
So far, I was bored; Yiannopoulos’s shtick about humorless lesbians and sensitive liberals was not warmed-over so much as exhumed from William F. Buckley’s Dumpster, plopped in the microwave, and zapped to mush. I was tempted to pack up and head home. Now, though, he had my attention. In a speech celebrating Trump’s election victory and a new dawn for right-wing nationalism, selections from The Fountainhead or Mein Kampf would not have been out of place, but a shout-out to a powerful female author hailed by some as a "feminist icon"? Perhaps Yiannopoulos had glanced at the title of Austen’s most famous novel and assumed that Pride and Prejudice was a justification of white pride and prejudice against ethnic minorities.
Over dinner with colleagues the next day, I joked that, as a specialist in the history of the novel, I thought that the most offensive part of the speech was the Cambridge dropout’s incorrect categorization of a Regency novelist as a Victorian (Austen died in 1817; the Victorian era began two decades later, in 1837). The mistake was not surprising, for Yiannopoulos idled away two years ignoring his English-literature coursework: "I didn’t show up to supervisions, didn’t submit any essays and spent most of my time shagging and drinking instead of reading medieval literature," he bragged in 2015.
Yet I continued to reflect on why the appearance of Jane Austen in an "alt-right" speech seemed so incongruous. I searched for a transcript. To my surprise, invocations of Austen popped up in many alt-right online venues. 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.
Some right-wing writers use Austen as shorthand for defiance of the sexual revolution. Andrew Anglin, a white-supremacist blogger for The Daily Stormer, inserted Austen into a paean to the pop star Taylor Swift, whom he approvingly called "a secret Nazi." As quoted in the Vice Media feminist channel Broadly, Anglin contrasted Swift with the singer Miley Cyrus and upheld her as an exemplar of Aryan virtue in a recording industry debased by multiculturalism. "It’s incredible really that she’s surrounded by these filthy, perverted Jews, and yet she remains capable of exuding 1950s purity, femininity, and innocence," said Anglin. "She is the anti-Miley. While Miley is out having gang-bangs with colored gentlemen, she is at home with her cat reading Jane Austen." Here Austen’s fiction serves as an escape portal from today’s Babylonian sexual excess to a vaguely delineated (1800s through 1950s) mythical era when women were wholesome and chaste. Anglin must not have read so far into Austen’s novels to encounter her sexually adventurous characters Lydia Bennet and Maria Bertram.
This view of Austen as an avatar of a superior bygone era is linked not only with fantasies of female retreat from the sexual whirl, but also with calls for white separatism. On the popular blog of the alt-right publisher Counter-Currents, the world of Austen’s novels is extolled as a prototype for the "racial dictatorship" of tomorrow. One commenter wrote, "If, after the ethnostate is created, we revert back to an Austen-like world, we males ought to endure severe sacrifices as well. … If traditional marriage à la P&P [Pride and Prejudice] is going to be imposed, again, in an ethnostate, we must behave like gentlemen."
Yet if shared heritage is the key to incentivizing gentlemanly comportment, why are there so many cads in Austen’s world? Also, Austen’s protagonists express little of the populist boosterism and preoccupation with ethnic heritage that foster an ethnostate. Fervent patriotism is invoked sardonically rather than earnestly proclaimed: Upon his first visit to his father’s estate in the small town of Highbury, Frank Churchill archly states that he will prove that he "belong[s] to the place" and is a "true citizen." Emma playfully replies, "I do admire your patriotism," and Churchill parries by saying that Emma has witnessed "the very moment of this burst of my amor patriae."
Other alt-right partisans pay backhanded compliments by emphasizing Austen’s singularity as a celebrated female novelist. In a post that debuted in 2012 on Alternative Right and has since been lauded as an alt-right "classic," the "manosphere" blogger Matt Forney mentioned Austen as an outlier from the norm of female mediocrity: "Virtually all great leaders, thinkers and artists were men. Aristotle, Galileo, Michaelangelo [sic], Napoleon: all men. Not to say that all women are incapable of artistic, scientific or military talent; every so often, we get a Marie Curie, a Jane Austen or a Joan of Arc." Here the alt-right finds common ground with the literary gatekeeper Harold Bloom; in his best seller The Western Canon (1994), Austen is one of four women on a list of 26 most influential authors. According to this formulation, Austen is not a trailblazer for the female authors who followed in her wake, but rather a rebuke to women who have not reached her level of achievement.
There is a reason that alt-right adherents claim Austen for themselves, and it isn’t because their Dear Leader, who has not read a book in years (according to his own biographer), is a closet Janeite. By comparing their movement not to the nightmare Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, but instead to the cozy England of Austen — a much-beloved author with a centuries-long fandom and an unebbing academic following — the alt-right normalizes itself in the eyes of ordinary people. It also subtly panders to the nostalgia of the Brexiters, with their vision of a better, bygone Britain. Such references nudge readers who happen upon alt-right sites to think that perhaps white supremacists aren’t so different from mainstream folks.
But these men are distorting Austen’s work; her novels are hardly blueprints for an "ethnostate." Instead, they serve as antidotes against the strategies used by the alt-right movement. After all, Austen’s heroines come to distrust men who beguile others through charismatic bluster and expedient lying (Exhibit A: Willoughby). Indeed, Austen inoculates her readers against trusting the autocrats cheered by the alt-right: her female characters come to regret taking up with coarse men (such as Rushworth in Mansfield Park) who are propped up by inherited wealth that initially dazzles those around them, but which cannot compensate for astonishing ignorance, flouting of decorum, and lack of empathy. Marianne and Maria learn those life lessons the hard way, but they do learn in the end, and they eventually abandon the duplicitous grifters and foolish scions. May it be so with us, and may we never see a day with alt-right "post-truths" universally acknowledged.
Nicole M. Wright is an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder.