Flat White

Be warned: you come for Jane Austen at your peril

21 April 2021

6:16 PM

21 April 2021

6:16 PM

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woke society in possession of literary masterpieces must be in want of historical interrogation

Sorry Jane Austen, and not just for my poor revision of one of literature’s most famous and oft-quoted opening sentences.  

I’m sorry about the sheer lunacy of modern thought that seeks to ‘reexamine’ every aspect of life, history and culture under the lens of critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

I’m sorry that those who are entrusted with preserving a legacy are so often the ones who buckle under or suck up to woke pressure and end up biting the very hand that feeds them. 

And I’m sorry that the world has been turned on its head to such an extent that the likes of BLM, Antifa and Extinction Rebellion’s performative activists have become the in crowd of cool kids to which the wannabe kids aspire. 

Well, I suspect that most true fans of the work of Jane, younger daughter of an impoverished clergyman and one of English literature’s keenest social observers and satiric commentators, will not take kindly to the recent goings-on in the sleepy little hamlet of Chawton in Hampshire. 

This week Lizzie Dunford, the director of Jane Austen’s House (Austen’s last place of residence-cum-shrine to all things Jane), announced, with a straight face, presumably, that the museum was in the process of :  

[R]eviewing and updating all of our interpretation, including plans to explore the Empire and Regency Colonial context of both Austen’s family and her work. 

The slave trade and the consequences of Regency-era Colonialism touched every family of means during the period.  Jane Austen’s family were no exception. 

As purchasers of tea, sugar and cotton they were consumers of the products of the trade, and did also have closer links via family and friends. 

Consumers of tea, sugar and cotton — I’ve never heard anything so evil, and obviously in need of historical contextualisation.  

Quick! Where are the smelling salts when you need them?  And I suppose a recuperative cuppa is out of the question, then, even for Ms Dunford.  

One must presume that she and her colleagues also don’t buy their electronics equipment from China or their high fashion from organisations that produce their goods in Asian sweatshops, or their chocolate from multinationals whose cocoa is provided through child labour in West African countries. Because that could be ‘problematic’ (to use the favoured terminology of the woke) and may necessitate something vacuous but really virtuous, like a Twitter apology and a promise to ‘do better’.  

Austen isn’t all bad, though, you’ll be relieved to learn. New displays will point to her support for the abolition of slavery:   

Displays are still being developed, but one panel titled Black Lives Matter to Austen will examine how the writer held abolitionist views, and how these sympathies and her father’s Antigua links fed into her 1814 novel Mansfield Park. 

 I’m sure Jane, as a master of deft subtlety, would abhor that sledgehammer touch.   

I wonder at the willful misreading of Austen’s work that seeks to place it in any kind of political context because if there’s anything that’s missing from Austen’s work, it’s politics. Thank God. Austen’s skill, and I suspect, the cause of her enduring popularity, is her rapier-sharp observation of the minutiae of everyday life, up close and very, very personal. It’s all about relationships, in all their complexity, messiness and laugh-out-loud humour.  

I miss the days when museums were just museums, Aladdin’s caves of wonder, allowing a peek into life in another time. Since the woke killjoys got hold of them you can’t escape their moralizing and finger-wagging.  

I also miss the days when you could just enjoy a book. I still remember discovering, through Austen’s works, the delights of irony and witty dialogue and the portals to another place and time. It was magical and still is, after countless re-readings. 

I have so far suffered those who have sought to remake Austen as some kind of feminist warrior against the patriarchy, instead of what she was; a product, not just of her time and place, but of a loving and supportive family that educated and encouraged her and treated her as the talented individual she was, even at a time when that may not have been the norm.  

But this latest attempt at revisionism is a bridge too far. How Jane would have skewered these modern sensibilities. Enough is enough. This is my line in the sand, the hill upon which I am prepared to make a stand against wokeness.  

I have no firm plans as yet but I’m reading up on the tactics of those engaged in statue-toppling, projectile-throwing ‘fiery but mostly peaceful protests’.  It seems to work for them. 

You’ve been warned. You come for Jane at your peril. 

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