Jane Austen at 200: She Gave “Comfort to Whiteness”

, Spencer Irvine, 5 Comments

Several college professors picked apart Jane Austen, who would have turned 200 years old this year. In a packed room full of female attendees at the Modern Language Association (MLA), the professors criticized Jane Austen’s “whiteness” in her writing and how post-Trump, people can turn to Austen’s readings to escape from reality.

Mary Favret, an English professor at Johns Hopkins University, directed her remarks at four main points:

  1. When and how Jane Austen comforted whiteness?
  2. Is Jane Austen taught in HBCUs?
  3. Was there an influence on black writers?
  4. Can we read Jane Austen alongside authors of color?

She analyzed Jane Austen’s “whiteness” and how this “romance of the Anglo-Saxon-ness” pervaded white culture from the United Kingdom to the American colonies. Favret called it, “hashtag #AustenSoWhite” a reference to the social media boycott of the annual Hollywood awards show The Oscars for not including minorities. She asked, “When and how does Austen give comfort to whiteness?” Her main point of criticism circled around how black history was not addressed in Austen’s literature. She said that Austen created “a world where blackness and whiteness are never interrogated…no Ku Klux Klan, no gender and class… [but] heterosexual laws and conjugance, yes.”

Favret turned to historical black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and asked if Austen’s literature was taught to black students. She admitted that she had not found much of anything on whether HBCUs teach Jane Austen as a part of their department coursework, outside of Washington D.C.’s Howard University and Baltimore’s Goucher College. At Howard, “Mr. Darcy has zero appeal” to their students. For those students, “class trumps gender.”

She pointed out, “I know Cornel West is a big fan” of Jane Austen’s work and said that this could help start the “reconsideration of Austen’s legacy among black writers.” Favret then asked, “Does ‘Pride and Prejudice’ signal ‘whiteness’?” She discovered that Frederick Douglass’s North Star newspaper cited Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” at least eight times, and Douglass referred to it three times in the publication “Christian Recorder.”

Claudia Johnson, an English literature professor at Princeton, insinuated that the past Election Day led to people reading more books to escape the election of the then-President-Elect Donald Trump. She called this escape from reality “transgressive.” She added, “This respite is intensely permeable” and “it really cannot be separated.” Johnson lamented, “We need a respect for facts and fact checking and the disappearance of this in our current political discourse.”

Diving into Austen literature, Johnson criticized the 1940 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” by Aldous Huxley and said that “despite its ludicrous costumes, and despite Mr. Collins’s metamorphosis into a librarian,” the movie “afforded the viewer… ‘a deal of pleasure’” to forget the war-ridden world around them. This was “the grateful escape” of the movie and film industry, and it “gave them [the audience] this manageable elsewhere.” To her, “the viewers forget the war [World War Two] for two whole hours” while watching the movie.

She said that this escape from reality is the “interpenetration of the two worlds that make the Austen’s vulnerable.” In her mind, this leads to a state of being “blissfully remote, yet how very real…very much to be desired.” Johnson felt that the “stupidity” of “Pride and Prejudice,” referring to some of the characters like Mr. Collins, fascinated her. However, this also “has a certain moral gravity for her and the eighteenth-century writers.” She added, “The dangers posed by stupidity rampant” cannot be controlled without “a community of intelligent” people. Her lone exception from this “stupidity?” The novel “Mansfield Park.” Johnson said that the novel is “very destitute of characters in the novel who discern it” and unfortunately, “this failure of shared authoritative lucidity that seems worth longing for.”

Sarah Raff, an associate professor of English at Pomona College, criticized Austen’s relationship with men. She said, “Austen’s relations with straight men have never been smooth” and in her mind, “Austen is a gay icon.” She fantasized, “Remember a time, which did exist…when fiction-reading Americans, irrespective of gender.” She claimed that there are differences between men and women in pop culture, lamenting, “boys get ‘Star Wars.’” On the other hand, “nobody cracks those novels” by Herman Melville, and she made a veiled reference to the popular young adult literature such as “The Hunger Games,” or in her words, “crypto-YA (i.e. young adult)” that Jane Austen started. She blasted YA novels because they are “error-ridden and always written in the present.” She joked, “We’re also in the age of adult coloring books…which apparently moves the market” of book-selling. She said, “Children no longer find it [offensive] to be called babies.”

Bringing the topic back into her remarks, she concluded, “Austen is doing just fine without the straight, gentleman reader” and too often, straight white men “exert pressure on educated women readers.”

Photo by Thalita Carvalho ϟ