Dr Spencer Jackson, Free Public Lecture @ UQ Art Museum

“Austen in the Age of Trump”, Spencer Jackson (The University of Queensland)

Date: Thursday 27 July, 2017
Time: 6:00pm
Venue: The University of Queensland Art Museum, St Lucia
Registration: Free. All welcome. RSVP online: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/public-lecture-austen-in-the-age-of-trump-tickets-36090759433

A scandal has befallen the world of Jane Austen scholarship: its author has been embraced by Nazis. The global white supremacist movement has begun to cite Austen’s novels as portraits of the polite, tradition-bound society that they believe would characterise their white ‘enthnostates’. Austen scholars have responded to this news with predictable horror, defending themselves as a ‘rational, compassionate and liberal-minded people’. The problem, however, is that the Nazis have a point: Austen’s novels articulate a nationalism that is in fact racist, and in my talk, we will analyse this nationalism and discuss the points of ambivalence within it. My lecture will focus on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), and I will aim to situate this story within the broader context of eighteenth-century British writing and of the history of novel more generally. I will in particular discuss two earlier novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina (1725), and show how their theatrical tales of thievery and prostitution represent a kind of negative foundation for Austen’s later polite romances. Austen’s novels centre upon the drama of young women struggling to navigate the process of preparing for marriage, which was in this period an at once political and theological event bound up with the broader identity of the British Empire. Yet herein lies a difficulty for Austen’s ‘alt-right’ readers: Austen’s stories aren’t really about marriage. Instead, they are about becoming a better person in the midst of preparing for it, and the people who engage in this process of self-improvement in Austen’s tales are not the wealthy men who governed early nineteenth-century British society, but rather the young women who were largely excluded from political and economic power. My talk will conclude by outlining the place of women within early nineteenth-century British society and by discussing the significance of Austen’s decision to centre her tales on them. Austen cultivates an enlightened art of self-governance within a marginalised group and, by doing so, she might just articulate a strategy for autonomy and emancipation that is of greater relevance to the enemies than to the supporters of the contemporary neo-Nazi movement.

Spencer Jackson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in The University of Queensland node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA, and he specialises in eighteenth-century British literature as well as critical theory. His work has appeared in journals such as Studies in Romanticism, Substance and The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. He currently is completing a book titled ‘God Made the Novel: The Political Theologies of Empire and Resistance in Long Eighteenth-Century British Literature’.