Deborah Yaffe

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Austen on the Hill

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 14 2016 01:00PM

I’m sure I speak for many American Janeites when I boldly assert that Congress would be a better place if more of its members read Jane Austen.


Feuding Republicans and Democrats could benefit from the examples of peacemaking Austen gives us. Hey, if Edward Ferrars could reconcile with his horrible mother and Elizabeth Bennet Darcy could play hostess to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, finding common ground on gun control and abortion rights should be a piece of cake. And taking Austen as a model of polite discourse could only elevate the conversation on the Hill.


Thus I read with interest the New York Times’ recent interview with Mark Takano, a high-school-English-teacher-turned-California-Congressman who is the first openly gay person of color to serve in Congress. (He likes the term “Gaysian.”)


Asked what work of literature has stayed with him, Takano, a Democrat, cited Pride and Prejudice. His five favorite Austen characters, listed in descending order, are Elizabeth Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, Elinor Dashwood, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy. “I always wondered if Charlotte was a lesbian,” he said.


I’m not a member of the Charlotte-was-gay club – she strikes me as hard-headed and practical, not consumed by forbidden passion – but Takano is by no means the only P&P reader to draw this conclusion. (One of the others, Ann Herendeen, wrote an entire fanfic, Pride/Prejudice, on the theme of same-sex love in P&P). Still, I’m so happy to find out that at least one of our elected representatives is literate that I won’t quibble over details.


(Not so the author of this extremely funny critique of Takano’s P&P-heavy catalog of favorite characters, which ran in the conservative Washington Free Beacon.)


Takano’s take on Austen is a further reminder that her books hold lessons even for times and people she probably couldn’t have imagined. “Gay marriage was sort of what piqued my interest in Jane Austen. I look at so many young gays, and I think: You know what? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” Takano told the Times. “Before you rush into anything, read Jane Austen. A good man is really hard to find, you know?”


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