Deborah Yaffe

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Janeite on the Potomac?

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 19 2019 01:00PM

In the most famous passage of perhaps the most famous essay ever written about Jane Austen, the psychologist and literary critic D.W. Harding suggested that many of Austen’s readers don’t fully understand her.


“Her books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked,” Harding wrote in “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen,” first published in 1940. “She is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine.”


Harding’s remark came to mind earlier this month, when I learned for the first time that we Janeites can apparently count among our number an individual lurking remarkably close to the epicenter of American political power. Yes, according to New York Magazine, Ivanka Trump is, if not an Austen fan, at the very least an Austen reader.


As a rebellious adolescent, New York explains, Ivanka “dyed her hair blue, listened to grunge and country music, and cried over Kurt Cobain’s death. . . . She also developed another habit that friends say her father did not like — she became a prodigious reader of great novels, burying her nose in Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Austen, Morrison.”


It is delicious to imagine what Jane Austen would have made of Ivanka Trump: entitled, self-absorbed, convinced of her own selflessness, adored by -- and adoring -- a vain, shallow, spendthrift father . . .


Oh, wait. That’s Elizabeth Elliot. So I guess we don’t have to imagine what Jane Austen would have made of Ivanka Trump.


But let us pause for a moment to wonder what Ivanka Trump, described elsewhere in the article as a bright, loyal, but entirely narcissistic poor-little-rich-girl, made of Jane Austen. Did she see herself in the mirror of the do-gooding but self-satisfied Emma Woodhouse? Did she recognize any – ahem! – family members in the vanity of Sir Walter Elliot or the empty boasts of Lady Catherine de Bourgh? When she fell for Jared Kushner, who from this distance looks like a carelessly privileged, marginally competent Tom Bertram type, did she think of him as her very own Henry Tilney? Or, as seems most likely, did she react like the readers Harding imagines, enjoying the books without letting them force any painful self-reflection?


Alas, we’ll probably never know. Perhaps Austen wasn’t really Ivanka’s jam, after all: The magazine goes on to say that “in her 20s, she said her favorite book was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and she had modeled herself on its capitalist heroine, Dagny Taggart.” So not Elizabeth Bennet, then.


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