Deborah Yaffe

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Janeites, Janeites everywhere

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 23 2018 01:00PM

These days, it’s de rigueur in some circles to think of Jane Austen as a closet lefty: subversive social satirist, anti-slavery ideologue, radical feminist critic of the patriarchy. But a recent mini-tsunami of news about Austen fans with decidedly more conservative orientations is a healthy reminder that the Janeite faith has no political litmus test.


Exhibit A: Nerves of steel. . . and the heart of a Janeite?


Tammie Jo Shults is the preternaturally calm and competent pilot who successfully landed Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 last week, after a catastrophic accident that took out an engine and killed a passenger. Apparently, she also has a fondness for Our Jane.


Or so we can infer from a Dallas Morning News article that quotes longtime friend Staci Thompson as saying that she and Shults – a former Navy fighter pilot and devout Baptist -- “still get together to watch Hallmark films and Jane Austen movies.”


OK, the movies are not the books. And I’m not thrilled to have anything Austen – even filmed adaptations – closely linked to Hallmark films, which have a justified reputation for treacly mediocrity. But it’s not surprising to find that a woman who pioneered in a male-dominated field by being twice as good as the guys may have an affinity for a writer who did the same thing.


Exhibit B: Wet shirts and waterboarding?


Gina Haspel, the first female nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is not a popular choice on the left, where her involvement in the post-9/11 torture of terrorism suspects is seen as a fatal taint. But according to the New York Times, the CIA is enthusiastically pushing her candidacy, preferring a known quantity with a long agency career over whatever political partisan they might get otherwise.


To humanize her, CBS News reports, “The CIA has been slowly and systematically pulling back the curtain on Haspel, releasing limited information about the contours of her career and a smattering of her interests, describing her as a polyglot Johnny Cash fan who reads Jane Austen novels.”


I’ve heard plenty of Janeites talk about Austen as an antidote to the chaos and ugliness of the modern world, a vehicle of escape into a kinder, gentler time. It’s not a vision of Austen I necessarily embrace – but if anyone needed such an escape, I’d imagine it would have been a CIA officer overseeing a torture site.


Exhibit C: Caroline Bingley for First Lady?


The Episcopal priest who spoke at former First Lady Barbara Bush’s funeral over the weekend undoubtedly meant well when he sought to connect Bush’s favorite book (Pride and Prejudice! Who knew?) with her famous literacy campaign.


If only he’d had a Janeite – maybe even Bush herself – to help him out before he decided to rely on that line that turns up whenever you Google for Austen quotes about books: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”


Yes, it’s true: A Janeite’s funeral included approving mention of Caroline Bingley. The mind reels.


Luckily, the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr. recovered with a touching picture of the famously straight-talking Bush in heaven, taking full advantage of an opportunity we’d all like to have: “My guess is she’s already hunted down Jane Austen and has said, ‘Well, how did things turn out with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet?’ ” Levenson said. “Or, knowing Barbara as we all do, she may be telling Jane how things should have turned out.”


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