Six years ago, when I heard about a young Syrian woman reading Jane Austen while enduring the bombing of Aleppo, I saw the story as a sign of Austen’s universal reach.
Six months ago, when I heard about a Ukrainian retiree reading Jane Austen while enduring the Russian assault on the Donbas, I saw the story as a sign of Austen’s escapist power.
And more recently, when I heard about a pregnant Syrian seeking Jane Austen books to help her endure life in a Jordanian refugee camp, I . . . had a mixed reaction.
Late last month, as she fielded a call about the UK’s treatment of asylum seekers, British talk-radio presenter Shelagh Fogarty described her encounter with the pregnant refugee, which she said took place in 2012 or 2013. (Anecdote starts on this video at 5:34.)
“When I left, I said, ‘Can we send you something from England? Would you like some baby clothes?” Fogarty reported. “And she said, ‘Oh, I’d really love the complete works of Jane Austen, because I wasn’t able to bring any books with me.’ ”
Yes, it’s a touching story, and I certainly hope that poor woman got her Austens and, more importantly, a safe and permanent home. But I’ll admit that I couldn’t help wincing when Fogarty concluded her anecdote with this patronizing, albeit worthy, moral: “We need to remind ourselves that they are the same as we are.”
I love Jane Austen, and were I to find myself on a desert island—or in a desert refugee camp—I would want to have her books with me. But isn’t it more than a little bit colonialist to use a taste for nineteenth-century English fiction as a gauge of shared humanity?