The Telegraph

The beloved writer wouldn’t be published these days, yet her popularity among young people has soared

Published 26 January 2023

his week, during an insomniac night, I was yet again re-reading Persuasion – no one else soothes quite like Jane Austen. Delighting in its colourful characters and gentle humour, I paused when in the final pages I came across two references to property held in the West Indies. How is it this beloved book has escaped the cancel mob, I thought, given that the fictional Mr Smith can be associated with a plantation?

Then a colleague sent me a recent academic article on Jane Austen “memes”. Innocents among you need to know that there are millions of images with witty captions that proliferate on Twitter, TikTok and other social media relating to Austen’s novels. I skimmed the article, “OMG Jane Austen: Austen and Memes in the Post #MeToo Era”, and was not surprised to learn that young women are particularly obsessed with Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy. He apparently “match[es] hegemony with sensibility” making him “the perfect antidote to the anathema of toxic masculinity”.

Nor is he lacking in male fans, for he is celebrated “for the queer potential of his conflicting features”. The three Greek authors of this article are big on gender studies. They tell us that Austen sheds light on “dominant femininities and masculinities, rape culture, consent, nonconformist desires and sexuality”.

This kind of claptrap is why I avoid academic writing about literature. I once had the experience of finding some of my satirical crime novels subjected to such earnest critical analysis by a German who studied comedy that even I couldn’t get to the end of it.

However, I am grateful to these wokester academics for introducing me to Austen memes. They made me laugh and reassured me that, despite the cowardice and stupidity of many inhabiting the publishing world these days, what most people want are good stories about believable characters to whom they can relate. Despite all the vandals and doomsters, great literature never dies.

J K Rowling – now leading the vast army of women standing up to the misogynistic Scottish government that wants to eradicate the very word from contemporary language – was turned down by 12 publishers who believed that exciting stories about boarding schools and good and evil were passé .

In the past few decades, most publishers and literary agents have allowed themselves to accept being bossed around by young, censorious ideologues. Although it’s not as bad as being stale, pale and male, Jane Austen wouldn’t have a chance of being published these days, what with being from the white, genteel classes and with her unconscious heteronormative bias (i.e. taking heterosexuality to be the norm).

But determined writers can publish themselves on Amazon, if it comes to it, and as politically correct, self-consciously diverse and theologically pure books languish on the shelves, it is wonderful to know that untold numbers of young people still make fun of Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Burgh.

I can’t imagine that any Janeite googling Jane Austen memes could not find some to laugh at. Start with the Austenite prayer: “Lord, grant me the good sense of Elinor, the patience of Anne, and the wit of Elizabeth. But mostly, please grant me Mr Darcy.”

Be certain that Jane will always be there to help us through the tough times and make us laugh.

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