The Jane Austen-Bernie Sanders Memes: Too Funny or Too Political?

On Inauguration Day 2021, Americans welcomed the peaceful transition of power from the Trump era to the Biden years. After the Capitol insurgence on January 6, 2021, many Americans feared what might happen on this momentous occasion, and when we watched the inauguration we breathed a collective sigh of relief as Kamala Harris became the first woman (and importantly a woman of color) to become vice president and Joe Biden assumed his new role as president. We cried happy tears as we listened to Harris and Biden take their oaths, Amy Klobuchar speak excitedly about the day, a handful of singers give us fantastic renditions of patriotic classics, the first youth poet laureate Amanda Gordon read her riveting poem, clergymen lead national prayers, and, of course, our new president inspire us to hope for a unified American future despite the challenges this country faces in the days to come.

After the inauguration–perhaps even as early as it was taking place–we laughed together as we were given another gift: the Bernie Sanders sitting solo meme. As we watched politicians sit six feet apart and wear masks, gloves or mittens, fabulous coats, and hats, one stood out among the crowd: Sanders sitting in a relaxed pose with his arms and legs crossed, his taupe coat, and his brown, white, and black patterned mittens on. Something about that pose, something about the Bernie stare, just came alive on the internet. On January 20, 2021, the “bundled up” and “cozy and casual” Bernie Sanders inauguration meme went viral on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and many other online outlets. #BernieSanders was trending on Twitter, but it wasn’t for his politics. It was for the “first great meme of 2021,” though it is certainly not the first Sanders meme to show him wearing the coat. His “I am asking once again” campaign ad also became a meme.

Sanders sitting in his folding chair began to show up everywhere. As a Time magazine article confirms, the “Bernie Sanders in a Chair” meme hit Know Your Meme minutes after Biden was sworn into office, and transparent PNG files appeared on Twitter and elsewhere as quickly. A “Bernie Sanders in a Chair” SnapChat filter was even available. As a result, people took the “Bernie Sanders in a Chair” image and ran with it. Bernie showed up in famous art scenes, including Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and Vincent Van Gogh’s Night Cafe. He showed up at a slew of sporting events, such as professional basketball games and kids’ soccer matches. He showed up in television shows, including The Golden Girls and F.R.I.E.N.D.S. He showed up holding Baby Yoda. He showed up in movies such as The Big Lebowski and Forrest Gump. Nick Sawhny created a website that uses Google Earth images and adds the Bernie Sanders meme to any location on the planet that has an address. Outsnapped created a website that let amateur meme makers create their own “Sit with Bernie Sanders” memes. If I continued to list all the places Sanders has appeared on the web, this essay would break the internet. However, there is one more place I have to mention.

Guess where else Bernie Sanders showed up: in Regency England. To be specific, he showed up in cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma and Pride and Prejudice. What does it mean for Sanders to show up in Austen’s world in so many posts? It shows that Austen’s pop culture cache is as large as ever and that Austen is always relevant to current events. Connecting Austen to the United States’ inauguration is probably the last thing I would have thought to do–even as an obsessed Janeite–but when I saw the first Austen-Sanders meme, I was overjoyed. I began sharing images of Bernie not only sitting at the inauguration with Austen-themed captions, but also sitting in Jane’s drawing rooms, standing on a balcony, attending a picnic, and more. Although there are many Austen-Sanders mashups now in circulation, a few deserve recognition for what they can teach us about the conjunction of Austen’s world and today’s politics. 

Woodhouse feels a decided draft.

Fig. 1

Because January 20 was a cold day in Washington, D.C., and Sanders is an elderly gentleman, it just seemed natural for him to be associated with the aged Mr. Woodhouse. For instance, one of the first Austen-Sanders memes to go viral is this one (fig. 1), which reminds us of how much Mr. Woodhouse prefers staying inside during cold weather.

 

Bernie next to screens from new Emma

Fig. 2

Indeed, we can imagine Sanders as a Mr. Woodhouse who would prefer not be sitting in the cold but by a warm fire, so the internet decided to give us that, too (fig. 2).  Here Sanders is Woodhouse adjacent–he does not sit within the screens, as Bill Nighy playing Emma’s father does, which makes him appear even grumpier. At least he gets to warm himself by the fire, though. These two images remind us that Bernie is practical, if nothing else. As he said on inauguration day with a chuckle to CBS News’s Gayle King: “You know, in Vermont. . .we know something about the cold, and we’re not so concerned about good fashion. We want to keep warm. And that’s what I did today.”

Mr. Woodhouse, Bernie, and Miss Bates at Picnic

Fig. 3

A number of Woodhouse adjacent memes popped up, but in a warmer season: Sanders is wedged between Woodhouse and Miss Bates outside on a warm sunny day (fig. 3), and he sits inside next to Woodhouse waiting for Emma to unveil her masterful portrait of Harriet (fig. 4). 

 

Fig. 4

Screenshot of Krueger Facebook post of Bernie as Mr. Bennet

Fig. 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

While we might have expected to see a Sanders-Woodhouse mashup, finding Sanders in Pride and Prejudice surprised me at first, until I began thinking about Bernie Sanders as a Mr. Bennet. When I saw the first Pride and Prejudice and Bernie mittens meme, I immediately shared it on my social media (fig. 5).  Of course Bernie Sanders is a Mr. Bennet patiently sitting, waiting. What would please Mr. Bennet most: to have all of his daughters married off and out of the house so that he can get some peace–mostly from Mrs. Bennet, who desires her daughters to be married to the point of madness!

Ripped Bodice post of Bernie in Pride and Prejudice Scene

Fig. 6

Like the Emma memes that began with the image of Bernie sitting at the Capitol, the memes quickly transitioned to placing Sanders in Austen films. For instance, on January 21, Twitter famed account @TheRippedBodice unapologetically posted this one (fig. 6).  Once again, we can imagine Bernie as a disgruntled Mr. Bennet waiting for his daughters to vacate the house so that he can have his rooms to himself. But Bernie Sanders showed up in other Pride and Prejudice places and in place of other figures.

Bookhoarding Bernie on Balcony

Fig. 7

Bianca Hernandez-Knight, known as @bookhoarding on Twitter, created another Mr. Bennetesque Bernie meme–again focusing on the waiting (fig. 7). The women in Austen’s world are eager as Mr. Bennet to find a match, so why not place Mr. Bennet alongside them after a ball as they gaze longingly for something, anything to happen? Here Bernie may stand in for the absent Mr. Bennet once again.

Pride and Prejudice Balcony with Lydia

Fig. 8

However, upon closer inspection, we find he takes the place of an important character–Lydia Bennet (fig. 8). What might it mean for Bernie to replace the outlandish Lydia, Mr. Bennet’s first daughter to wed, albeit under shady circumstances? While I don’t think Hernandez-Knight intended such a comparison, the image makes me think about Lydia’s absence as much as Bernie’s presence.

One thing these memes show us about Austen’s world is its attention to space. Even though Bernie (unwillingly) bumps Lydia off the balcony in the previous image (but keeps her feathers), the Austen-Sanders mashup mostly points to empty spaces in scenes, spaces that oftentimes denote an awkwardness of emotion. 

Mr. Collins Proposes

Fig. 9

Take the scene wherein Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth Bennet as an example of not only tension, but also a kind of spectral Mr. Bennet presence. The Bernie meme has been called “a mood,” and it certainly is here (fig. 9).  Even though Mr. Bennet is not in the room with his daughter during this scene in Austen’s book or in the adaptions, he is a part of Lizzie’s mind, and we find later that she cannot wait to talk to her father about how she cannot bear such a union. We know that Mr. Bennet agrees, and to put Bernie Sanders in this position is not simply funny but also reminiscent perhaps of his radical ideas concerning marrying for love. How progressive! 

Emma scene with Bernie at left

Fig. 10

But this is not the only meme in which Bernie replaces something. Naturally, the Instagram account @janeaustenmeme shared a bunch of Austen-Sanders mashups, but the one in which their Bernie sits next to Mr. Woodhouse in the 2020 Emma film when compared to the image I previously discussed demonstrates that Sanders took the place of a table (fig. 10). No longer sandwiched between Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates, our masked Bernie gets some breathing room, which could be dangerous in COVID times, and ends up balancing out the image, albeit marginally.

Another thing these images reveal is the desire for Austen fans to be a part of something culturally important and immediate–in this case not only the Austen meme world, but the celebration of Austen’s place in a viral online environment as well as the celebration of Sanders fandom and the inauguration itself. As Hernandez-Knight’s post indicates, there were Austen-Sanders memes before the ones she created (and she made a few); she had not seen one yet that places Sanders on the balcony, so why not make that one and share it? This is what Henry Jenkins would call participatory culture at its finest. The fans create the culture. 

In the spirit of a good laugh, social media groups and individuals on their own accounts shared these memes with the acknowledgment that this Austen-Sanders combination is too funny. On Facebook Laughing with Lizzie writes, “These have been making me laugh all day Mr Woodhouse has a new companion!” Juliette Jones posted to the Jane Austen Universe Facebook the same cluster of images and prefaces them with a similar sentiment: “These have absolutely made my day .” Clearly these posts indicate that the Austen-Sanders mashups bring joy to fans and expand upon the joy that so many Americans, and people around the world, felt on January 20, 2021. 

But why were similar posts with Austen-Sanders memes pulled from Jane Austen Fan Club’s Facebook page? A few posts appeared between January 20 and 21 showcasing the memes, but then members found on January 21 that the moderators deleted the posts. Fan club members were left to speculate as to why the posts were pulled: too funny? Absolutely not. Too political? Probably. 

A lot of Facebook fan group pages have policies in which they prohibit anything remotely “political”–which could mean anything related to party politics, such as associative images with the Democratic Party or the inauguration of a president, or personal politics, including posts deemed objectionable to cis-het-white norms. It seems, then, that the Austen-Sanders meme posts were too political, even if they were funny and fans enjoyed them, and thus removed by the page’s moderators because either someone complained about them, or the moderators feared that someone would be offended by them. Even follow-up posts asking why the meme posts were pulled were removed the same day, but before they were, I can vouch through my own screenshots that many fans enjoyed the memes.

For instance, one fan said that they reminded her of her dad attending sporting events (bundled up and masked). Another fan said, “I loved them and wanted to share!” but sadly found them removed. Yet another fan proclaimed, “Sorry I missed them! Those Bernie memes are so funny.” I added my two cents: “Deleted? That’s a shame, as they show how relevant Austen is at this very moment.” Indeed, I understand why the moderators removed the posts, but I also thought about how many Austen fans seem to hold her up as an apolitical saint. Of course, those of us who have read Austen critically and in context know that plenty of scholars have shown how “political” Austen really was and how she tempered and veiled some of this politics in her writing but certainly did not eschew it.

That surely is another takeaway point from the Austen-Sanders meme going viral. While we might say they are too political for an Austen fan club page and that Austen has no place in twenty-first century American politics–and perhaps Sanders no place in Austen’s world–these two worlds complement each other and point to the fact that something as foreign to Austen’s time as a presidential inauguration and a politician’s image going viral can be productively mashed up to bring fans together. The joining of these two universes brought some added joy to an already momentous occasion that will surely go down in history as one of America’s most interesting inaugurations.

While the Austen-Sanders memes may not make it into the history books (but who knows?) and no one will likely associate Austen with the inauguration of Biden and Harris in years to come, those of us who watched the inauguration and scrolled through social media for the days to follow just might recall some funny “Bernie Sitting in a Chair” memes that reminded us of some beloved Austen characters and adaptations. 

“My Poor Nerves”: Women of a Certain Age on the Page

Portrait of a Lady (1768), John Russell, 1745–1806, British. Oil on Canvas. Yale Center for British Art, Bequest of John N. and Dorothy C. Estabrook.

When Mrs. Bennet complains of her “poor nerves” and her husband sardonically replies that he is long acquainted with them, we as readers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are to laugh.  The laughter may die into an awkward chuckle when the reader is a 40ish-year-old woman and realizes that most likely Mrs. Bennet is as well.  While her daughters come of age and dance at balls and flirt with officers, Mrs. Bennet is perhaps experiencing perimenopause or menopause and the end of one stage of a woman’s life.

When women’s lives are divided into maid, mother, crone, it is easy to overlook the moment between early motherhood and old age.  How did (and how do) women deal with life in their forties when their children are entering that “most interesting” and “most trying” times of their lives while they themselves are in “the most dangerous”?  Are they objects of ridicule?  Paragons of wisdom?  Are they even visible at all?

Menopause in Early Modern England (and Now)

As a 43 -year-old woman, I am finding that perimenopause, like greatness, is something that one finds thrust upon you.  It is also something that people do not discuss much even in 2019.

When Deanna Raybourn pronounced herself a “crone” on Twitter and welcomed questions about her newly menopausal state, numerous women responded.  Here at last was someone opening up in a public way about what has been considered a private milestone and offering to give advice to others in the process.  It was an act of bravery and of generosity and a welcome opening for people to talk more publicly about their bodies.

Menopause was a rarely spoken and private subject in the eighteenth century as well.  In the late eighteenth century (that conduct book loving age), the “first popular guidebooks for the menopausal woman appeared, some of which were reportedly sold out in a few months” (Stolberg 412).  Laura Gowing finds that “[i]t is still hard to recover women’s knowledge and interpretations of the body” (10), and most discussions of menopause are to be found in medical journals but not in women’s diaries or letters.

Then, as now, menopause generally arrived at age 50 but a woman was not considered old until 60 when it was certain she could no longer conceive.  Menopause was called “the cessation of terms” or “flowers” or “courses” (Read 37).  As Gowing notes, “Much vernacular printed discussion of the female body was specifically aimed at helping women conceive.  Sexual difference was discussed not in abstract terms but as the basis for heterosexual sex and conception” (19).  This means that when women are no longer fertile, their bodies are no longer objects of medical interest.

However, some historians see menopause as a “socially induced set of symptoms” and suggest that “modern physicians may have created a problem of personal identity” (Crawford 25).  Women most likely experienced actual symptoms–medical records show complaints of “flashings”–but those symptoms were subsumed in general ideas of old age.  Michael Stolberg explains that “[a]round 1740, an anonymous English practitioner marketed his secret purgatives and uterine drops against the disorders ‘that most women labor under, when being between forty and fifty years’” (422).  With no medical cure for the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, some women relied on quack cures for help.  Even now in the twenty-first century no real relief exists and women are told to take herbal supplements, exercise, do yoga, and eat right.  Turning to doctors for symptom alleviation was and is a fruitless endeavor.

Mrs. Bennet

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have been married for 23 years (Austen 5) when the novel opens.  Even if she married at 25, she’d be 48 at the oldest.  Most likely she was married at a younger age–Mr. Bennet, “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour,–that youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to real affection for her” (152).  This implies a younger woman, perhaps in her teens.  If she married at 18, she is 41 at the novel’s open.

Austen tells us that the Bennets expected an heir for “many years after Lydia’s birth” (197), but if “marital fertility had frequently concluded by age 40” (Botelho 53), this explains the lack of a pregnancy even in a youngish woman.  “Reproduction was a public business and women’s bodies a public domain” (Botelho 57), and Mrs. Bennet, who is unable to produce an heir to end the entail, finds her body’s failure to be public indeed.  For women who have exchange value as marriagable virgins and use value as fertile wives, their value and their identities had to be in flux in the time between motherhood and grandparenthood.  As Patricia Crawford notes, “After her child bearing was over, a woman was no longer powerful and less feared” (32).  Mrs. Bennet simply becomes ridiculous.

Her public and ridiculous body becomes symbolic of her failures as a mother.  “The female body was a public affair, the target of official regulation, informal surveillance, and regular, intimate touch by women and men,” writes Laura Gowing (16).  After Lydia elopes with Wickham, the spectacle of Mrs. Bennet’s hysterical but non-sexual body replaces the spectacle of Lydia’s sexualized body in her home.  The family is afraid of Mrs. Bennet’s loud cries and talk with Hill, but Hill and the other servants would know the bodies of all the women in the household well.  Women’s bodies may be considered private but “most houses were built around shared space” (Gowing 23), and five menstruating daughters produced a lot of linen.  What is happening in Mrs. Bennet’s body and, by proxy, the public sexualization of Lydia’s body, has been old news with any of the women scrubbing sheets.

The focus of Pride and Prejudice is on young women’s bodies, on “the most trying age” and “most interesting time” of their lives.  Lois Banner quotes one woman’s description of menopause as “the dangerous age”:  “between 40 and 50” “‘we are all more or less mad’” (Banner 273).  The Bennet household is in a dangerous age–the daughters must be married before their father dies and the entail takes effect, and Mrs. Bennet feels this necessity both in a financial and biological sense.  There is no heir.  Time has run out.  “You do not know what I suffer” (4) and “nobody can tell what I suffer” (76), Mrs. Bennet tells her family.

She also practices old age.  “At our time of life”(6), she often says of herself and Mr. Bennet.  “It was so pleasant at her time of life to consign her single daughters to the care of their sister, that she might not be obliged to go into company more than she liked,” writes Austen (67).  She is trying on cronehood, but in true middle-age fashion, she cannot help but see herself as still young.  Mr. Bennet tells her she is as handsome as her daughters, and she does not deny it.  She “still loves a red coat in [her] heart” (21).  Despite these occasional forays into youth, she seems very aware that menopausal women should shift into being grandmothers which, with the entail, could illuminate her desperation to make five single daughters into five married mothers.

Film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice tend to portray Mrs. Bennet as an older woman even if the actress portraying her is in her 40s.  Allison Steadman was 49 when she played Mrs. Bennet in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.  Brenda Blethyn was 59 in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice.  Sally Phillips is the closest in age to the novel version of Mrs. Bennet at 46 in the 2016 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (IMDB).  Movie shorthand for a mother of grown daughters is a woman in her 50s or 60s, which is how Mrs. Bennet is visually constructed.  The liminal age of the young women between parents and husbands that is the subject of the films is easily rendered visual:  the Bennet sisters are young and beautiful and capless.  The liminal age of perimenopause is invisible and elided.

Lady Susan

We often to look to Austen for the romcom pattern, for stories about young people growing up, learning about life, and finding love.  However, her middle-aged women are just as fascinating.  Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bates, Lady Catherine, Lady Russell–and Lady Susan.  In Lady Susan, Austen’s 1794 (?) novel, we see an almost middle-aged woman attempting to seduce a younger man who could be her daughter’s suitor.  Lady Susan is 35-years-old and a widow but not past childbearing age which makes her both marriageable and dangerous, for as Gowing explains, “Sexually experienced and past the age of child-bearing, imagined as both lustful and undesirable, their [middle-aged women’s] ventures into sexual talk, still less sexual acts, could scarcely be contemplated with equanimity” (22).

“I have seldom seen so lovely a woman as Lady Susan,” writes one character, “and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must be in fact ten years older” (143).  Lady Susan flirts with Reginald, a young heir loved by her daughter, and he falls in love with her.  When his father hears of a potential marriage with Lady Susan, he writes a warning to Reginald, saying her age is a “material objection,” but her conduct is so egregious that “the difference of even twelve years becomes in comparison of small account” (152).  Lady Susan is fleeing a friend’s home after she seduced her friend’s husband, and she takes full advantage of her relatively free position as a widow to indulge her sexual desires.  She could be the cliche of the lusty widow but is drawn so well by Austen that the reader can’t help but fall in love with her as well.  Lady Susan is a complicated character, a villain as well as a likable protagonist.  Her age is made clear in the novel and is a factor within the plot.  It is interesting that Austen made a middle-aged women between husbands the main character of a novel in her juvenilia but did not again dwell so closely on older women in her later novels.  The adult Austen chose to write about women who were marketable.

Conclusion

As women now talk more about menopause and about the transitions of the 40s, perhaps we can extend those conversations to the middle-aged women on the pages of the novels we read and teach and study.  Instead of seeing these women as “old,” we need to recognize that they are in flux and, like their marriageable daughters, their identities are shifting.  This dangerous time can be just as interesting as the trying time.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  New York:  Norton, 1993.  Print.

—.  Lady SusanSanditon and Other Stories.  Ed. Peter Washington.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.  Print.

Banner, Lois.  In Full Flower:  Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.  Print.

Botelho, Lynn.  “Old Age and Menopause in Rural Women of Early Modern Suffolk.”  Women and Ageing in British Society Since 1500.  Ed. Lynn Botelho and Pat Thane.  London:  Pearson, 2001.  43-65.  Print.

Crawford, Patricia.  Blood, Bodies, and Families in Early Modern England.  London:  Pearson, 2004.  Print.

Gowing, Laura.  Common Bodies:  Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England.  New Haven:  Yale UP, 2003.  Print.

Read, Sara.  Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England.  Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.  Print.

Shail, Andrew and Gillian Howle.  Menstruation:  A Cultural History.  Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.  Print.

Stolberg, Michael.  “A Woman’s Hell?:  Medical Perceptions of Menopause in Preindustrial Europe.”  Bulletin of the History of Medicine 73.3 (1999):  404-428.  Print.

 

A visual version of this paper is available here. 

Jane Austen Summer Program 2019

Jane Austen Summer Program 2019

The award-winning Jane Austen Summer Program is excited to announce its 2019 symposium, “Pride and Prejudice and Its Afterlives!” The seventh annual event will take place this June 20-23 in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Participants will have the opportunity to hear expert speakers and participate in discussion groups each day, as well as join in a Regency-style ball, attend Austen-inspired theatricals, partake in an English tea, and visit special exhibits tailored to the conference. The discussions will consider Pride and Prejudice in its historical context as well as its afterlives in fiction, film, and digital media. The Jane Austen Summer Program is designed to appeal to established scholars, high school teachers, graduate students, undergraduate students, and Austen fans—anyone with a passion for all things Austen is welcome and encouraged to attend! For more program information, to see comments and photos from previous programs, or to register, please visit the program’s website https://janeaustensummer.org.

(Original post provided by Carlie Wetzel, Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student, Department of English and Comparative Literature, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Jane Austen, the Prince of Wales, and Mr. Trump

What would Jane Austen say about Donald Trump? Easy to answer, because she had seen it all before. A Regency girl in a golden age of satire, she attacked the Prince of Wales for his much-lampooned appearance, his lewdness, his licentiousness, his instability, his outrageous spending, his fondness for over-the-top building ventures, his implicit treason, his desire for absolute power, his vanity, his braggadocio, and his love of holidays and sport. Throughout her entire writing career, she kept close watch on the extravagant, dancing prince. At a time when most people were poor, and black lives didn’t matter, she satirized the vulgarian whose wish to become a second Sun King was bringing the country down. In 1813, she would write that she hated him.

Austen was never more than a few degrees of separation away from Prince George. When she was young, he lodged at Kempshot Manor, only three miles from Steventon, and her brother James went hunting with him. At the Wheatsheaf Inn, Basingstoke, where Jane and Cassandra collected the mail, the prince held riotous Hunt Club dinners. As they walked back through those green and leafy lanes, they must have marvelled at the latest excesses of the boorish young man.

At Kempshot, Prince George entertained Mrs. Fitzherbert, and appalled the county with his wild parties; at Kempshot, on honeymoon with Princess Caroline, he reluctantly sired Princess Charlotte. His cohort of “very blackguard companions” were “constantly drunk and filthy, sleeping and snoring in boots on the sofa,” said the Earl of Minto, so that the whole scene “resembled a bad brothel much more than a Palace.” Austen was not prudish, but patriotic, and the prince’s behaviour threatened the nation. She would satirize him through avatars: John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, Tom Bertram and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, Frank Churchill in Emma, and both Sir Walter Elliot and William Walter Elliot in Persuasion.

Like the prince, Thorpe is a “stout young man of middling height,” with a “plain face and ungraceful form.” Like the holiday prince, he lies, boasts, swears, hunts, and talks of nothing but his horses and his rides; like the royal voyeur, he utters “a short decisive sentence of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met”; like the prince jeering at his parents, he asks his mother, “where did you get that quiz of a hat, it makes you look like an old witch?” Austen’s lacerating portrait suggests close knowledge of the prince’s vulgar ways.

Even palace insiders said that the heir was unfit to rule. In 1811, just as Austen was revising Pride and Prejudice, he was widely mocked for spraining his ankle while teaching a courtier the Highland Fling. If Austen found that as funny as I do, she may have inserted Mr. Bennet’s exclamation about Mr. Darcy, “For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! that he had sprained his ancle in the first dance.”

The matter was not trivial. Overweight and overwrought, the regent had gone to bed for ten days. Some said he was avoiding hard political decisions, others that he was going mad like his father. In George Cruikshank’s Princely Agility or the Sprained Ancle (1812), doctors prepare a strait waistcoat; in his Merry Making on the Regents Birthday (August 1812), the regent prances on a petition for the poor. As Austen once wrote, “How much are the Poor to be pitied, & the Rich to be blamed,” and in 1811, at a time of severe economic hardship, he had celebrated the inauguration of his regency in ludicrously opulent style. As Percy Shelley wrote wearily, this entertainment would not be “the last bauble which the nation must buy to amuse this overgrown bantling of Regency.” When the prince became regent, Austen anticipated the king’s death by buying mourning clothes instead.

The prince spent staggering amounts of money on Brighton Pavilion and the Royal Lodge at Windsor. With instability at home and peril abroad, he supported dead Bourbons, hosted exiled French royalty and nobility, bought up their gilded furniture for Carlton House, and planned a second Versailles at Buckingham Palace. Many called his obsession with all things French treasonable; others accused him of coveting the absolute power of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

In newspapers, journals, and cartoons, “the rising sun” went viral as code for the king’s son/sun. Even the title of a scurrilous magazine, The Rising Sun, signalled his obvious impatience for power, and in Persuasion, Charles Musgrove refuses to meet with Sir Walter Elliot’s heir, William Walter, crying out, “Don’t talk to me about heirs and representatives.” As he says to Anne, “I am not one who neglects the reigning power to bow to the rising sun. If I would not go for the sake of your father, I should think it scandalous to go for the sake of his heir.”

Like Thorpe, William Walter resembles the prince, for he is all too keen to claim the titles and privileges he once despised. The sick king was pitied and loved, but not his impatient son. In a bitter jest about her brother James inheriting many beloved possessions before the family left Steventon for Bath, Austen wrote, “My father’s old Ministers are already deserting them to pay their court to his son: the brown Mare, which as well as the black was to devolve on James on our removal, has not had patience to wait for that, & has settled herself even now at Deane.” In Persuasion, Austen would explode the patriarchal hierarchy that privileged her oldest brother and the prince. Snubbed by powerful but ridiculous others, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth simply walk away from society’s toxic obsession with “rank, people of rank, and jealousy of rank.”

To judge from Persuasion, Austen was alarmed that the prince, now regent, was spending a large proportion of the national income on high living and ostentatious parade. Beau Brummel had taught him the importance of elegance, just as in Persuasion, “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.” Surrounded, like Prince George, by mirrors, he finds it not possible to spend less, “given what Sir Walter Elliott was imperiously called on to do.” His failure to economize gestures to the regent, whose refusal to retrench was threatening the nation.

“Retrench” became another code word for the regent. In Cruikshank’s Economy of 1816, Lord Chancellor Brougham warns him, in an obvious allusion to the French Revolution, “Retrench! Retrench, reflect on the distressed state of your country, & remember the Security of the Throne rests on the happiness of ye People.” In Persuasion, however, Anne and Lady Russell are on “the side of honesty against importance.” To clear Sir Walter’s debts, they urge “a scheme of retrenchment,” and Lady Russell sheets Austen’s satire home by asking, “What will he be doing, in fact, but what very many of our first families have done––or ought to do?”

Personal as well as patriotic reasons fuelled Austen’s loathing of the prince, for he borrowed from the Earl of Moira, who borrowed £6000 from Jane’s brother Henry. Moira defaulted on his debts by becoming Governor-General of India. Thus the regent was partly responsible for Henry’s bankruptcy and consequent heavy losses for other family members, as E. J. Clery explains in Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. No wonder that Austen hated him.

In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram’s absence in Antigua, like the absence of the sick king, allows his pleasure-loving son to take charge. Like the regent, Tom Bertram wastes both his health and his wealth, and occupies himself mainly with the theatricalities of his position, such as miniature battles in the Serpentine. Henry Crawford provides yet another proxy for the regent, for his “freaks of a cold-blooded vanity” never receive the punishment they deserve, while in Emma, the light-minded Churchill rids himself of his money and his leisure “at the idlest haunts in the kingdom.” The prince’s beloved Brighton, perhaps.

Three days before she died in Winchester on July 17, 1817, Austen wrote an odd little poem about Winchester races. The regent attended them every July. Here St. Swithin accuses “the Lord & the Ladies” all “sattin’d & ermin’d” of being his “rebellious subjects,” rebukes them as “depraved,” and announces that “By vice you’re enslaved/ You have sinn’d & must suffer.” To punish them, he vows to bring down regular rain showers on “these races & revels & dissolute measures/ With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain.” It was the satirist’s last fling at a regent who was dissolute, depraved, and a danger to the nation.

Jane Austen’s in-jokes demonstrate her worldliness, her fascination with celebrities, and her relish of rumor. She criticized the Prince of Wales in the only way she could, through her characters and plots. In her resistance to corruption and perversions of power, this savvy, brave, and thoroughly modern woman would have had plenty to say about Mr. Donald Trump.

 

 

 

 

Jane Austen Summer Program Presents “Northanger Abbey and Frankenstein: 200 Years of Horror”

This summer more than 100 people, from readers to writers to scholars, will gather at the sixth-annual Jane Austen Summer Program to celebrate the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Attendees of “Northanger Abbey and Frankenstein:  200 Years of Horror” will have the opportunity to hear expert speakers and participate in discussion groups on the gothic-inspired novels.  They also will partake in an English tea, dance at a Regency-style masquerade ball, attend Austen-inspired theatricals, and visit special exhibits tailored to the conference.

Hosted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and JASNA-NC, the events will take place from June 14 to 17, 2018 at the Hampton Inn in Carrboro and at various locations on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, NC.  The program discussions will consider the two classic novels in their historical contexts as well as their afterlives in fiction and film.  Program Director Inger Brodey notes, “both Austen in Northanger Abbey and Shelley in Frankenstein react eloquently to the gothic taste in literature and have similar commentary on the frightening results of the French Revolution.  Bringing the authors’ works together will allow us to explore their revolutionary legacy, both in terms of literary innovation and social change.”

Participants old and new praise the program’s educational mission, along with its innovation and focus on community-building.  “The conference on Mansfield Park was my first experience of JASP—and now I’m hooked!,” says Vicky Brandt.  “It’s a wonderful idea to open up an academic conference to the interested public:  everyone should be able to experience the loving inquiry that is the heart of scholarship.  All the presentations were enlightening; the small group discussions lively and insightful; the Saturday evening Regency ball almost as beautiful to watch as the ones we see on film.  In short, I can think of no better way to describe it than with Austen’s own words:  ‘the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.’”  Pamela Martin, a recipient of the program’s teacher scholarship, adds, “I found the Jane Austen Summer Program to be one of the most inspirational events I have ever attended.  It was refreshing and rewarding to be a part of an academic exchange of ideas for a bit, and bask in the glory of just learning for learning sake!”

For more program information, to see comments and photos from previous programs, or to register, please visit the program’s website janeaustensummer.org or follow the program at facebook.com/janeaustensummer or via twitter, @JASPhotline.  You may also contact us at [email protected]

Middle- and high-school teachers are encouraged to visit the website for information on available scholarships and continuing education credits.

Media interested in attending the program and interviewing the participants should reach out to Suzanna Geiser at [email protected] or (919) 848-3454.

(Original piece provided by Carlie Wetzel, SITES Lab, UNC-CH).

Austen and the Anthropocene

“Jane Austen Populaire 3” (2016) by Eymery. Wikimedia Commons.

Modern adaptations of Jane Austen’s works rarely emphasize climate change.  The intrigues of Austen’s protagonists are capacious enough to accommodate murder mysteries, high school dramas, and even zombies.  Yet climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” has yet to re-imagine Longbourn, Mansfield Park, or Donwell Abbey.  While those adaptations would be welcome, they may not be necessary, as Austen’s works might already show the traces of the human modification of climate.  Austen’s fictions and, more broadly, works of British literature from the long eighteenth century come from a significant moment in history:  the start of the Anthropocene.

Since at least the early twentieth century, scientists and scholars have noted the increasing ways humanity has altered the environment.  In 2002, Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen argued,

It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene — the warm period of the past 10–12 millennia.  The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.  This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.  [1]

Crutzen is not the first scholar to call for a geologic period defined by human activity.  He is not even the first person to coin the term “Anthropocene.”  But Crutzen’s call galvanized scholars and the public.  Now a piece of geologic jargon is a growing field of study across disciplines and even has entered the public sphere, earning attention from The Economist, The Guardian (twice), and The New York Times.

The dating of the Anthropocene (i.e., when this new epoch begins) is a point of disagreement among scientists, social scientists, and historians.  Crutzen argues that 1784 should be considered the inception of the epoch.  Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin argue that the beginning of the Columbian Exchange, in the 1600s, should mark the start of the Anthropocene [2].  Recently, Colin N. Waters and his colleagues have argued the starting date for the Anthropocene should be in the mid-twentieth century because of the dramatic evidence of humanity’s effects on the environment, such as a radical increase in carbon emissions and the traces of nuclear weapons use [4].  Unsurprisingly, the dating of the Anthropocene is a political act:  who is to blame for the widening gyre of climate change? [5].  Is the developed world to blame?  The West?  The United States of America?  The wealthy?  Those question are significant, but for The 18th-Century Common let us focus one suggestion put forward by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene (2016).  These authors wryly note that the Anthropocene might be better labeled the “Anglocene,” given that the United Kingdom and the United States together produced more carbon dioxide than the rest of the world combined before the twentieth century (116) [6].  The United Kingdom, and England specifically, are a significant locus for the Industrial Revolution and therefore carbon dioxide production.  As E. A. Wrigley shows, the English and Welsh consumption of energy, especially coal, increased rapidly from the mid-seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century [7].  The advent of steam engines, thanks to efforts of engineers like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, help drive this widening hunger for coal.

An Atmospheric Engine from A Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734) by John Theophilus Desaguliers, vol. 2, Plate 37. Wikimedia Commons.

The Newcomen atmospheric engine was one of the first successful steam engines.  Invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, the engine was both simple and complex.  Water was heated with coal to create steam.  The steam would rise, entering the chamber under the piston and pushing the piston up.  Then the steam was cooled rapidly, creating a partial vacuum, causing the atmospheric pressure to push the piston down.  The Newcomen engine was primarily deployed to pump water out of mines although it was used in a few other industrial and civic applications.  At coal mines the Newcomen engine facilitated a positive feedback loop:  miners could mine coal to fuel the engine, which allowed them to drain inaccessible areas of the mine, which allowed them to mine coal to fuel the engine, and so on.  Coal became self-propagating as burning coal allowed the mines to extract more coal.  And even though the Newcomen engine was quite inefficient, the collieries used coal they would otherwise be unable to sell.  The Newcomen engine helped make coal even more accessible to both miners and consumers.

Extracting the coal was not enough though; it needed to be moved to the consumer.  Coal was transported by roads, then ships, then canals, then railroads.  Turnpikes made it easier to transport coal overland, ultimately to rivers or the coast.  Ships moved coal from the north of England towards the south, although threats from foreign navies and privateers made overland transport more attractive.  Some of the first canals were built to facilitate the movement of coal, like the Sankey Canal, which connected collieries in St Helens with the River Mersey and thus manufacturers in Lancashire.  In some cases the infrastructure started at the pit mouth and extended out, like the first railroads.  This is not to suggest that all infrastructure served coal, other commodities and people also drove these innovations.  Eventually though infrastructure, especially the railroad like its progenitor the Newcomen engine, became inextricably linked to coal.

“Viaduct across the Sankey Valley” (1831) by Thomas Talbot Bury. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, manufacturers were beginning to adopt new mechanical modes of production.  Famously, Richard Arkwright helped create a new system of water- then steam-powered textile manufacturing.  James Watt’s improvements upon Newcomen’s engine, specifically adding a separate condenser, greatly improved efficiency.  These revolutions in industry do not indicate the embeddedness of coal in British society though; Newcomen and Watt merely found a new way to utilize a fuel that was already in widespread circulation.  Due to a perceived wood scarcity in the Early Modern period, inhabitants of London began burning coal to heat their homes (Cavert 18-22) [8].  Additionally, even though most coal use was domestic in the Early Modern period, it was burned for a range of industrial applications:  iron, salt, glass, bricks, pottery, beer.  Coal was important enough that as the British fought in the War of Spanish succession, Queen Anne articulated only two significant policy positions for the new session of Parliament in November 1703:  a further recruitment of sailors for the Royal Navy and a reduction in the price of coal to keep London from experiencing unrest (Cavert 143).  Coal was increasingly integrated into the British economy throughout the long eighteenth century.

Coal does not seem to play a large role in any of Austen’s works, although I would suggest the fossil fuel is like Sir Bertram’s plantation and its slaves in Antigua:  unseen but still significant.  Coal does make a brief appearance in Mansfield Park (1814).  Late in the novel, when Fanny has been sent back to her parents, she is welcomed by Mrs. Price, who understandably wants to make her daughter comfortable after her long journey,

“Dear me!” continued the anxious mother, “what a sad fire we have got, and I dare say you are both starved with cold.  Draw your chair nearer, my dear.  I cannot think what Rebecca has been about.  I am sure I told her to bring some coals half an hour ago.  Susan, you should have taken care of the fire.”  (Austen 257) [9]

Mrs. Price’s request for coal is innocuous:  the fire is low and needs more fuel.  But Austen does not often mention what is being burned in the fireplaces her protagonists gather around.  Her acknowledgement of coal here is telling.  The mention of coal is likely not to highlight that the Prices are using coal.  Coal was burned at all social strata.  The wealthy just burned more coal, burned less noxious coal, and burned other fuels too (Cavert 26-27).  Rather, Austen likely is drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that the Price’s daughters have to attend to the fire, rather than the servants at Mansfield Park, and that the daughters have failed in that task, again unlike the mostly unseen servants.  In twenty-first century terms, Mrs. Price is telling her daughters to turn the thermostat up now that company is over.  This moment is one of Fanny’s many significant interactions with fire throughout the novel.  The warmth of a fire or the lack thereof is a metonym for her feelings of comfort:  the excitement of planning the Lover’s Vows in a cozy fire-warmed room (Austen 101), the sadness of being denied a fire in her room by Mrs. Norris (106), the joy of being granted a fire by Sir Bertram (202), and ultimately sitting without a fire in Portsmouth (270).  Her relationship to warmth, fuel, and heat—an aesthetic motif which coveys her social desires—is predicated on a developing carbon infrastructure, an infrastructure that was already obscured because of how commonplace it was.

“‘Am I to understand’ said Sir Thomas, ‘that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?’” (1908) by C. E. Brock. Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Austen’s works ultimately are not climate fiction.  Her novels and the works of other British writers in the long eighteenth century though do merit examination as existing among the first texts of the Anthropocene or proto-Anthropocene.  Those works are the product of British cultures which were being transformed by the expansion of coal usage.  Concurrently, these British cultures were impelling and impeding the expansion of coal use:  driving miners deeper into the ground while also decrying the costs to the environment and people.  The ultimate definition of the Anthropocene will likely rest with future geologists and stratigraphers.  The evidence for an Anthropocene that begins in the middle of the twentieth century is fairly persuasive.  Although, as Matt Edgeworth and his colleagues argue, selecting a single moment of time for the inception of the Anthropocene is difficult due to the ways that sediments are deposited, shifted, and altered over time through geologic and anthropomorphic forces [10].  But in Jane Austen’s world, England and zones connected to England through political, military, or commercial reach were already dependent on fossil fuel use.  Now is the time to re-evaluate the ways eighteenth-century cultures and peoples acknowledged or ignored this energy transition, the promethean steps of a species-cum-geologic-force.

Notes

[1] Crutzen, Paul J.  “Geology of Mankind.”  Nature 415.6867 (2002):  23.

[2] Lewis, Simon L. and Mark A. Maslin.  “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519.7542 (2015):  171–80.

[3] Waters, Colin N. et al.  “The Anthropocene is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene.”  Science 351.6269 (2016).

[5] Malm, Andreas, and Alf Hornborg.  “The Geology of Mankind?  A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative.”  Anthropocene Review 1 (2014):  62–69.

[6] Bonneuil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.  Shock of the Anthropocene.  Trans. David Fernbach.  London:  Verso, 2016.

[7] Wrigley, E. A.  “Energy and the English Industrial Revolution.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A:  Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 371.1986 (2013).

[8] Cavert, William M.  The Smoke of London.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2016.

[9] Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. Claudia Johnson.  New York:  Norton, 1998.

[10] Edgeworth, Matt.  “Diachronous Beginnings of the Anthropocene:  The Lower Bounding Surface of Anthropogenic Deposits.”  The Anthropocene Review 2.1 (2015):  33–58.

Jane Austen Summer Program Presents: 
“200 Years of Persuasion

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and The Jane Austen Society of North America—North Carolina

June 15 to 18, 2017
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This summer more than 100 people, including Austen fans, established scholars, graduate students, K-12 teachers, and aspiring authors, will have the opportunity to hear expert speakers and participate in discussion groups on Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion.  Attendees will also partake in an English tea, dance at a Regency-style ball, attend Austen-inspired theatricals, and visit special exhibits tailored to the conference.

They will be attending the fifth-annual Jane Austen Summer Program from June 15 to 18, 2017 to explore this year’s chosen theme: “200 Years of Persuasion.”  The events will take place at the Hampton Inn in Carrboro, NC and at various locations on the UNC-CH campus in Chapel Hill, NC.

The discussions will consider Austen’s last completed novel Persuasion in its historical context as well as its afterlives in fiction and film.  “This year we are so pleased that Jocelyn Harris, a Persuasion expert and a delightful individual, is coming from New Zealand to join us as a keynote speaker,” says Inger Brodey, co-director of the program with James Thompson.  “We will also have a naval historian guide us through the mostly off-stage military dimension of the novel.”

Participants old and new praise the program’s accessibility, innovation, and community-building.  “Last year’s conference on Mansfield Park was my first experience of JASP—and now I’m hooked!,” says Vicky Brandt.  “It’s a wonderful idea to open up an academic conference to the interested public:  everyone should be able to experience the loving inquiry that is the heart of scholarship.  All the presentations were enlightening; the small group discussions lively and insightful; the Saturday evening Regency ball almost as beautiful to watch as the ones we see on film.  In short, I can think of no better way to describe it than with Austen’s own words:  ‘the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.’”  Attendees express special appreciation for the cultural and historical knowledge exchanged at the program.  Patrick McGraw states, “Over four days, I learned more about Austen’s novel than I ever imagined I could.  I cannot wait to return to UNC-Chapel Hill this coming summer to explore Persuasion.”

For more program information, to see comments and photos from previous programs, or to register, please visit the program’s website janeaustensummer.org/ or follow the program on facebook.com/janeaustensummer or via Twitter, @JASPhotline.  You may also contact us at [email protected].

Elementary and secondary school teachers are encouraged to visit the website for information on available scholarships and continuing education credits.

(This post was made available by Carlie Wetzel, UNC-CH)

Jane Austen Summer Program Presents: “Mansfield Park & Its Afterlives”

MP LogoJune 16 to 19, 2016.  Hosted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the Jane Austen Society of North America-North Carolina.  

This summer, more than 100 people, including Austen fans, established scholars, graduate students, K-12 teachers, and aspiring authors, will have the opportunity to hear expert speakers and participate in discussion groups on Austen’s most controversial novel, Mansfield Park.  Attendees will also partake in an English tea, dance at a Regency-style ball, join in a Regency-themed pub crawl, and visit special exhibits tailored to the conference.

They will be attending the fourth-annual Jane Austen Summer Program from June 16 to 192016 to explore this year’s chosen theme: Mansfield Park & Its Afterlives.”  The events will take place at the newly-constructed Hampton Inn in Carrboro and at various locations on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, NC.

The discussions will consider Mansfield Park in its historical context as well as its many afterlives in fiction and film.  According to Inger Brodey, co-director of the program with James Thompson, “Many consider Mansfield Park to be Austen’s most philosophical novel, as well as the most controversial.  Charming villains, temptresses, amusing fools and perfect busybodies:  this novel has something for everyone, and lively discussions among academics and non-academics always produce new insights.”

“Every year we have a theatrical performance,” says Edward Davis, a veteran program participant.  “It’s an original adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s minor works, performed by a group of very talented UNC grad students.  It’s clever and humorous and acted in the spirit she had in mind when she wrote down her first stories.  She would love our little plays.  We do.”  With the help of the Regency Assembly of North Carolina, the Summer Program hosts a Regency Ball at UNC’s Gerrard Hall.  “The Hall dates to 1822, and the candle-lit atmosphere is perfect for bringing Austen’s plots and the Regency period back to life,” says Ruth Verbunt, who, along with her husband, has been instrumental in re-creating these historical moments.

For more program information, to see comments and photos from previous programs, or to register, please visit the program’s website janeaustensummer.org or follow the program at facebook.com/janeaustensummer or via twitter, @JASPhotline.  You may also contact us at [email protected].

Elementary and secondary school teachers are encouraged to visit the website for information on available scholarships and continuing education credits.

(Original post provided by Carlie Wetzel, Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student, Department of English and Comparative Literature, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)