We return now to the ongoing culture war. This time we will take a close look at the alleged cancellation of Jane Austen for the crime of drinking tea.
The whole controversy, such as it is, began with a wildly misleading story in The Telegraph last month declaring (in its headline) that “Jane Austen’s tea drinking will face ‘historical interrogation’ over slavery links.”
What is actually going on is that the staff of the Jane Austen’s House Museum in England announced hat they were going to make some changes to their exhibits to reflect the fact that Austen lived in a colonialist country in the age of slavery, and that she and her writings were affected by that. “The slave trade and the consequences of Regency-era Colonialism touched every family of means during the period,” the museum’s director told the Telegraph. “Jane Austen’s family were no exception.”
The director mentioned, as an example, that, as “purchasers of tea, sugar and cotton they were consumers of the products of the [slave] trade.” Which is, of course, true, just as it’s also true that buyers of iPhones are just a teensy bit complicit in modern-day slavery. .
But the issue is bigger than Austen’s love of tea. Her father was the trustee for an Antigua plantation owned by a university friend, thus tying him directly to slavery. Austen, for her part, was well aware of the evils of slavery and recent scholarship suggests that her novel Mansfield Park contained a subtle but very real protest against the peculiar institution.
But for whatever reason the Telegraph editors were fixated on the tea, reporting that Austen found tea to be “a comforting, refreshing, recuperative beverage” and that — quelle horreur! — [b]iographers have also claimed that Austen was the family’s tea buyer and would often buy tea from Twinings.”
This was all it took for the British tabloids to jump on the story and ramp up the manufactured outrage. The Express decried the museum’s alleged “woke madness” while the Daily Mail declared that news of “the museum’s plans have sparked a wave of backlash among Austen fans on social media,” by which they mean that they found a few quotable tweets on the subject to pass along to their readers.
Remember, the basic premise here is that the the folks running the Jane Austen’s House Museum — a museum for Jane Austen fans headed up by people we can only assume are huge Austen fans — were ready to “cancel” her over a cup of tea.
Ultimately, the Jane Austen’s House Museum put out a statement trying to correct the Telegraph and the tabloids.
The plans for refreshing the displays and decoration of Jane Austen’s House have been misrepresented. Jane Austen lived during the era of slavery and the Abolition by Britain of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807. We are increasingly asked questions about this by our visitors and it is therefore appropriate that we share the information and research that already exists on her connections to slavery and its mention in her novels. This information is widely accessible in the public domain.
Then they dealt with the whole tea business:
We would like to offer reassurance that we will not, and have never had any intention to, interrogate Jane Austen, her characters or her readers for drinking tea.
And then they reminded the tabloids that, no, really, they are big fans of Austen, for real.
The overarching aim of this long-term process is to bring Jane Austen’s brilliance and the extraordinary flourishing of creativity she experienced at the House to the heart of every visit. … This will be part of a layered and nuanced presentation which will be based on long established, peer reviewed academic research, alongside Jane Austen’s own words and our collection. We firmly believe that placing Austen in the context of her time at her home will only make her genius shine more brightly.
This seemed to bring an end to the controversy, at least in the U.K., but here in the U.S. the conservative outlet The Federalist has grabbed onto it as part of its ongoing crusade against Critical Race Theory– although there is no evidence that the museum’s project has been influenced by the controversial and widely misrepresented doctrine.
The Federalist’s article is not only late to the party; it’s also the loopiest. Titled “Jane Austen Is The Latest Victim Of Upper-Class Whites’ Obsession With Race,” the piece begins with a sort of threat: “The woke may regret going after Jane Austen.”
Not that the woke have in fact gone after Jane Austen.
The Federalist’s Nathanael Blake describes the museum’s plans as an “attempted denigration of the great authoress,” and treats the museum’s statement correcting the record as a little more than an “excuse” and a sign that they are “backtracking” on their original plans.
The outcry induced the museum to quickly backtrack. It issued a statement protesting that it had been “misrepresented” and that its plans were meant to highlight “Jane Austen’s brilliance” and that “placing Austen in the context of her time at her home will only make her genius shine more brightly.” Even if one buys this excuse, it is nonsensical to evaluate Austen and her work by current American ideological fashions.
There is no reason to believe that the museum’s move to fill in the context in which Austen wrote are an “attempt to evaluate Austen according to the American upper class’s current racial obsessions.” It is an attempt to deal with her as a writer immersed in the issues of her own time.
But Blake has already declared a great victory, and so he celebrates. After a detour through a number of interminable paragraphs devoted not to Austen but to his own not-very-interesting thoughts on Black Lives Matter and critical tace theory, he sums up:
[T]he outcry over the Jane Austen museum shows how this toxic racial ideology may be beaten back. In a word, it is love. People who love Jane Austen do not want a museum dedicated to her to become one more source of insufferable Black Lives Matter posturing.
Indeed, he concludes, “his shows how to defeat this ideology elsewhere.”
Through lies and misrepresentations? Because that’s the technique that the anti-woke movement, such as it is, is already using. That’s how the whole faux conroversy happened in the first place. The right-wing assault on straw men (and straw women) continues. Sorry you had to get dragged into it, Jane.
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