"What Would Jane Do?" is a go-to question among Austen fans. Whatever's most sensible, we assume. But if she were alive today, how would Jane vote? Would the champion of marrying for love support gay marriage? Would the advocate of a woman getting to choose her future mate herself support reproductive choice?
Austen lovers have an amazing capacity to create their Own Personal Jane: feminists celebrate her strong heroines and social satire; conservatives love the "traditional values" of her country-house families; many romance fans consider her completely apolitical.
At the university where I teach, students of all stripes connect with Austen. She's complex enough to invite many readings, despite pigeon-holing as chick lit by the uninformed. Plus, most students who take my Austen class really like Austen. When we really like someone, we want to believe they're one of us. As in, "I'm a liberal/conservative/indie and I like you, so I'll bet you're a liberal/conservative/indie, too."
The real Jane Austen, the one born in 1775, was from a Tory family. You can't directly translate that to Romney for 2012, but it adds up to conservatism. Real Jane, daughter of a clergyman, would not have supported gay marriage or reproductive rights. But for the times, that's no surprise. Plenty of her contemporaries across the pond in the brand new United States of America were convinced that the Christian Bible authorized slavery, women's complete legal subordination to men, and, although a touch out of fashion, witch burning.
A more intriguing question is, would a woman of Austen's intelligence and inclinations, born 200 years later, be liberal, conservative, or independent?
For starters, Modern Austen would probably have gotten a kick out of Nancy Drew mysteries, so let's consider some clues. There's a scene in Emma where the heroine and Mr. Knightly lock horns over Frank Churchill not visiting his father because Frank's aunt, who holds his purse strings, doesn't want him to. Mr. Knightly goes hard-line: duty is duty. If Frank would stand up for himself, the aunt would respect him and relent. "Respect for right conduct is felt by every body," Mr. Knightly pronounces.
Easy for you to say, Emma counters: "If you, as you are, Mr. Knightly, were to be transported and placed all at once into Mr. Frank Churchill's situation, you would be able to say and do just what you have been recommending for him." But Frank, she points out, was not born with the same power and advantages. This is a subtle and -- dare I say -- liberal view for the period. Mr. Knightly's position sounds suspiciously like a person born with a huge trust fund saying, "If I can be successful, anyone can!" Emma doesn't deny the duty in question, but she urges understanding based on context; Mr. Knightly argues by abstract principle.
Generally, Mr. Knightly is a man of sound judgment, while Emma is known for being "clueless." So which position does the novel validate? Both. And neither. Austen lets her characters have their say then resolves the problem by killing off the controlling aunt. True, duty is highly regarded by Austen's protagonists. But if there's one thing Austen's novels don't teach us, it's Mr. Knightly's belief that "respect for right conduct is felt by every body." Try selling that line to the likes of Robert Ferrars, Lydia Bennet, or Sir Walter Elliot, among Austen's many unrepentant sinners. She was far too insightful a writer to suggest that doing the right thing guarantees you'll be treated well in return. Point to Emma.
My thinking here takes for granted, of course, that Austen's fiction is admissible evidence in our case. For me, the sum of Austen's novels is this: the world's a complicated place. Black and white thinking might look good on paper, but it won't get you far when you add real human beings into the equation. Stick to your own principles, by all means --- even if it costs you a fortune, as it does Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, thanks in part to his ruthless brother Robert. But when it comes to others, spend more time listening and less time judging.
Like my students, I too have my Own Personal Jane. And mine leans left. But Modern Austen wouldn't be posting her beliefs on choice or gay marriage on Facebook. Knowing what I do about Real Austen's novels, letters, and biography, I suspect that Modern Austen would be the equivalent of a Swing State, attentive to each specific issue up for vote --- more conservative than feminists and progressive admirers would hope, disappointingly liberal for those who want to label her with their definition of family values. An indie, you might say.
But this I firmly believe: Modern Austen would approve the happy ending of the pro gay marriage video "Proposition 8, The Musical." It's wryly optimistic, with just the right touch of cynicism for Austen, that peerless master of irony. For the finale, gays and "anti-abomination" folks alike decide, in a rousing chorus number, not to quibble over personal morals; what they can all get behind are the profits gay marriages will generate. After Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, she wrote to her brother Frank: "You will be glad to hear that every copy of S&S is sold... I have now therefore written myself into £250 -- which only makes me long for more."
If your Own Personal Jane was a modest little lady writing only to amuse herself and her family, sorry to disappoint. Austen may be many things to many people, but she was always about good sense: personal, social, and fiscal. Don't rush to judgment, she councils. Listen before you speak. Respect community and individuals, both. Get some exercise. And Austen had a healthy admiration for money -- although not for those who get it by stepping on others. That, you can take to the ballot box.
Amy Elizabeth Smith is the author of All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane [Sourcebooks, $14.99].