Theresa May and Michael Gove have both cited the author—but are her novels really an advert for conservatism?by Elizabeth Picciuto / June 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Jane Austen held her views on the politics of her time exceptionally close. In her novels, government stays politely in the background. It neither overregulates nor ensures the wellbeing of citizens. It provides income via interest on securities, delivers the mail, and employs handsome and charming naval and militia officers.
Yet she develops a rich and sophisticated theory of moral character development—virtue ethics—that earns her a position among the most astute moral philosophers. It is natural to wonder how Austen’s keen moral vision would perceive the politics, laws, and distributive justice of her day.
Scholars investigate the few fleeting political references in her novels and letters over and over, like sleuths rehashing the insufficient clues of an unsolved historical murder. Taken together, they have suggested an impressive array of Austen’s potential political views: she’s stalwart upholding the Tory party line of her day; she’s a prudish reactionary; she’s subtly subversive.
It is interesting, then, to reflect on the fact that some present-day Conservatives feel an affinity with Austen. Theresa May has repeatedly cited Emma and Pride and Prejudice as her favourite novels. In an interview, Michael Gove was asked which author he would say wrote the Conservative manifesto. He replied, without a shred of hesitation, that the book it was most like was Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.