I N   V I T R O    Issue 3.01 - January 1997


Hari Kunzru hates Jane Austen culture. It's not her, it's what she has come to stand for.

I hate Jane Austen culture. I can't tell you how much. But my hatred is more than mere personal prejudice. I think of it as a kind of moral duty. I can be silent no longer. The time has come to share my insight with the world. Consider this article a kind of public protest, a call for you, the Wired reader, to stand up and be counted. Unless we resist Jane Austen, we are doomed. Allow me to explain.

Jane Austen herself was a fine writer - bitchy, edgy and perceptive, alive to the social nuances of her day. But somewhere along the line her work started to mean something quite different. In the 1990s, Jane Austen, recycled in TV and film adaptations, in the diaries of the making of those TV and film adaptations, in an avalanche of recipe books and tea towels and tours and commemorative mugs, is far more than a novelist. She's a symbol of everything that's wrong with British culture. And this, dear reader, is why Jane Austen must be stopped.

So what is Jane Austen culture? It's not just about excess period drama, or an overindulgence in comedies of manners. The rot goes far deeper. Jane Austen culture is based on the exaltation of a mythical time when everyone was courteous to one another and wore elegant clothes. It's a sugary nostalgia that seeps into the brain like heroin, blocking all thoughts of the future with longing for the past. Why did half Britain tune into the BBC's Pride and Prejudice adaptation? Why do millions of people visit "Catherine Cookson country" each year? The BBC do good drama; Northumbria is picturesque.

But that's not the draw. Buried deep in the heart of every middlebrow British man and woman is a desperate desire for the modern world to go away. They're terrified of living in a time when imperial pretensions seem increasingly absurd, when the complexities of urban living outweigh the memories of an oh-so-simple past. They'd love to go back to the olden days when everyone knew his place, when an Englishman's home was his castle and the darkies didn't own the village shop. Jane Austen has come to symbolise all this and more. Jane Austen is bad for you.

Nostalgia is the British disease, and in British culture it's become truly life-threatening. The English, especially, have always frowned on artistic experiment, more comfortable with wallowing in past glories than supporting the new work going on around them. Our prime minister reads Trollope and considers that this makes him "cultured". Our intellectuals still, by and large, think that postmodernism - now considered rather old-fashioned in less backward places - is a nasty continental disease. This reflexive preference for looking back in complacency, rather than anger, leaves no room for new culture.

For every crinoline on our screens there's one less place for a pair of PVC bondage trousers. And that, I think you'll agree, is a shame. Yet incredibly, Britain has an underground of writers, musicians, actors, artists and film-makers who are among the best in the world. But what does the establishment do? Instead of cherishing them, it tries to take their dole money away.

So, as a first blow in the war of the future against the past, here is a list of the main culprits. They know who they are. And when the revolution comes....

  The Jane Austen Hit List

1. Adaptations
Any film or TV adaptation of a classic 19th-century novel is A Bad Thing unless it was written by someone mad, syphilitic or on drugs. And some of those are bad as well.

2. Royal Shakespeare Company
Theatre as national self-congratulation. Tired, overblown productions that make Shakespeare seem as relevant as a penny farthing. An enormous, publicly-funded corporate hospitality operation.

3. Prince Charles
Patron saint of knee-jerk conservatism, whose meddlings in architecture have in the long term probably done more damage to British cities than the Blitz.

4. Quinlan Terry
Architect. Prince Charles' neo-Georgian ideologue. If you're being kind, an "exponent of classicism". If you're not, the perpetrator of some of the silliest buildings in Britain. We're living in 1996; why try to pretend it's 1812?

5. Brian Sewell
A man who believes that there has been no "great art" since the Renaissance, yet somehow makes a living as the Evening Standard's art critic. Far too sensitive for the modern world, but still able to steel himself to do the odd TV appearance, bit of motoring journalism, beer ad....

6. The Beatles
Two words. Yellow. Submarine. Now look me in the eye and tell me they're the best band ever. They split up a quarter of a century ago. John's dead; Ringo's drunk; Paul's pompous and George is still a hippy. Time to move on. Especially you two brothers at the back.

7. The Church of England
Oh, come on. That's not a religion, it's a tea party with a lot of real estate.

8. Riverdance
Dee-diddly-diddly-diddly diddly-diddly-diddly-blarneystone-diddly. We've got Michael Clarke and we persist in watching Michael Flatley? Good grief.

9. How We Won the War
"Look back on the emotion and drama," reads the sign outside a London World War Two theme museum. Remembering World War Two as somehow a good thing rather than an international tragedy is rather like looking back fondly on an aeroplane crash because of all the pretty colours.

10. Auntie
Nice people making nice media that all the foreigners think is just the best in the whole world. Has anyone in the BBC stepped outside Telly Centre recently?

11. Classic FM
Classical music with the hard bits taken out. The station for people too caught up in class prejudice to admit they like Radio 2.

12. The Antiques Roadshow
The spectacle of watching someone trying not to ask How Much Is It Worth? while feigning interest in the artistic merits of Auntie Esme's candlesticks is one of the most sickeningly hypocritical spectacles on British TV.

13. Capital Punishment
Ultimately, just another nostalgia trip. Oh for a time when punishment meant something. Why not go the whole hog and exhibit hanging corpses on the major approach roads to London?

14. Media Dynasties
Redgraves, Freuds, Waughs and all the rest of them. Troughing in the UK media, desperately hoping there's a gene for talent.

15. Roger Scruton
The fox-hunting philosopher, who believes the lower classes would be better off under the protection of a feudal nobility. Not so much reactionary as plain barking. Still, some people do take him seriously.

16. Mary Whitehouse
As the most vocal of the legions of would-be censors, the original old bag strongly warrants her place on this list. Who gave her the right to decide what's good for us to see? What evidence do we have that her unhealthy interest in pornography and violence hasn't depraved and corrupted her? The public has a right to know.

17. 1966
Thirty years is a long time in football. Isn't it just a teeny bit sad that England fans still cling onto a victory that took place before most of them were born?

18. Aga Sagas
The legacy of Jane Austen hangs heavy over British fiction. Social comedy has degenerated into tedious recounting of the details of middle-class lives. British publishers, never friendly to experimental writing, bear much of the blame. Another tale of divorce in NW3? Just say no!

19. Andrew Lloyd Webber
What people listen to instead of music. Sadly, Britain's most overpaid composer is acquiring a patina of upper-crust respectability, allowing him to collect Canalettos and pose as someone who knows his arse from his adagio.

20. Middle England
What little England started to call itself when it realised that insularity, xenophobia, backwardness and paranoid longing for empire were generally considered bad ideas. Jane Austen's cultural constituency. Spiritual home of The Archers, The Times' letters page, Kenny and Emma, Merchant Ivory, Joanna Trollope, Songs of Praise and all the other Austenities we didn't have space for here.

Hari Kunzru is the bitter, twisted associate editor of Wired.