“The Jane Austen Politico Fan Club,” by Leslie Haynsworth

Aug 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Prose

Campaign HQ, 2:43 p.m.

“Folkstone looks a lot less orange today,” says Denise.  “So that’s the good news.  The bad news is that he’s still not quite on message about the school funding thing.  He told the Nurses Association that his plan would cut their property taxes by an average of 31%.  But our data shows that 64% of nurses in our state rent rather than own their primary residences.  And as you know …” 

“Rental properties don’t qualify for the school-tax-relief program, yes, I do know,” I say.  Please don’t remind me again, I want to add.  I forgot to take my Zantac this morning.  There’s an emergency stash of Tums in my coat pocket.  But Folkstone’s turned into such a loose cannon that even his own staffers are showing signs of getting rattled.  If they see me gulping Tums, they’ll lose what confidence they have left. 

Denise is right, though, to rejoice in the comparative normalcy of Folkstone’s color.  He does have strangely orange skin, especially when you see him in person.  It unsettles people.  And it distracts them.  They come to a rally to learn more about his widely admired proposal to privatize all of the state’s universities, but for much of the time that he’s speaking, their minds wander.  How, they wonder, could a person become so orange?  Personally, my guess is overuse of beta-carotine supplements, but his staff, even as they anxiously monitor the gradations in his skin tone, are strangely reluctant to broach the topic of its origins.  The one time I tried to bring it up with Denise, for example, she jumped out of her chair, said “Oh, Mr. Love, I’m so sorry, I just realized my daughter’s late for soccer practice,” and ran out of the room.  It was 1:13 p.m.  Her daughter is in the 11th grade.  If high schools in this state are being dismissed before 1:30, even I might sort of have to question the wisdom of Folkstone’s proposal to cut school funding by another 45%. 

“The thing is,” says Denise, “that I’ve been charting it out, day by day, over the last couple of months.  And while he does have his bad days, like yesterday, on the whole his coloring is trending really well.  If we can just keep him away from… well, uh, nevermind.  But I’m very optimistic about how he’s going to look in the debate next week.” 

“That’s great,” I say.  “Really great.”  Gotta keep up morale.  And not just because there are so many reasons for the morale among Folkstone’s staffers to start flagging.  It’s a funny thing, and even I can’t quite explain it, but it’s surprising how often, if you can just get a critical mass of committed Republicans to believe something, that something will become so — not, alas, necessarily forever, but at least long enough to turn an election in your favor or get a war started.  People think I taught my pal W. so much about how to get where you want to be in life, but that’s one thing he taught me. 

“Oh, yeah,” says Denise, “and another thing?  We got those polling numbers from the upstate this morning, and they’re actually a little better than we expected.  Here, look.”  She reaches into her overstuffed tote bag, wriggles out a manila folder, and thrusts it at me.  “And listen,” she says.  “I know you wanted to brief me now on how to prep him for tomorrow’s forum with the AAUP, but I’ve gotta run.  He’s decided he wants a tub of his mama’s pimento cheese for supper, and I’ve gotta drive to Summerville, pick it up, and have it back here by 7.  So see you tomorrow, okay?” 

She’s out the door before I can even respond.  Which in a way isn’t even a bad thing, because I am, for once (well, I guess for the second time really; I kept my mouth pretty nicely shut about the whole U.S. attorneys kerfluffle, didn’t I?), practically speechless.  Folkstone thinks pimento cheese will fortify him better for tomorrow’s session with the AAUP—AKA The American Association of University Professors, a veritable snakepit of leftie nutsos with PhDs who, need it even be said, are decidedly not in favor of the privatize-all-higher-ed plan that’s a cornerstone of his platform — than a briefing from me, the man who got W. both elected and reelected President of the United States?  A certain amount of overconfidence is never a bad thing in a political candidate, but Folkstone takes self-satisfaction to a whole new level.  And he’s not real good at hiding his opinions of himself from the voters either.  Those polling numbers from the upstate had better look more than just good or we’re in trouble. 

I flip open the folder, pull out the report, and start to read.  “In Jane Austen’s brilliant novel Pride and Prejudice,” it begins, “Jane is making many interesting points about how the middle class and the upper class can learn to like each other more and be nicer to each other.” 

This is a very strange beginning to a polling report.  I look at it again, and my eyes fall on the heading, which reads: 

Katie Alden

English 11 Honors

September 29

Mrs. Killdare 

Denise has given me her daughter’s book report.

My Car, 5:57 p.m.

And, you know, that it’s come to this …. To this!  When, back in the heyday, in the middle years of W’s administration, you read about me in your local paper or saw me on CNN walking briskly from my car to my office in the West Wing, did you ever imagine, much as you might have wished it on me, that I’d really be reduced to this

Folkstone was supposed to be my comeback:  another Southern gubernatorial candidate with presidential ambitions, but this time both farther to the right and more articulate than W.  I get him into the statehouse, and then I get him into the White House, and then I am, undeniably, indisputably, invincible. 

But, say what you will about W, he, at least in some respects, knows his own limitations, was smart enough, in all of our years together, to know that I knew a lot more than he did about how to get him where we both wanted him to go. 

Folkstone is different.  The reason I get high school book reports when I’m supposed to be getting polling data is that everyone on his staff is always so nervous about what he’s going to demand of them next that they don’t have a whole lot of mental energy left to devote to their actual jobs. 

I am, if I can’t turn this thing around soon, going to become the Newt Gingrich of my generation, the once-invincible wunderkind now reduced to dolling out soundbites now and then when some reporter needs a reliably cogent articulation of a conservative perspective.  Newt has, for years, been my foremost cautionary tale, his dizzying descent the stuff of my nightmares.  Now my greatest fears loom before me as my probable future. 

Fucking Folkstone.  Fucking smug, self-congratulatory bastard who just can’t get his head around the possibility that anyone might have a different opinion of him than his own.  I mean, you know, if only I could … hey, wait a minute!  What did I just read about that was right along those lines — reconciliation?  Mutual respect?  Something like that, and it was … oh.  It was the book report.  Denise’s daughter’s reading — and a garbled reading at that, if the quality of her prose is anything to go by — of some novel by some lady writer who’s been dead for probably 200 years.  That’s just really not going to do the trick. 

My bed, 3:26 a.m. 

Oh, my stars, who knew a lady author with a subversive feminist agenda could be so freaking funny?  Although apparently, according to some scholars, Austen is actually more conservative than subversive, insofar as she’s less interested in overthrowing the patriarchy or usurping upper-class privilege than simply carving out slightly more space within the dominant social order for women and the middle classes.  At least, that’s what it says in the introduction to my new copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I stopped at Borders and bought on the way home, and let me tell you, that was more than a little bit embarrassing, because while I regularly drop by and browse the political shelves to keep an eye out for liberal bias in the displays of new and notable releases, I’ve never bought a novel there before.  I haven’t, if you want to know the truth, read a novel, other than the occasional Tom Clancy on a long plane ride, since college.  I guess I just don’t see the point of all these made-up stories about made-up people’s lives when you can, as I’ve done, intervene in real people’s lives and in so doing change the course of history.  So when I walked up to the counter at Borders with my copy of Pride and Prejudice and handed it to the long-haired pinko wage slave at the register, I could see he was trying hard not to laugh.  Karl Love buying nineteenth-century chick lit!  He’s probably still laughing.  

But the last laugh will be mine.  Because what I suddenly saw as I was driving to Applebee’s for my nightly cheeseburger, with the abyss of Gingritchood looming before me, was that if even Denise’s barely-literate daughter understood that Pride and Prejudice had significant things to say about rapprochement between the middle and upper classes, then Miss Austen really might have some ideas in the subject that are potent enough even to solve my Folkstone problems. 

And she does!  Or at least I think so.  To be honest, I’ve sort of been forgetting to pay attention to the novel’s thematic elements.  The whole story of how Elizabeth Bennet is both drawn to and pissed off by Mr. Darcy is just so engrossing, I can’t stop wondering what’s going to happen next.  And there are Folkstonian elements to the whole thing:  the middle classes here seem to be likewise both drawn to Folkstone’s charisma and pissed off by some of his tax proposals.  If only I could find an Elizabeth Bennet with whom he could start a torrid romance and… but, no, then he’d be violating the sanctity of his marriage vows to Mrs. Folkstone, and that wouldn’t go over well with the base. 

Still, I feel very confident that once I find out how it all turns out and then go back and read it again, it will yield all sorts of ideas about how to get middle-class audiences to appreciate the hidden merits of stuffy and condescending rich guys. 

It must be said, however, that no mention is made of Mr. Darcy being orange. 

Six weeks later 

Headline in The State newspaper: 

Folkstone surges ahead to surprise victory; unexpectedly high middle-class, female support seen as keys to win 

Six years later

Headline in the New York Times: 

Folkstone wins presidency

Ohio goes red, swings election

Love back in White House; Dems brace for battle 

Two years after that 

Article in the Washington Post: 

The President and the lady novelist

Who’s writing Folkstone’s speeches?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a president with a controversial agenda must be in want of an uncannily good speechwriter.  But who would have imagined that ultra-neocon Charles Folkstone would turn to Jane Austen to help him sell his ideas to the American public? 

Few of us would have conceived of such a thing, of course.  And yet, according to Austen scholar and University of South Carolina PhD candidate Sherri Pensler, more than 20% of the content of Folkstone’s speeches is lifted from Austen’s novels. 

“I just kept hearing these strange echoes in his words of the novels I was reading for my dissertation,” Pensler said.  “So I went back and did a study, and it’s really interesting.  When he was first elected governor, all of his Austen quotes came from Pride and Prejudice.  But then he seemed to get into an Emma phase.  Now he pulls from all six of Austen’s novels on a regular basis.  Lately, though, he’s been on a little bit of a Mansfield Park kick.” 

The President, when approached by the Post about his opinions on Jane Austen denied having read any of the novels.  “Jane who?” he asked.  “Pride and Prejudice — wasn’t that a movie?  With that hot English chick?  Cara or Kiera or whatever her name is?  I think my wife made me go see it about ten years back.”…. 

Two months later

Headline in the New York Times: 

Folkstone says, “It’s time to bomb Iran”

Britain, France express concern that U.S. stance could trigger World War 3

The next day, 7:38 a.m. 

On way to breakfast with Folkstone.  Took extra Zantac this morning in preparation.  Have extra Tums in pocket too.  War with Iran seemed like good idea last week—reliable way to revive sagging approval numbers and take the media’s attention off the not-entirely-ideal results of Folkstone’s privatization of the Justice Department.  But am now persuaded British are right that consequences would include protracted global war.  Which, given the size of our current deficit, would absolutely necessitate raising taxes.  Which Folkstone would never even consider doing.  Which in turn would mean troops not safe, not sufficiently armed, etc.  Would be public relations catastrophe in every respect. 

The problem is, once you’ve sold Folkstone on something, it’s impossible to un-sell him on it.  The fact that he never, ever goes back on his word is the thing he admires most about himself.  Having said he’s going to bomb Iran, he’s going to want to do it. 

The one good thing about breakfast with Folkstone is the breakfast itself:  there’s always lots of fresh Virginia ham and bacon, plentiful cheese grits, and sizzling hot hash browns.  Also, sometimes they’ll serve him corned beef hash, and as I make my way down the hall to the presidential breakfast room, I’m really hoping this morning will be one of those times.  I do like corned beef hash. 

When I enter the breakfast room, though, all thoughts of corned beef hash fly from my mind.  Something’s wrong with Folkstone.  Instead of watching Fox News like he always does when he eats, he’s got his head bent down toward the table.  He seems to be reading.  And from the looks of things, what he’s reading isn’t even a newspaper or a magazine but a book. 

“Good morning, sir,” I say, and he looks up and says to me, “Did you know, Karl, that of all the things Catherine imagined were going on in Northanger Abbey, not one of them were true?  And that in fact her fascination with all of these imagined dangers caused her to overlook the one real danger to her happiness in the form of Henry Tilney’s snooty father?” 

I stare at him, really and truly speechless.  He smiles at me even more patronizingly than usual, as if I were a particularly simple child.  “After those weirdos from the Post started asking questions about Jane Austen, I decided it behooved me to find out what this woman whose words were apparently all over my speeches really had to say for herself,” he says.  “So I’ve been doing some extracurricular reading.  And this Northanger Abbey book, I gotta tell you, Karl, it’s kinda slow going, but it makes a heckuva point about how you can get burned if you always just jump to the most obvious conclusions.  So I did a little more digging around on this whole Iran business.  And just like Colonel Tilney hadn’t really locked his wife in a secret chamber, those Ayatollas aren’t really gonna invade Israel.  It just sorta looks that way.  So I’ve made up my mind — I’m not going to bomb Iran after all.” 

I sag into the closest chair.  My relief is indescribable.  Jane Austen has come through for me again.  Are there no limits to the woman’s genius? 

“And then,” he says, “I realized that if Iran isn’t actually a threat, then I need to locate the real threat that, just like Catherine, we’ve failed to recognize.  So I thought some more, and I finally figured it out.  We’ve got to bomb Canada!” 

Oh.  Somehow I don’t think Jane’s going to be able to help me out of this one. 

But this girl Debi in my Jane Austen reading group (every other Monday, 8:00 p.m. at the Capitol Hill Starbucks, if you ever want to join us) was telling me last week that she’s got a 10-page reading list of great books by lady authors, and that she’d share it with me whenever I wanted.  I guess I better give her a call. 

One week later 

Headline in the Washington Post:

Folkstone declares war on France

Cites Charlotte Bronte novel Villette as inspiration for startling action

“The way they treated that poor Lucy Snow is outrageous,” he says. 

Oh shit.


Leslie Haynsworth’s fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Confrontation, The Roanoke Review, Fourth Genre, Gulf Stream, Existere, and elsewhere. She’s fiction editor for Yemassee and lives in Columbia, South Carolina, about a mile from the house where she grew up. Arguably, that means she hasn’t gone very far in life. But then, Jane Austen didn’t get around much either, and look where sitting around at home all the time got her.

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