Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly—A Review

Jane Austen Secret Radical 2018From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Was Jane Austen a radical? Was she sympathetic to the “radical reforms” of Charles James Fox and others that included universal male suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and women’s rights? Few would readily place her in the company of Thomas Paine, William Godwin, or Mary Wollstonecraft, but perhaps that is because she kept her dangerous views so well hidden that most of her contemporaries, as well as later generations, have missed them. While I began reading Jane Austen, The Secret Radical with an open but somewhat skeptical mind, I was curious to see what evidence Helena Kelly would provide. In Chapter 1, she throws down the gauntlet: 

We’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like [William] Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled or allusive. But we haven’t been willing to do it with Jane’s work. We know Jane; we know that however delicate her touch she’s essentially writing variations of the same plot, a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in any romantic comedy of the last two centuries.  

We know wrong. (4%)

Kelly cites a number of reasons for what she calls the misreading of Austen, including a lack of reliable biographical information about Austen, the destruction of most of her letters by her sister Cassandra, and a concerted effort by surviving family members to reframe Jane’s life and creative endeavors along more conventional and non-threatening lines. Delays in the publication of her early works obscured themes that were rooted in the upheavals of the French Revolution and the literary phenomenon of the Gothic novel. Add to these the many film adaptations and biopics that have nearly overtaken the original novels in the consciousness of the current age:

When it comes to Jane, so many images have been danced before us, so rich, so vivid, so prettily presented. They’ve been seared onto our retinas in the sweaty darkness of a cinema, and the aftereffect remains, a shadow on top of everything we look at subsequently. (10%)

The first and last chapters bookend chapters exploring Austen’s novels in the order in which they were made ready for publication, starting with Northanger Abbey and ending with Persuasion. Each chapter is introduced with a black and white illustration and a “truthful fiction” featuring Jane Austen. These imagined sketches are used to highlight the major themes of each chapter, examining the historical, political, and cultural events of Austen’s time and creating a bridge between Austen’s biography and her literary creations.

Chapter 1 “The Authoress”

Chapter 2 “The Anxieties of Common Life” Northanger Abbey

Chapter 3 “The Age of Brass” Sense and Sensibility

Chapter 4 “All Our Old Prejudices” Pride and Prejudice

Chapter 5 “The Chain and the Cross” Mansfield Park

Chapter 6 “Gruel” Emma

Chapter 7 “Decline and Fall” Persuasion

Chapter 8 “The End”

Ms. Kelly states that the novels “deal with slavery, sexual abuse, land enclosure, evolution, and women’s rights. They poke fun at the monarchy and question religion.” (11%) Kelly’s research and analysis illuminated aspects of the novels that I had not previously considered. This was especially true for novels that I am only passingly acquainted with, namely Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Overall, I enjoyed Kelly’s exploration of the irony and subtle digs that Austen planted in her writing, although some of the author’s interpretations of specific characters and scenes seemed to go beyond the scope of reasonable deduction. While I agree that Jane Austen was a sharp social critic who understood the pragmatic necessity of tempering some of her observations, I found myself unable to swallow some of Kelly’s more speculative and subjective characterizations in Jane Austen, The Secret Radical. She has few positive things to say about any of Austen’s male protagonists, so Team Tilney and others should be duly warned.

Kelly finishes strong in the final chapter detailing Austen’s illness, death, and burial. This closing chapter was one of my favorites as Austen’s burial in Winchester Cathedral has always puzzled me. The author posits an intriguing reason for Jane’s burial in stately grandeur rather than closer to home at humble Steventon or Chawton. She also reveals Austen as spirited and sarcastic to the very end, in spite of her family’s determined attempts to remember her otherwise.

Regardless of whether one agrees with every assertion Ms. Kelly makes, her work raises questions that encourage interested readers to dig deeper. Supplementary material includes notes and suggestions for further reading ranging from works by Edmund Burke and Erasmus Darwin to novels by Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Ann Radcliffe to poetry by William Cowper, John Clare, and Walter Scott.

As Kelly points out, Austen’s life and innermost thoughts will always be shrouded in mystery. However, we have her words—hundreds of thousands of them—in her novels. “They’re there to speak for her: love stories, yes, though not always happy ones, but also the productions of an extraordinary mind, in an extraordinary age. Read them again.” (98%) I agree wholeheartedly with the wisdom of Helena Kelly’s final instruction.

4 out of 5 Stars

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly
Vintage; Reprint edition (April 3, 2018)
Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (336)
ISBN: 978-0525432944



Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2018; text Tracy Hickman © 2020, Austenprose.com

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