Helena Kelly: Jane Austen The Secret Radical

November 22, 2016

41-eofq1hel-_ac_us160_There are going to be a lot of new books on Jane Austen next year to cash in on the bicentenary of her death: this is probably the first of them. It’s a detailed collation of the evidence for Jane Austen’s radicalism, anti-establishment views and so forth, as found in the novels. Kelly is interesting on how Austen’s reputation was carefully crafted and shaped after her death to suit various different purposes and times; she also clarifies how little is really known about the writer’s life, and how much is gossip, hearsay, pure invention, or unevidenced anywhere. It’s therefore in the novels themselves that we might discover what the author’s real opinions were … (or not?) The point that Britain was by and large a totalitarian state during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and that therefore we need to be reading between the lines just as Austen’s first readers would have done, is worth consideration..

John Mullan reviewed this in last Saturday’s Guardian, just as I was getting into it: he basically panned it. What I’m gradually coming to realise it that every generation reinvents an awful lot of wheels: there wasn’t anything radically new or wildly exciting in this book. Most of the ideas I was familiar with from my studies at university and my preparation for teaching Austen’s novels: Kelly packages her material differently, contextualises better and writes in the style of the latest generation of academics…

That Jane Austen was in some ways quite radical was no news to me; she explores the incredibly limited possibilities for women, and their parlous financial position whether married or not; she is aware of the dangers to women of pregnancy and childbirth; she raises questions about the Church and the massive changes – particularly enclosures – taking place in the society of her times, and she is aware of the role of slavery in creating people’s wealth.

Kelly explains entails in detail, clarifies some aspects of how the Church of England worked and its involvement in slavery in the West Indies, and she’s good on family wealth and its transmission in general; it seems to me that the most useful aspect of her book is the detailed contextualisation of Austen’s society and its workings, the outlines of which are already known to many of Austen’s readers.

And yet, nowhere does Austen seem to be advocating the overthrow or replacement of the institutions of her time; she seems innately conservative in many ways, particularly in the complex social novel that is Mansfield Park, and Kelly’s analysis of that particular novel does seem to squash it to fit her thesis. If anything, Austen seems to be arguing for changes in behaviour, particularly in relationships, and highlighting perceived injustices: she is not a political novelist. Austen isn’t a secret radical, so much as a highly perceptive and intelligent observer of her times, whose gaze nothing escapes.

Mullan’s judgement on the book is a trifle harsh: I did find it interesting. But I also thought Kelly imposes rather too much of contemporary sexual attitudes onto Austen and her characters at times. I found the tone of what purports to be an academic work rather too chatty, and having both footnotes and endnotes was unnecessary. And, was it the author or her editor who decided that Beatrice was the heroine of As You Like It? Good grief...

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