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Jane Austen The Secret Radical – Helena Kelly

Jane Austen, the secret radical – Helena Kelly

I can’t remember where I first heard of this (or when), but, of course, I wanted to read it. Then there was a scathing review by John Mullan¬†and I had second thoughts, but I had already purchased a copy by then.

Here is the blurb …

A brilliant, illuminating reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring–how truly radical–a writer she was.
In this fascinating, revelatory work, Helena Kelly–dazzling Jane Austen authority–looks past the grand houses, the pretty young women, past the demure drawing room dramas and witty commentary on the narrow social worlds of her time that became the hallmark of Austen’s work to bring to light the serious, ambitious, deeply subversive nature of this beloved writer. Kelly illuminates the radical subjects–slavery, poverty, feminism, the Church, evolution, among them–considered treasonous at the time, that Austen deftly explored in the six novels that have come to embody an age. The author reveals just how in the novels we find the real Jane Austen: a clever, clear-sighted woman “of information,” fully aware of what was going on in the world and sure about what she thought of it. We see a writer who understood that the novel–until then seen as mindless “trash”–could be a great art form and who, perhaps more than any other writer up to that time, imbued it with its particular greatness.

Ms Kelly has a warning at the end of chapter 1

If you want to stay with the novels and the Jane Austen you already know, then you should stop reading now.

and I think for many people that is good advice.

There is an introductory chapter, a chapter on each of the 6 novels and a concluding chapter. Each chapter begins with an imaginative excursion into Austen’s life – I must admit these sections annoyed me. The rest of the chapter is devoted to convincing the reader of Austen’s hidden meanings. Ms Kelly has an accessible style – no dense academic jargon – and reading this book made me want to read Austen again (surely a good thing).

Some of her theories I agreed with (Mrs Tilney dying from a miscarriage or ‘a disasterously mismanaged early labour’) and others I didn’t (Mr Knightley is my favourite hero, so I might be biased, but I refuse to believe he married Emma for her money and land).

Some of her arguments were of the type A relates to B, B relates to C, so A relates to C. It is impossible to know what Austen was¬†thinking, so people need to decide if a series of coincidences are in fact coincidences or a code that Austen was using that contemporary readers would comprehend (do any contemporary reviewers comment on this stuff?). It reminds me of other Jane Austen conspiracy theorists, however, Ms Kelly has written her book and put her ideas out in the world and I am glad that I read it even if I didn’t agree with everything.

Another review …




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