Readers around the world love her works, but how well do we really know Jane Austen? In her book Jane Austen The Secret Radical (2016), academic Helena Kelly argues that the only way to understand Austen—separating her from familial and cultural myth—is to closely examine her works and what remains of her personal letters. Through these primary sources, and not the “Jane-shaped space” (13) of secondary biographies, we can begin to understand Austen’s mind.
Kelly begins her book with a first-person account of Jane Austen in the midst of relocating to her brother’s estate, the now infamous Chawton, while simultaneously drafting a letter to a publisher who is holding Northanger Abbey hostage—it was bought six years earlier and never published. This delay in publishing sits at the center to Kelly’s argument: Austen’s novel’s are misunderstood because their publication was delayed, meaning that their commentary needs to be viewed through a historical rather than contemporary lens. This introduction reads authentically and will appeal to Janeites, giving them a tantalizing glimpse of Austen. However, it begs the question: how is this approach to Austen any different from those misunderstanding Austen and her works (like the infamous Caroline Bingley quote on the £10 bank note)?
It’s All in the Academic Citation
Kelly begins each chapter with a ‘fictional’ account of events from Austen’s perspective, yet each account is accompanied by a footnote identifying a dated letter written by Austen that remains—citing primary research. Once Kelly has the reader hooked, she goes into academic analysis of each of Austen’s six completed novels, starting with Northanger Abbey (1817) and concluding with Persuasion (1817).
“It’s impossible for anyone to write thousands upon thousands of words
and reveal nothing of how they think or what they believe. And, contrary
to popular opinion, Jane did reveal her beliefs, not just about domestic
life and relationships, but about the wider political and social issues of
the day.” (30)
Applying a Historical Lens Makes for Better Readers
If you are looking to enhance your reading of Jane Austen’s novels, The Secret Radical is a great place to start. I cannot recommend this book enough as an example of how academic analysis can be presented without the jargon-filled prose so often found in academia. Kelly examines complex issues that come up in Austen’s works such as the risk of childbirth, the church, slavery, land ownership, but her prose is accessible, presenting her concepts clearly. Kelly helps us become contemporaries of Austen, giving us the keys to understand the political and social landscape of the late 1700s to early 1800s.
“The militia aren’t in the novel to provide young men for the Bennet girls
to dance with; they bring with them an atmosphere which is highly politically
charged, they trail clouds of danger—images of a rebellious populace, of
government repression…” (125)
Given these controversial themes, Kelly does conclude her introduction with a warning: “If you want to stay with the novels and Jane Austen you already know, then you should stop reading now” (34). I do have to admit that my view of my beloved Mr. Knightley was shaken a little bit, but the payoff for the greater understanding of each individual novel is well worth the sacrifice. Besides, just like his beloved Emma, Knightley himself could use a bit of a dressing down!
This book likely won’t shock close readers, but it will help all readers of Austen thread together patterns and ideas already suspected and provide the historical context for a more in-depth understanding and appreciation. If you are still undecided, you can read excerpts from Kelly’s introduction to give you an idea of her writing style and arguments.
So tell me: which Austen novel do you think demonstrates Austen’s radical thinking? On your first—or repeated—reading of Austen, what themes have you identified that you’d like to analyze more?
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