Austen in August Review: Jane Austen The Secret Radical, Helena Kelly

Having set this book front and centre of last year’s Christmas list to no avail, it was with some excitement that I spotted Jane Austen The Secret Radical had made its paperback debut.  I read it with gusto.  Every reader seems to find their own version of Jane Austen and Oxford professor Helena Kelly is no different.  Nor is she so very unusual in believing that she alone is correct, with the main thrust of her book being that we have been misinterpreting Austen’s novels for all of these years and only here can we finally discover the truth.  Indeed, with her chapter openers which imagine Jane Austen going about her life and Kelly’s habit of referring to Austen by her first name, one could be forgiven for thinking that Kelly has some kind of direct link.  Still, her passion for her mission is clear and her writing style engaging and the feeling that Jane Austen’s more subversive messages have been dumbed down over the years is common to many fans – is this the Jane Austen biography to see us through the post-truth era?

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Kelly opens with an introduction putting Austen into the political context of her time, then splits off into a chapter on each of the six novels and then closes with an afterword on the great lady’s death.  She is not afraid afraid to make cross-references between works if they back up her point, but from early on it is clear that Kelly is relying on her own research rather than that of any of her fellow scholars.  Unsurprisingly – and particularly so given how brief her own bibliography – this has led to several rather indignant reviews from well-known Austen experts.  John Mullan of What Matters in Jane Austen voiced his concerns in the Guardian, while John Sutherland gave a slightly more conciliatory review in The New York Times.  Both men noted the way in which Claire Tomalin’s seminal 2012 biography Jane Austen A Life was dismissed in a footnote.  Helena Kelly is very much doing things her own way here and does seem to have rather set the cat among the pigeons.

I was reminded of Deborah Yaffe’s Among The Janeites and its description of Arnie Perlstein, the Jane Austen ‘truther’ who believed that only he seemed to spot what was really going on with the books.  But where Austen fans were united in believing Perlstein a lunatic (and even the kindly Yaffe seemed to think him a ‘nice’ lunatic), here Kelly is preaching and expecting to be heard and believed.  The fact is that not only are some of her theories more convincing than others, the same is also true of their originality.  Her chapter on how the plot of Mansfield Park is haunted by the shadow of the slave trade is something which Paula Byrne also argued in her 2013 book The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, a work which does not appear in Kelly’s bibliography.  And it is hardly news that the Austen family closed ranks after the author’s death to protect her reputation.

Kelly argues that Austen was writing at a time when Britain was essentially a totalitarian state.  Habeas corpus was suspended, people could be locked up for distributing leaflets or reciting doggerel interpreted as critical of the state.  The intention of all this, Kelly assures us, was to make writers think twice before speaking plainly.  Thus, Austen was forced to cloak her message, to code it and then after her death, her family stamped out, scratched out, scribbled out any suspicion of radical sentiment.  We are going to have to look beneath the surface if we are going to see what we were supposed to be getting at.

As Kelly rightly points out, Austen was one of remarkably few Regency writers who set their stories within their own time.  We read her work as a period piece, but Kelly tries to dive into the concerns and preoccupations of the time.  Northanger Abbey considers the ‘common anxieties of life’, namely sex and childbirth.  I found Kelly’s analysis of the themes around primogeniture within Sense and Sensibility to be truly compelling – it has never been my favourite of the novels but I am now looking at it with fresh eyes.  The various ways in which primogeniture is explored within the plot as injust – from the Dashwood girls’ lack of inheritance to Edward Ferrars’ lack of independence to Colonel Brandon’s inability to marry his childhood sweetheart – it all points to quite a subversive message coming from the younger daughter of a parson who had no financial prospects and who lost her home when her parents gave it to her eldest brother.

Pulp the Classics cover of Pride and Prejudice

Far from the prim and proper conservative, Kelly points out the various ways in which Austen poked holes in the status quo.  Pride and Prejudice‘s heroine Elizabeth Bennet is an undutiful daughter, refuses to obey her mother, holds the vicar Mr Collins in contempt and shows no appropriate respect to the aristocracy – she is ‘a conservative’s nightmare’.  She and Wickham conspire together in their inverted snobbery against the upper classes and Darcy is only able to win her heart when he steps down from his pedestal, befriends the despised Gardiners and shows himself willing to embrace change.  While the themes of aristocratic decay within Persuasion were familiar to me, this new perspective on P&P was new to me and Kelly’s explanation of the rules regarding social introductions also shed new light.

Similarly, Kelly takes a step back from Emma‘s Highbury and shows us what is actually going on – Mr Knightley has carried out a land enclosure.  The signs are there – he does talk about it, it’s just that Emma finds it all too dull to actually attend to.  The fences and hedges are up and the poor population are suffering, hence also the increased numbers of gypsies on the roads.  Just as Fanny Price also seems to shut her eyes to what is around her, so too does Emma appear ignorant.  Although the idea that he only seeks to marry Emma to carry out a second enclosure seems to require a radical reevaluation of the character of the man who scolded Emma so roundly for being cruel to a woman beneath her in social station.

Secret Radical is at its best when looking at the novels through a political lens.  Kelly’s musings on the apparent sexual phobia within Northanger Abbey raises eyebrows, not least when she confidently describes the passage where Catherine Moreland is trying to get into the chest in her room at the Abbey as a clear metaphor for female masturbation.  Several of the reviews by Austen scholars did rather spit feathers at this analogy.  Similarly, the idea Fanny Price arms her Portsmouth sisters with silver knives to protect them against their father seems far-fetched, not least because the silver knives would have blunt and there must surely have been sewing scissors or kitchen knives which would have done the job far better.  In Emma, Kelly’s theory that Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith are half-sisters seems somewhat half-baked and seems to argue a peculiar need to see sex in every corner.  All this being said, Kelly’s theory about Colonel Brandon’s paternity of Miss Williams was rather more well-reasoned and does beg a few questions.

I heartily enjoyed Secret Radical – I have never thought Jane Austen was the dull preserver of Ye Olde England which so many would have her be.  Her heroines have intelligence (aside from Catherine Moreland) and each of them challenges the way things are done around them in some way.  Many of the matches struck within her books are deeply problematic and do not necessarily augur long-term happiness – Austen was quietly critical of the way that marriage was the only acceptable option available to women.  To be frank though, one does not need to subscribe to all of Helena Kelly’s theories to acknowledge that Austen was an author with a political agenda.  Secret Radical showcases its author’s impressive and in depth knowledge of the novels but it is less revolutionary than it appears to be and many of the theories within are less ground-breaking than Kelly’s thunderclapping writing style would have us believe.  I recommend Secret Radical as an engagingly written rediscovery of of Jane Austen, but Kelly will not be the last writer to do so – she is rediscovered by each reader who picks up one of her books.  The best piece of advice comes at the very end of the book when Kelly orders us to go back and read them again.

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Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
Published by Icon Books on November 3rd 2016
Genres: Literary Criticism, Women Authors, History, Europe, Great Britain, General, Modern
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9781785781179

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

6 thoughts on “Austen in August Review: Jane Austen The Secret Radical, Helena Kelly

  1. I never imagined I would read a sentence that contained ‘Jane Austen’ and ‘post-truth’, but you have managed it!

    To a non-reader of Austen this sounds like a book to be read, something that challenges the myths that can arise and then become more accepted than the actuallity. What makes it even more tempting to read is that certain critics and academics have challenged what it has to say (of course, their own works are the only possilbe interpretations – they were personal friends of Jane so they know best!)

    From your review this comes across as a companion piece to your previous post on ‘things we get wrong’. This all highlights a problem with many great authors who neither wrote a biography or if they did only gave a highly edited version of their lives (Arthur Ransome is guilty of this, he left a biography to be published after his death but his official one is a far more acurate picture of his life as the author, Hugh Brogan, had access to his letters and could talk to people who knew him.)

    Then of course we can never know what is going on in someone elses mind when they are writing, how many interpretations of great works would be trashed by authors if they were still around to read such views?

    1. It’s not that the critics were ‘personal friends’ – John Mullan is alive and publishing today so never met her personally – but Kelly was quite dismissive of various well-known Austen scholars and insists throughout the book that she is the only person who truly understands Austen. Then she also talks about Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility being drunk when it’s quite clear in the text that he’s only joking about this. It’s very strange.

      I would say read the books first then come back and see what you think of this – it’s a weird book. I really liked it, but it’s weird just the same.

      1. Yes, I should try once again in reading Austen!

        My comment on critics being ‘personal friends’ of Austen was rather heavy-handed sarcasm, at secondary school I was put off ‘Under Milk Wood’ by a teacher who interpreted every part of it as if he knew exactly what Dylan Thomas meant by it.

        For any work of art, we can never claim to know the thought process behind it – unless we can ask the creator directly (and even then you often wont get an answer the lets you in on the process!)

        1. PS

          Once I left school I read ‘Under Milk Wood’ for myself, and without the constant analysis realised what a great play it was!

          1. Ah – didn’t pick up on that. Certain early critics (e.g. her nephews) were personal friends so I misunderstood. Apologies!

            I remember at university, an English lecture early on gave the cautionary tale of the student who was obliged to study his father’s poetry, so he called up his Dad and asked what it had meant, wrote an essay based on what his father said and got a low grade because criticism is based on far more than original author intent. Controversial theory …

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