Jane Austen the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

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I bloody loved this book. I bought it while I was on a book crawl with Laura and her book blogger pals. As soon as Laura pointed out to me, I knew it was the book for me. Reading this was a very intense experience! It’s the reason I decided to do my Autumn of Austen blog series and has made me feel justified in my decision to base everything in my life on my love for Pride and Prejudice.

The premise of the book is that most modern readers have Austen all wrong. Many of us have fallen for the image of Austen as a quiet, spinster aunt who wrote witty but unthreatening novels about young women who in love with wealthy men. Kelly argues that we have no reliable source for that idea of Jane Austen and that if we go to her novels, we see a very different woman. Kelly devotes a chapter to each of Austen’s finished novels, picking up on the references that would have been familiar to Austen’s first readers and filling in the social and political context that we are missing 200 years after Austen’s death.

Through her close analysis of Austen’s novels, Kelly paints the picture of a Jane Austen who was extremely politically engaged, concerned with the treatment of women, the hypocrisy of the church, the effect of enclosures on ordinary people and many other issues. Our lack of familiarity with things like the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Church, inheritance law, and the literature of the time, means that we miss many of her subtle references. Modern readers, for example, are unlikely to have read the Mysteries of Udolpho and therefore just don’t fully get how misguided Catherine Morland is in Northanger Abbey. Most of us are unaware that many of the characters in Mansfield Park share names with prominent slave owners, and we aren’t living through the Napoleonic wars with companies of militia taking over our towns. I will say that Kelly goes into some very in-depth literary criticism, which I love, but may not be to everyone’s taste. However, if like me, you are an ex-literature student, this will make you squeal with joy. It’s the best part of doing an English degree without even having to write an essay.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to all Austen fans. I will warn you that it may make you feel differently about certain characters and books (I’m looking at you, Edward Ferrars), but that might be worth it if you want to love Austen even more.

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