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.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife.

Quite by chance, I have chosen a book from The Austen Project as the first post in MY Austen project. The Austen Project is a series where modern authors have rewritten Austen’s novels, presumably in honour of the 200th Anniversary of her death. So far four have been published: Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible which is her retelling of Pride and Prejudice. If I’m completely honest, I was not at all interested in any of these books. I saw the Sense and Sensibility one day and wondered why anyone would even attempt to rewrite Austen’s work. It feels like the height of arrogance to write a version of one of Austen’s novels and keep the title! In fact, I was outraged and offended by the very idea. Then Eligible appeared as a 99p Kindle book, and I thought I’d give it a chance…

So, there are two key things that Curtis Sittenfeld does to change Pride and Prejudice – firstly, she moves the story from the Hertfordshire to Cincinnati, Ohio, and secondly, she makes Jane, Lizzy, Darcy, and Bingley about 15-20 years older than the original characters in Austen’s novel. Making the characters older makes sense. Unless you are part of some deeply religious sect, being unmarried at 22 isn’t a sign of failure. In Eligible, Mrs Bennet’s real concern is whether her daughters will produce any children.

Like Pride and Prejudice, Eligible starts with Darcy and Bingley arriving in the Bennet’s sisters’ world. But they are not two gentlemen from the north of England, they are two doctors, and there is the added excitement of Chip Bingley* being a minor celebrity having starred in a Bachelor-style dating show (called, you guessed it, Eligible). Elizabeth and Jane live and work in New York (as a journalist and yoga teacher respectively)  but have recently returned to Cincinnati for a family crisis. Lydia and Kitty are in their early twenties and obsessed with CrossFit, while Mary is fairly reclusive and spends most of her time lurking in her room studying.

I’m not going to say anything else about what Sittenfeld has changed because the joy of this book is finding out how she has translated the novel into modern-day America. As a Pride and Prejudice obsessive, it’s a delicious treat to be able to experience the story in a slightly different way. It’s not my favourite book ever, and it definitely won’t be for everyone. But this book made me cackle with glee on a packed commuter train I think that’s as good a recommendation as you can get.

*Yuck to Chip. Why on EARTH do Americans use Chip as a nickname for Charles?

An Autumn of Austen

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Welcome to my new blog! I have decided to start off with a series dedicated to my first love, the greatest novelist of all time – Jane Austen.

I have loved Jane Austen since I was six-years-old and the 1995 Pride and Prejudice aired on the BBC. I still remember how it felt to watch it for the first time – I remember how it felt to hate Mr Darcy and think that Wickham seemed to be quite fun! I still feel the same little fizz of excitement when I hear the theme music. And ever since I was six years old, I have hoped to wake up and find that I’ve miraculously become Elizabeth Bennet overnight.

Twenty-two years on, I am still as devoted a fan as ever, I have seen countless adaptations and studied her books up to degree level, but I have not tired of Jane Austen. As this year marks the 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, I have decided that there is no better tribute than to spend Autumn re-reading all of her novels, re-watching adaptations of her work and enjoying Jane Austen in as many forms as possible. I always love to spend autumn re-reading beloved books, watching costume dramas and eating casseroles so why not make it into a project! I’m not going to write any posts on the novels themselves, I don’t think anyone needs to read a review of Pride and Prejudice (my review would just be OMFG! I LOVE IT SO MUCH), but I will share reviews of Austen inspired/related things.