Book 502: Jane Austen, the Secret Radical – Helena Kelly

Perhaps I’m too smart for my own good, but overall this book was a bit disappointing. With a title like Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, you’d expect there to be revelations of sorts and yet there weren’t. I mean that’s why I requested a copy from the publisher.* I was hoping as the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death rapidly approaches there’d be something completely new and innovative to talk about, but there wasn’t.

Sure Kelly highlighted a few things that I missed when reading Austen, but really she just expounded upon the things that those of us who don’t read Austen ONLY as a romance novelist, but as a social commentator hopefully picked up on. She provided more detail of course, especially when it came to names and places, but overall there just weren’t a lot of revelations.

Honestly, what I think hurt the book more than it helped the book was Kelly’s addition of the creative nonfiction pieces at the beginning of each chapter. She took a letter or a couple of letters and attempted to write a scene from Austen’s point of view. They weren’t bad, they just felt unnecessary and broke up the fascinating history Kelly worked so hard to tie together and present in this neat little package.

Basically she breaks the book into Austen’s finished novels and describes the overarching theme. They weren’t really that hard to decipher and I felt that she left out a few of the better known comparisons (I have to assume on purpose – she does work for Oxford) that I felt could’ve strengthened the ties to her themes. Here there are in my words at least, as well as a link to my most coherent responses:

Kelly expounded upon each of these general themes and even tied them across books. The one that REALLY got me was that she didn’t connect Jane Fairfax’s comments about Governesses and slavery to Mansfield Park and indentured servitude. It seemed like an oversight in that Austen was always conscious of class even though people think she writes about only one class, as Kelly points out. Austen is constantly writing about varying classes and the malleability of what/who is or isn’t in one class or another. It was funny though, Kelly pegged me perfectly:

“For half a century or more after Jane’s death, critics agreed (broadly) on what her best novels were. Pride and Prejudice was ranked first, then Emma and Mansfield Park more or less together. Those who strongly preferred one tended to think less of the other; as time went on, Emma gradually edged ahead, and Mansfield Park fell behind.” (245, emphasis added)

Where Kelly’s strength really lies is in the detail she provides to back up her various themes. She provides ample evidence to show that Emma isn’t just about a spoiled well off young woman, that it’s about the changing landscape of England through enclosures (Wikipedia link) and even brings to light some of Mr. Knightley’s questionable motives (morals) when it comes to the future.

What got me though, particularly in this the 200th year anniversary of “Austen’s death was this passage in the final chapter:

“She was, it’s fairly clear, killed with kindness. A dose of opiates strong enough to knock her out completely for nine hours has to have at least hastened her death. Most people who die from a heroin overdose die because their breathing stops; a number of physiological responses to heroin and other opiates work to depress respiration. We may have to consider the—frankly horrifying—possibility that Jane’s illness wouldn’t have on it’s own, have proved fatal, or not so soon, that it might have been the drugs, and only the drugs, that killed her.

Her father had been well into his seventies when he died. Her mother was to live to the age of eighty-seven. Cassandra didn’t die until 1845. Frank, the closest of the siblings in age to Jane, survived to the 1860s, to be ninety-one. Thirty, forty, even fifty years more wouldn’t have been far fetched. Think—there could have been no uncertainty about what Jane looked like, no scope for the idealized portrait that’s going to be simpering up at us from the new £10 notes; we’d have photographs. Jane could have traveled to Europe, to America. She could have gone on trains, on steamships, met Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot. She could have written another dozen novels.”(282-283, emphasis mine)

Just the possibility that Jane Austen could’ve lived another 30-40 years but didn’t because she was killed out of what was considered kindness/ineptitude is as Kelly puts it “frankly horrifying.” I mean she was writing a book, Sandition, near her death with a MIXED RACE character. How would she have finished it? How would it have been accepted? Kelly showed how saucy (to use Austen’s own words) Austen was, how far would she have taken it if she wrote for another 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years?

Recommendation: If you want to learn more about how Austen (probably) wanted her books to be read then definitely read this book. It’s a fascinating look at the time when Austen was writing and the many intricacies she laced throughout her books. There is so much more than we as 20th/21st century readers can possibly imagine held within these six novels.

Opening Line: “England in April. Even here, in Southampton, in a town full of soldiers and sailors, in a country at war, April is still April.”

Closing Line: “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies; forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels. They’re there to speak for her: love stories, yes, though not always happy ones, but also the productions of an extraordinary mind, in an extraordinary age. Read them again.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for my honest opinion, no additional goods or money were exchanged.


14 thoughts on “Book 502: Jane Austen, the Secret Radical – Helena Kelly”

  1. Excellent review! I’m excited about the Jane Austen buzz leading up to the 200th anniversary of her death. I want to read this book, so I appreciate your recommendation at the end (even though it didn’t have much in it that was new for you). It’s kind of amusing that the author recommends “forgetting” books like the one she’s written in favor of re-reading the originals. I agree, despite my love of adaptations. I’m re-reading all of Jane Austen’s books this summer. It’s fascinating to think about what she might have written had she lived a longer life. It’s awful that she may have died as a result of her treatment, something that still happens today even with prescribed medications/treatment (the basis of the type of mass torts lawsuits at the heart of Amelia Elkins Elkins).

    Liked by 1 person

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