Jane Austen, the Secret Radical: How She Would Have Liked to Be Read

Jane Austen, the secret radical

In Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, author Helena Kelly looks past the grand houses, drawing room dramas, and witty dialogue that have long been the hallmarks of Jane Austen‘s work to bring to light the serious, ambitious, subversive concerns of this beloved writer. Kelly illuminates the radical views — on such subjects as slavery, poverty, feminism, marriage, and the church — that Austen deftly and carefully explored in her six novels, at a time when open criticism was considered treason.

Kelly shows us that Austen was fully aware of what was going on in the world during the turbulent times she lived in, and sure of what she thought of it. Above all, Austen understood that the novel — until then dismissed as mindless and frivolous — could be a meaningful art form, one that in her hands reached unprecedented heights of greatness.

The following is excerpted from Jane Austen, the Secret Radical © 2016 by Helena Kelly. Reprinted by permission with Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.


Reading Jane Austen as she would have preferred

Jane talks in one letter about wanting readers who have “a great deal of ingenuity,” who will read her carefully. In wartime, in a totalitarian regime, and in a culture that took the written word far more seriously than we do, she could have expected to find them. Jane expected to be read slowly — perhaps aloud, in the evenings, or over a period of weeks as each volume was borrowed in turn from the circulating library. She expected that her readers would think about what she wrote, would even discuss it with each other.

She never expected to be read the way we read her, gulped down as escapist historical fiction, fodder for romantic fantasies. Yes, she wanted to be enjoyed; she wanted people to feel as strongly about her characters as she did herself. But for Jane a story about love and marriage wasn’t ever a light and frothy confection.


Marriage wasn’t all that romantic

Generally speaking, we view sex as an enjoyable recreational activity; we have access to reliable contraception; we have very low rates of maternal and infant mortality. None of these things were true for the society in which Jane lived. The four of her brothers who became fathers produced, between them, thirty-three children. Three of those brothers lost a wife to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law collapsed and died suddenly at the age of thirty-six; it sounds very much as if the cause might have been the rupturing of an ectopic pregnancy, which was, then, impossible to treat.

Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband — her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law. Avowedly feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Charlotte Smith were beginning to explore these injustices during Jane’s lifetime. Understand what a serious subject marriage was then, how important it was, and all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.

No more than a handful of the marriages Jane depicts in her novels are happy ones. And with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, even the relationships between Jane’s central characters are less than ideal — certainly not love’s young dream. Marriage mattered because it was the defining action of a woman’s life; to accept or refuse a proposal was almost the only decision that a woman could make for herself, the only sort of control she could exert in a world that must very often have seemed as if it were spiraling into turmoil. Jane’s novels aren’t romantic. But it’s become increasingly difficult for readers to see this.


Jane Austen, the secret radical by Helena Kelly

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly on Amazon


A skewed view of Jane Austen’s novels

For readers today opening one of Jane’s novels, there’s an enormous amount standing between them and the text. There’s the passage of two hundred years, for a start, and then there’s everything else — biographies and biopics, the lies and half-truths of the family memoirs, the adaptations and sequels, rewritings and reimaginings.

When it comes to Jane, so many images have been danced before us, so rich, so vivid, so prettily presented. They’ve been seared onto our retinas in the sweaty darkness of a cinema, and the aftereffect remains, a shadow on top of everything we look at subsequently.

It’s hard; it requires an effort for most readers to blink those images away, to be able to see Edward Ferrars cutting up a scissor case (a scene that arguably carries a strong suggestion of sexual violence) rather than the 1990s heartthrob Hugh Grant nervously rearranging the china ornaments on the mantelpiece. By the time you’ve seen Colin-Firth-as-Mr.-Darcy poised to dive into a lake fifty times, it’s made a synaptic pathway in your brain. Indeed, I’d question whether we can get away from that, certainly how we do.


Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice

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What we’ve gotten wrong

And this ought to concern us, because a lot of the images—like the images on the banknote—are simplistic, and some of them are plain wrong. Pemberley isn’t on the scale of the great ducal mansion at Chatsworth; Captain Wentworth doesn’t buy Kellynch Hall for Anne as a wedding present at the end of Persuasion; the environs of Highbury, the setting for Emma, aren’t a golden pastoral idyll. We have, really, very little reason to believe that Jane was in love with Tom Lefroy. But each image colors our understanding in some way or another, from Henry Austen’s careful portrait of his sister as an accidental author to Curtis Sittenfeld’s updated Pride and Prejudice, set in suburban Cincinnati.

The effect of all of them together is to make us read novels that aren’t actually there … I would suggest that when dealing with someone like Jane Austen, we could add another, and more dangerous, class of knowledge; what might be termed the unknown knowns—things we don’t actually know but think we do.


How to take Jane seriously

If we want to be the best readers of Jane’s novels that we can be, the readers that she hoped for, then we have to take her seriously. We can’t make the mistake that the publisher Crosby made and let our eyes slide over what doesn’t seem to be important. We can’t shrug off apparent contradictions or look only for confirmation of what we think we already know. We have to read, and we have to read carefully, because Jane had to write carefully, because she was a woman and because she was living through a time when ideas both scared and excited people.

And once we read like this, we start to see her novels in an entirely new light. Not an undifferentiated procession of witty, ironical stories about romance and drawing rooms, but books in which an authoress reflects back to her readers their world as it really is — complicated, messy, filled with error and injustice.

This is a world in which parents and guardians can be stupid and selfish; in which the Church ignores the needs of the faithful; in which landowners and magistrates — the people with local power — are eager to enrich themselves even when that means driving the poorest into criminality. Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote. But by and large, they’re so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places — reading them in the right way — they simply won’t understand.


Jane Austen

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An artist, if not a genius

Jane wasn’t a genius — inspired, unthinking; she was an artist. She compared herself to a miniature painter; in her work every stroke of the brush, every word, every character name and every line of poetry quoted, every location, matters.

It’s here, in the novels, that we find Jane — what there is of her to find, after all these years, after all her family’s efforts at concealment. It’s here we find a clever woman, clear-sighted, a woman “of information,” who knew what was going on in the world and what she thought about it. An authoress who knew that the novel, until then widely seen as mindless “trash,” could be a great art form and who did a lot — perhaps more than any other writer — to make it into one.

We’ve grown too accustomed to the other Janes—to Henry’s perfect sister and James-Edward’s maiden aunt; to the romantic, reckless girl in Becoming Jane and the woman on the banknote. I’ll try hard to shake these Janes off. In Jane Austen, Secret Radical, I offer flashes of an imaginary Jane Austen, sometimes in ordinary life, sometimes in the places she revisited in her books, but always primarily as a writer.

They’re intended as glimpses of what the authoress might have been thinking, of how real events and locations, and people, might have made their way into her novels. I don’t claim these as biography; even though they stay close to Jane’s manuscript correspondence, and to her own writing, they’re fiction.


Fiction offers deeper truths

Jane wouldn’t, I think, have disapproved of this approach. Northanger Abbey contains a lengthy passage about history, about its blend of fact and fiction. The naïve heroine, Catherine Morland, states an undoubted truth, that “a great deal” of history is made up: “The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention.” The older and more intelligent Eleanor Tilney, who reads history chiefly for pleasure, expresses herself “very well contented to take the false with the true.”

For Jane herself, though, fiction isn’t simply an enjoyable embellishment. It can offer deeper truths than fact. It’s in fiction, Jane says, that we should look for “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties.”

The “truthful fictions” in Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, the glimpses of an unfamiliar woman, should help to prepare readers for novels that will also become suddenly unfamiliar. Each chapter is devoted to one book and suggests how, by forgetting what we think we know, and focusing instead on the historical background, and on the texts themselves, we can make an attempt at reading as Jane intended us to. 


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