Jane Austen: The Secret Radical review – ‘sublime literary detective work’

Helena Kelly makes the case for Austen as an author steeped in the fear of war and revolution who wrote about the burning political issues of the time

Judging from her introduction to Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, it seems fair to say that Helena Kelly is not a fan of the forthcoming Jane Austen £10 note. The “idealised picture” chosen by the bank looks “far less grumpy” than the “unfinished sketch it’s based on”. The background is a stately home “where Jane didn’t live” and the selected quotation – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” – is “spoken by a character who shortly afterwards yawns and throws her book aside”.

I also have mixed feelings about this banknote. It was not, as Kelly asserts, a simple matter of the Bank of England celebrating the bicentenary of Austen’s death. Rather, it was the culmination of a hard-fought campaign that I started when the bank announced that the only female historical figure on our banknotes was being replaced with Winston Churchill. And so when the bank produced this mocked-up note, part of me was delighted. We had won. But another part of me was, like Kelly, frustrated by yet another representation of Austen that fed the beast that enables presumably intelligent people to describe Austen with a straight face as “the 19th-century version of Barbara Cartland”.

It is this beast that Kelly tackles in a meticulously researched book that is, at its heart, a stern telling-off of us as readers. “We’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled or allusive,” she admonishes. “But we haven’t been willing to do that with Jane’s work.” With Austen, we do not skim further than the surface.

Sometimes, we don’t even skim as far as that, content to revel at the level of what Kelly calls “the unknown knowns – things we don’t actually know, but think we do.” The things we think we know about Austen based on countless twee tea towels and throbbing film adaptations, the things an audience member was presumably thinking of when she stood up at a Margaret Atwood event I attended recently and thanked the author for “saving me from having to read Jane Austen”. She hasn’t read Jane Austen. But she knows her, as indeed we all do.

Well, as Kelly says: “We know wrong.” We have to try a little harder. After all, in a letter to her sister Austen herself explains: “I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.”

Austen was writing at a time of intense political turmoil. Threats from abroad (wars with France and America; the French Revolution) made for a country on alert for threats from within, where “any criticism of the status quo was seen as disloyal and dangerous”. Britain became “more and more like a totalitarian state, with all the unpleasant habits totalitarian states acquire”. Habeas corpus was suspended; the meaning of treason was expanded to include “thinking, writing, printing, reading”. Kelly tells us of carpenters imprisoned for reciting doggerel and schoolmasters imprisoned for distributing leaflets. “There can hardly have been a thinking person in Britain who didn’t understand what was intended – to terrify writers and publishers into policing themselves.”

In this climate, where it “was expected that letters would be opened and read by the authorities [… and] that publishers would shy away from anything which challenged societal norms too openly”, conservative writers flourished, while most others of a radical bent responded by turning to nature (think pre-political career Wordsworth), or to the past and/or abroad (think the gothic novel). Austen was unique as a novelist of this period in writing “novels which were set more or less in the present day, and more or less in the real world”.

It is therefore not to be wondered at that Austen may have hidden her radical politics under the surface of a seemingly more “frothy confection”, although, as Kelly points out, to view marriage as a frivolous topic in an 18th- or 19th-century novel is shamefully ahistorical. “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.” And that is before we even get on to the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth that were implicit in any marriage plot at a time where “almost every family had a tale of maternal death to tell”.

Through a combination of beautifully precise close readings alongside Austen’s biographical, literary and historical context, Kelly shows us that the novels were about nothing more or less than the burning political questions of the day. Contrary to Churchill’s infamous assertion that her characters led “calm lives” free from worry “about the French Revolution or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars”, Kelly reveals an oeuvre steeped in the anxiety and fear of war. She shows us that despite those who “stubbornly insist that despite using the word enclosure, Jane doesn’t really mean it”, at least two of Austen’s novels (Mansfield Park and Emma) were engaged with the effects of the Enclosure Acts and their attendant dangers of poverty and misery.

And although Kelly doesn’t mention Edward Said’s thesis that Mansfield Park glorified slavery, she nevertheless shows it up as the nonsense it is by relentlessly tracking down each and every hint Austen drops, until she can show that the novel is so heavily littered with stabs at both slavery itself and the Church of England’s complicity in the trade, that for them to be unintended would be a “truly impossible number of coincidences”. It is notable that, alone of her novels, Mansfield Park was never reviewed on publication; if we miss the significance of Austen’s most openly radical and anti-establishment novel, it seems clear that her intended audience did not.

It is a shame that Kelly doesn’t leave much room for Austen’s bitingly funny letters and juvenilia, both of which can leave no reader in doubt of Austen’s disposition toward the satirical, the radical and, more often than not, the grotesque. I was also not sold on Kelly’s decision to open each chapter with a short fictional section based on Austen’s letters. Her justification (Austen’s assertion that it is in fiction that one will find “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties”) was convincing, but I found the approach grating. Austen is one of the greatest writers ever to have lived – if we are to read fiction, I would rather have read her own words. Or perhaps this would have been the place for some letter extracts.

But these are minor complaints in an otherwise deeply welcome book. Kelly has produced a sublime piece of literary detective work that shows us once and for all how to be precisely the sort of reader that Austen deserves.

Jane Austen: The Secret Radical is published by Icon (£20). Click here to buy a copy for £16.40


Caroline Criado-Perez

The GuardianTramp

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