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Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

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The book takes place in a brief moment of peace with France, just before Napoleon escapes from Elba. Kelly was persuasive in many of her arguments, and I admire her gift for finding the unexpected in the familiar (e. After all, Pride and Prejudice was originally described as being ‘by the author of Sense and Sensibility’(1) not the authoress. They saw her books as instructional, beneficial even, for women readers of the age, for those who “needed” to learn to behave. She will show us that, far from giving us “demure dramas in drawing rooms”, Austen used her novels to “examine the great issues of her day”.

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. It’s difficult to stand out from the crowd when writing about such an influential figure, but Helena Kelly has certainly achieved that with this smart, knowing, perceptive book.

Unsurprisingly, despite some great historical context concerning slavery, Mansfield Park was one of the weaker ones, as even Kelly (who studies Austen for her job) seems unable to come up with a unifying theory for that book. Kelly offers a salutary argument for reading Austen’s novels with the serious attentiveness they invite and deserve.

In reality, Austen completely tears society apart with all its ridiculous nuances and expectations of propriety. Of the many such far fetchings, the following can be cited — from “Mansfield Park” — when Fanny is sent back to her family in Portsmouth to mend her ways. Doesn’t the plot turn on his pained understanding of the exact situation of the relatively impoverished Miss Bates?

When Catherine Morland excitedly unfastens a locked cabinet in Northanger Abbey, Kelly finds something more than a delicious parody of gothic convention. Radical, by the way, has a bit of a different usage here, in that it mostly means someone who is open to new ideas, and to rejecting the old if that is the right thing to do. One might think it is a matter of seeing what one wants to see in a book, but I will warn you that Kelly builds her case based on the texts and family letters and a thorough knowledge of Austen's life, time, and place. While Kelly is making her claims about the subtexts that have evaded previous critics, Austen admirers will keep noticing little mistakes about what is going on in the novels. Later in the book, Kelly talks about how Jane includes a character in Mansfield Park who was blessed with ten healthy pregnancies, just as Jane's sister-in-law was at the time of Jane's writing, but who would later die of her eleventh.

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