Jane Austen, The Secret Radical has to be one of the more difficult books that I have chosen to review.
I have to ask myself, “who is the radical here, is it Jane Austen or is it really the author, Helena Kelly?”
Helena writes at the end of her first chapter, The Authoress, “If you want to stay with the novels and the Jane Austen you already know, then you should stop reading now. If you want to read Jane as she wanted to be read – if you want to know her – then read on.” (P34)
In retrospective, the statement on p 34 says it all, as Helena is making the huge claim that she has an inside understanding of Jane’s mind and motivation that made her a radical. I found this claim to be presumptive.
That Helena has done so much research, not only of Jane Austen’s life but of other authors and history of the time, is not in doubt. It is also obvious that she has studied in detail every word that is contained in each of the Jane Austen novels. This definitely makes her qualified to write this book.
For example, in the chapter on Pride and Prejudice, Helena goes to great lengths to record the number of times social introductions are made; 30 times here, 19 in Mansfield Park, 23 times in Emma and 15 in Sense and Sensibility. There are other occasions that Helena has added the number of times a particular word has been used in various books. I could not quite get the point Helena is trying to make and found myself saying out loud, “So!”
The chapters are organised in the time sequence of Jane’s writing so we start with Northanger Abbey which is followed by Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. However, in trying to convince readers of this book that Jane is a ‘radical,’ Helena jumps all over Jane’s books. In every chapter pulling information from each and often repeating what she has already written.
I am sure Helena is correct in refuting some of the past biographies that have been written about Jane, especially those written by her relatives and others. These were written from the context of the social time of which I am sure we have at least some understanding.
Of course, Jane wrote of the world as she saw it, or as she wished it to be. I am sure she also took liberties in her interpretation, as many authors do. For example, Helena claims that Jane did not write accurately about childbirth, true, but Jane wrote what she wanted.
After reading this very detailed and complex account I believe that Helena cannot make the claim that she knows how Jane wants her novels to be read. For example, Helena writes, “When we open Northanger Abbey, we’re venturing somewhere that Jane wasn’t really willing to let us go. We’re trespassing.” (P 44) This to me is a contradictory claim. Why then, was Jane so angry and upset when it was not initially published?
I was astonished in the Northanger Abbey chapter, which, Helena claims, is the most ‘sexual’ of Janes’ books. Helena interprets what Jane wrote as masturbation (p66). Similarly, in Sense and Sensibility, Helena claims that a scene where Edward takes scissors and cuts up the sheath they were in has sexual connotations; sheath meaning vagina in Latin and the scissors representing a penis. Helena claims that Jane probably knew this meaning. I have to say that this is so far-fetched and can only diminish Helena’s own credibility and claim that Jane is a radical.
In Sense and Sensibility, Jane gives her female characters money, (not the norm at that time) which gives them some degree of control. However, these finances are often misappropriated. This does not make Jane a radical. To me, more a free thinker and awareness that the social times could be a whole lot better, especially for women.
Many of Helena’s arguments of Jane as a radical are so very complex and sometimes based on what Jane read, as evidenced in letters Jane wrote to Cassandra and which Helena has researched. In the chapter on Emma, Helena’s focus is on enclosures and also gypsies. Helena adds to the complexity of this read by again referring back to Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, in order to convince us of what Jane intended us to read into her books. Yes, Jane does write about the working class but again, I cannot see that she is a radical.
I really admired and enjoyed the factual anecdotes that Helena included throughout the book. This is particularly so in the last chapter which is all factual. Helena has a more objective approach and does not presume to ‘know’. She uses elements of doubt and the unknown, surrounding Janes’ death and burial.
Toward the end, my thinking was, I need to read at least some of Jane Austen’s novels again. Helena finishes on exactly that note, with, “Read them again”. I hope my rather critical review will also prompt you to read them again.