Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

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Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

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The great chapters contained a unifying theory that brought together the historical context and the actual plot and actions of the characters: Northanger Abbey (where the childbirth stuff is contained, as well as some fascinating stuff about gothic novels), Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice were the standouts, followed pretty closely by the chapter on Persuasion. On the other hand, her love of and fascination with Jane Austen informs every page, and her conclusions inspire rereading, rethinking and debate. 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.

I feel like she really gave life to this book, it's one of the "academic" books I've felt the most emotional while reading. However, she totally disregards his next words – ‘A pint of porter with my cold beef at Marlborough was enough to over-set me’(4) – indicating that he was being sarcastic and most definitely in his right mind and not drunk. The very name of the book – Mansfield – links the book to Lord Mansfield whose judgement ‘removed the practical basis’(2) on which slavery rested, and the hated Mrs Norris shares her name with a notorious slave trader. Fortunately, Kelly does not try to undermine the characters of Darcy and Elizabeth, but rather draws attention to the underlying prejudices of the novel which are far more revolutionary than a modern audience appreciates. I have never enjoyed Mansfield Park, so while Helena's takedown of Edmund Bertram was satisfying, it wasn't precisely enjoyable for me, personally.

It’s a rare talent to be able to stand outside received wisdom and see familiar material with fresh eyes; Kelly is a pure outside-the-box thinker. Different chapters look at subjects such as the failure of men to provide for their female relatives, the corruption of both the clergy and the nobility, the slave trade, and poverty and the corn laws. It was not, as Kelly asserts, a simple matter of the Bank of England celebrating the bicentenary of Austen’s death.

When the contrast is drawn between the noble Lady Catherine’s behaviour and Elizabeth Bennet’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners, who are in trade, the reader’s conclusion is inevitable: good breeding has nothing to do with titles. At the very least, she found the verities of class structure and institutional religion problematic and often mockworthy.

She delves deep into the books but puts forth rather bizarre conclusions that it's hard not to see this book as more about herself and less about Austen and her novels. In Pride and Prejudice, that sparkling and delightful novel so beloved today, Kelly finds a "revolutionary fairy tale, a fantasy of how, with reform, with radical thinking, society can be safely remodeled" without the revolution that had wracked France. The colonialist aspects of Mansfield Park, for example, have been extensively explored in the twenty-odd years since Said wrote his seminal essay. I laugh out loud when I read Austen because I hear the words of an angry women lashing back at the stuffy society in which she existed. Listening to the excellent Bonnets at Dawn podcast about Mansfield Park inspired me to download this book and read it at last.

Pride and Prejudice was, I felt, the weakest, as much of the analysis focuses on displaying for modern readers quite how much of an affront to rank their relationship really is and hammering home things that are glossed over in the movie adaptations, i. The book is split up into sections following each of her published novels, as well as one concerning her life, and her death. Her books are stories, often with love in them, that also blatantly criticized the society she lived in. What I did not expect on rereading this book was to be more impressed with it than I was the first time. I found this book to be frustrating for a couple of reasons, mostly for the way that Kelly constantly acts like she is the first person to ever imply that Austen's writing was subversive and radical.

That in “Northanger Abbey” Austen describes Catherine Morland masturbating (“Let’s not mince words here”) requires an elasticity of imagination beyond the breaking point for the pusillanimous. This is followed by a chapter devoted to each of Jane’s novels and a final one looking at her death.

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