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Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

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Yet every self-respecting introduction to every paperback edition of the novel has always pointed this out. 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. Each chapter opens with a little speculative vignette from inside Austen’s head, supposed to give us insight into what she was thinking about at the time she composed each novel.

Kelly felt strongly that she had hit on the "right" way and other people's ways were "wrong," which struck me as slightly absurd. Austen's radical notions are not a secret to those who read any recent literary criticism and most modern annotated editions address them fairly thoroughly. There is also the matter of how she is incredibly critical of anything Austen related that isn't 100% guaranteed to be true (usually life events), but then begins each chapter with a fictionalized account of a moment in her life.

The publicists didn’t help by branding the book as revolutionary; many of its ideas can be found in that neglected body of scholarship. The whole book is stuffed full of things like that that completely reset the way you interpret the smallest of things.

My dilemma was whether to continue once it became obvious that the premises were thin and strained and the manner patronising. Kelly illuminates the radical subjects--slavery, poverty, feminism, the Church, evolution, among them--considered treasonous at the time, that Austen deftly explored in the six novels that have come to embody an age.

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. 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 are eager to enrich themselves even when this means driving the poorest into criminality. Britain became “more and more like a totalitarian state, with all the unpleasant habits totalitarian states acquire”. There are many more comments I could make on this book which, in my opinion, was a mixed bag of fascinating insights and unhelpful suggestions that I could have done without.

Helena Kelly’s publisher got her kicks in early by scheduling the British release of her book last autumn.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. Wickham is Darcy and Georgiana’s half-brother, and he was never trying to marry her, just trying get in good with the family. Despite leading a private, mostly rural life, Austen was well informed and lived in a family that read and thought widely, a family that argued ideas over the dinner table.

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