Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Jane Austen, The Secret Radical. Published 2017 by Alfred A. Knopf. Nonfiction. Literary essays.

So this is a pretty fun read if you're a Jane Austen fan, and a pretty insightful read whether you consider yourself a Janeite or not. Author Helena Kelly, a scholar and writer who's taught and written extensively on Austen, leads us novel-by-novel examining social and political issues that we may have missed, or glanced only fleetingly.

She starts with Austen herself, what we know of her life and publication history and how she was viewed during her lifetime. Kelly is working on the premise that most people consider Austen's books merely delightful, or as the forerunner of modern chick lit and womens' fiction, or know her mainly or best through the various film adaptations.

Then she takes us on a tour of Austen's six novels starting with Northanger Abbey and ending with Persuasion. She covers topics like entailments, slavery, enclosures, social niceties and gender roles, and the ephemerality of society itself. Some of the topics she covers are particular to Austen's time and place; entailments aren't legal in the United States and haven't been (I think) in practice in Britain in a long time. Enclosures were an entirely new subject to me and I had no idea the role they play in Emma, one of my favorite Austen novels.

I was certainly aware of some of the issues Kelly talks about; I knew that Sense and Sensibility, for example, devolved around the economic fragility of womens' lives, and that slavery played a role in Mansfield Park, which I'd often thought of as Austen's most overtly political novel. But Kelly goes deep and brings out the nuances even seasoned Austen readers might have missed. And she does it with a light touch. Wholly accessible in tone and style, Secret Radical is a book for the lay reader, for the afternoon sofa if not maybe the beach bag. In it Kelly shows us how much more there is to Austen than gentility and sweetly tidy love stories. By the end I was doubting even my beloved Captain Wentworth. It certainly opened my eyes to a more detailed examination of books that I've read and re-read, enjoyed and shared.

As a friend said, it's a very attractive notion to think of Austen as a secret radical- more so than thinking of her as a secret reactionary certainly. And Kelly's book is both delightful and pointed. I strongly recommend Secret Radical to all Austenites, Janeites and readers of any stripe. It will make you think and wonder, and probably make you want to re-read your favorite Austens once more to really see what she's getting at. Or maybe you'll be intrigued enough to try her for the first time. I'm ready to have another go at my favorites. I can't wait to hear how you do with yours.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

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