"Almost everything we think we know about Jane Austen is wrong." So declares Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, a bodice-burstingly brilliant, eminently accessible study of Austen’s six major novels, published ahead of the issue of the new £10 Austen banknote next spring, and the 200th anniversary of her death, next July.
In this début, Kelly, who has taught hundreds of students at Oxford University and beyond over the past decade about the novels of Austen, argues that we have become accustomed to a false Jane. After 200 years of biographies, literary studies, films and TV adaptations, mugs and tea towels, Austen is now so embedded in our cultural consciousness that we have strayed too far from the novels themselves. Kelly herself has been prey to this: “When I was teaching Austen I often had to go back to the text to check that what I was remembering was actually there. And I would get students writing essays on scenes that didn’t actually happen in the novels but which they remembered from somewhere else.”
If we really want to understand Austen as she herself wanted to be understood, argues Kelly, we must sweep aside this assumed knowledge of her work and our notions of “demure dramas in drawing rooms”, and instead re-read the novels, armed with some knowledge of the context in which they were created: a turbulent time of war, revolution, empire, censorship and state surveillance. After all, Austen was writing, not for a Colin Firth-susceptible television audience 200 years hence but for the attentive readers of her day—“I do not write for such dull Elves as have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves,” as she once wrote.
Austen could expect such readers to pick up on contemporary references to politics and world events and religion; just as Zadie Smith can anticipate that we will come to her work with some knowledge of and sensibility about multicultural Britain. Revisiting Austen’s novels in this way will, explains Kelly, reveal a writer who, far from being preoccupied only with dance partners and simpering in the parlour, was radical, spirited, opinionated and deeply concerned with the political and social issues of the times in which she lived. A writer for whom Pride & Prejudice and Zombies wouldn’t have been subversive enough.
As a teenager, Kelly admits to having been susceptible (as most of us are) to the charms of the handsome, bare-chested lake-swimming hero into which the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride & Prejudice transformed Mr Darcy. “My sister and I got the double video cassette of it for Christmas and we watched it again and again until the tapes warped. But I think what really engaged me was the way that the adaptations foregrounded the experience of women, and especially a family of teenage sisters, with that mixture of affection and wanting to strangle each other. You don’t get that very often.”
By contrast, Mansfield Park, which she studied during her A-Levels, was a disappointment. “I found it very difficult and very trying. I remember thinking: I can see that there’s all this artistry, but I just don’t get why. Where’s the meat, the point of everything?” Kelly didn’t come to Austen again until her Masters degree at King’s College, London, and subsequent doctorate back at Oxford. Before this, a short spell at law school had convinced her that an intended career as a barrister was not for her, but something about the experience of studying law gave her a more forensic approach to Austen’s novels. “I approached them quite differently from before and started to notice different things,” Kelly says.
Kelly wrote her thesis on representations of parliamentary enclosures in the literature of the Napoleonic wars, and made a close study of Emma in the process. “Nearly 30% of all land enclosures happened between 1789 and 1815. That’s prime Austen time; that’s her conscious adult writing life. Nearly every landowner in England and Wales was dealing with the issue of enclosure at this point, and it took up an enormous amount of parliamentary time. So of course Austen wrote about it.”
And indeed, as Kelly shows, Emma is riddled with references to fences and hedges. Remember those nasty gypsy children who attempt to rob Harriet Smith? They are begging by the road because they have been fenced out of their customary campsite. This spirit of fresh understanding about Emma liberated Kelly to go back and study Austen’s other novels again. “It’s about trusting the author. If you look at the texts at all seriously then you need to trust that the author means to write what they’re writing. Austen doesn’t make throwaway comments. If something is in there it’s because you’re intended to pick it up.”
In Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, Kelly argues that Sense & Sensibility lays bare Austen’s outrage at primogeniture, and the parlous situation women were often left in by the financial ineptitude of their male relatives. Mansfield Park is a “fanatical novel”, weighed down with chains and deeply concerned with the abolition of slavery, flagged quite obviously by its title (Lord Mansfield was one of the most prominent abolitionists in the late 18th century). Northanger Abbey, the closest Austen comes to sexual explicitness, takes a look at the perils of childbirth, as well as the consequences of not reading books attentively enough. Persuasion, Austen’s final completed novel, is a bittersweet meditation on the inherent chaos of our lives in a world characterised by instability and constant change.
Pride before a fall
And Pride & Prejudice? Austen’s most beloved novel is now, Kelly maintains, the most difficult to read as she intended. “We think of Elizabeth and Darcy as having the classic love affair, but at the time it was the complete opposite. Portraying their kind of gradual and more thoughtful approach to love wasn’t what novels did at that point. The classic romance at the time is Jane and Bingley. They meet and they fall in love with each other straight away, along absolutely scripted lines.”
Kelly dubs Pride & Prejudice a “revolutionary fairytale”, and shows that the frank and intense love affair that develops between Elizabeth and Darcy is highly radical: a coming together in a period of war and revolution of two people who may be from different social strata, but who are equals in every other way. “It’s about an unlikely marriage, but not quite for the reasons we think,” she says. It is no accident that the novel also features Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Austen’s most deeply unpleasant aristocratic character, and one with a French name to boot. “From the corner of our eye, we can see the shadow of the guillotine,” writes Kelly.
Kelly’s idea of writing a book for general readers to explain her own singular take on Austen’s work crystallised in the fraught first months after she gave birth to her son Rory, now three and a half. “Both my husband and I were properly delirious from sleep deprivation. I would hallucinate about babies crawling on the ceiling; it was really, really brutal. And I think there’s almost a hallucinatory quality to the shape the book took on too, in that I started thinking: what does Austen look like if you strip everything off, everything that we think we know, and just get back to the texts? What does she look like then, and what is she actually trying to say to the people she was actually writing for?”
This is the discovery Kelly invites us to make in time for the Austen bicentenary. It feels like a fitting way to commemorate one of our greatest novelists, one who may actually be greater than we ever imagined.
Imprint: Icon Books
Editor: Duncan Heath
Agent: Sally Holloway, Felicity Bryan Associates
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 9th September 2016.