03 May 2017

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

Summary from Goodreads:
A brilliant, illuminating reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring--how truly radical--a writer she was.

In this fascinating, revelatory work, Helena Kelly--dazzling Jane Austen authority--looks past the grand houses, the pretty young women, past the demure drawing room dramas and witty commentary on the narrow social worlds of her time that became the hallmark of Austen's work to bring to light the serious, ambitious, deeply subversive nature of this beloved writer. 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. The author reveals just how in the novels we find the real Jane Austen: a clever, clear-sighted woman "of information," fully aware of what was going on in the world and sure about what she thought of it. We see a writer who understood that the novel--until then seen as mindless "trash"--could be a great art form and who, perhaps more than any other writer up to that time, imbued it with its particular greatness.

I'd been hearing about this new book of Jane Austen criticism that posits Miss Austen would have been a radical.

OK.  I'm in (I was actually in at "new book of Jane Austen criticism" but "political radicalism" bumped it up the TBR). Hello, Jane Austen, the Secret Radical.

I really, really liked Kelly's analysis of Austen's work.  The arguments made about Jane Austen's political leanings (spoiler: she's not a Conservative) are interesting and worth thinking about, whether you agree or not.  I actually started wishing I had a physical copy of this book so I could do some annotating/arguing in the margins. However, the affectation of placing a fanciful, fictionalized scene from Austen's life at the beginning of each chapter, including the Introduction, is completely unnecessary and hypocritical after pillorying Austen biographers for creating saccharine, unsupported-by-evidence portraits of "our Dear Sweet Aunt Jane." Such a lazy device. The editor should have nixed those pages.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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