Jane Austen, the Secret Radical
By: Helena Kelly
Narrator: Emma Bering
Imprint: Random House Audio
Genre: Biography & Autobiography – Literary
Release Date: May 02, 2017
14 Hours and 40 Minutes
I voluntarily reviewed an advance readers copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
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. http://www.penguinrandomhouseaudio.com/book/551490/jane-austen-the-secret-radical/
JANE AUSTEN, SECRET RADICAL by Helena Kelley explores the depth of Austen’s work as socio-political fiction rather than as romance.
The narrator does a great job and has a pleasant voice. Sometimes we are offered words in a fictionalized reading of Austen’s diary or letters and that was occasionally confusing in audio format.
To be sure there is romance in Austen’s fiction, but Kelley points out how flawed the heroes, and sometimes her heroines are. In fact they are not only flawed, they are compromises for the ideals of the women they marry which is in itself a comment on the position of women in society.
For example, Mr. Knightly, today is seen as honorable and noble, but at the time his character would have been better understood as a proponent of enclosure, a practice whereby the rights to use land previously held for common use and which directly affected the ability of non-landholders to fish, hunt or grow food on land that was, prior to the development of new farming techniques, less than cost effective for the landowner to do so as part of their wider operation. In this respect, Knightley is not noble at all, and Emma, who Austen described as a heroine no one but herself could like, is either capitulating to societal mores or blissfully ignorant and uncaring. in marrying him.
An important part of this book is its exploration of those ideas and symbols which, at the time and via reading the book rather than watching a movie, would have been understood by most of her readers as socio-political commentary. Today, our lexicon and the format via which we know Austen’s life and work are very different than they were in the 1800s. Where we see Mr. Knightley and other characters as noble heroes Austen paints deeply flawed men willing, for example, to take food out of the mouths of their tenants by enclosing the land historically reserved for common use.
Austen is presented as being exhaustively deliberate in every character; their names, words, thoughts and deeds and in her plotting. When her stories have been adapted for the screen the key is that it is different; only partly, after rewriting, an Austen work. Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is mentioned often as an example.
The first book analyzed is NORTHANGER ABBEY, not my favorite, about how people do not read properly and analytically but believe they understand the book. In particular, this book is filled with references to Anne Radcliffe’s THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO. NORTHANGER ABBEY (NA) was her first book sold to a publisher but was not published by them. After she had 4 other novels published she regained NA and revised it.
NA is often seen as a book critical of UDOLPHO’s author, but in pointing out that readers who do not read properly, bring their own preconceptions and then blame the author for the ideas which result from misreading is the opposite. Since this was revised and published only after Austen’s successful publications one may also see it as her claim that people have taken her work out of context, and with the passage of time and change sin social context, this is likely to happen to her work as well she is, in effect, presaging how our age fails to interpret her work as deliberate commentary as well as story-telling.
I think it also encourages us to look at all novels, including romance, more deeply. And, it questions whether modern adaptations of P & P like Sittenfeld’s “ELLIGIBLE” can really be considered as evolving from the true heart of the work.
I enjoyed listening to the book, probably more than any other analysis of literature I have ever heard. As an in-depth and scholarly novel, rather than just an entertaining work, it would be good to have both the audio and print versions.
I listened to most of it again over the past few days and was particularly impressed by the analysis of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. It all gave me a much deeper appreciation of the deliberate and intricate nature of Austen’s work. I considered fascinating, and worth all the time it took to listen to it. For those serious about reading Austen it is a must read.