By Katy Goodwin-Bates
When talking to the parent of one of my pupils recently, I mentioned the title of this book; said parent scoffed, “well, that’s ridiculous; she wasn’t radical at all.” It’s really easy to make this assumption; as Helena Kelly points out, we’ve all been conditioned to think of Austen as predictable, safe and quaint.
The opening chapter of The Secret Radical attempts to debunk this myth of Austen, positing her as someone who was far too engaged and intelligent not to observe and understand the social and political climate of her age. As Kelly argues, “we’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening, and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled and allusive. But we haven’t been willing to do it with Jane’s work” (page 12). According to Kelly’s introduction, even to describe Austen with the oft-used moniker “genius” is incorrect, inspiring as it does an image of an artist who is “inspired, unthinking;” rather, “she was an artist” (page 33). I’ve loved Austen’s novels since I first encountered them as a 16 year old, and it thrills me to see her work gaining this kind of serious critical attention.
So where does Kelly take this transformative approach? Firstly, to Northanger Abbey, bought and ignored by a publisher and only brought to the public’s attention after Austen’s death. In terms of Austen’s radical status, it’s a relatively gentle start, the most significant revelation of which is that Catherine Morland, generally seen as Austen’s bookish heroine, doesn’t even seem to finish The Mysteries of Udolpho, the gothic classic she is so immersed in at Northanger Abbey‘s outset. Kelly also reflects on the dangers of childbirth for an early 19th century woman, relevant to Austen and Catherine’s lives due to their membership of large families. This linking of Austen’s circumstances and her works occurs throughout The Secret Radical, with Kelly later contemplating Austen’s lack of grandparents, among other things; at times, these apparent digressions seem a little out there, but concrete details of Austen’s life are so few that one can hardly blame a critic for fleshing out what they can find.
It was Kelly’s chapters on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice that most. Kelly draws an interesting parallel between Austen’s own life as an unmarried woman, forced to spend her life on interminable visits to relatives, and the very similar activities of the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility; “women hardly matter. They pass from one family to another, and are never truly part of either” (page 72). Engaging links are also drawn between Austen’s presumed feelings and Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Women; to read Austen’s novels with a feminist perspective is somewhat anachronistic, but the pairing of these two texts is certainly compelling.
Obviously, a more discerning reader than dear Catherine Morland will know better than to take as gospel every assertion made in a book of this nature. Speculation on the sexual symbolism of a pair of scissors in Sense and Sensibility, for example, takes things a little too far for me. Additionally, there is the odd moment here which tries the patience of even the most fanatical Austen fan; a dozen pages on enclosure and whether there are any hedges in Austen’s novels were not necessarily what I came for. But I cannot help but applaud the incisive detail of the analysis; this is the kind of thing I’d love to notice when I’m reading, principally so I could write extremely academic books about it.
My favourite thing about The Secret Radical is the new light it sheds both on Austen herself and her heroines, all of whom I have thought of as close friends for over half my life (except Emma. I always found her rather irritating); I already want to reread Pride and Prejudice to look out for evidence of its being a “revolutionary fairy tale” (page 161) with a “politically charged” atmosphere (page 125). Although I can’t help but feel that my favourite of Austen’s novels, Persuasion, is somewhat unfairly treated here; while Mansfield Park is credited with showing Austen’s views on slavery and Sense and Sensibility is explored as a proto-feminist text, poor Persuasion isn’t given any such far-reaching context. I shall continue to think purely of Frederic Wentworth when I read it.