Helena Kelly, with her book Jane Austen: The secret radical, certainly proved provocative – and sometimes in ways she did not intend.
Her book provides excellent background material about the social context of Jane Austen’s times but there was a definite tendency to provide too much. The looseness of her arguments and the author’s readiness to beg the question were also provoking.
All this seems to be partly due to the style of her writing. Helena’s approach is engaging but also erratic. She intersperses a factual style with an imaginative one including a smattering of colloquialisms which infuriated some readers.
In many respects, Kelly seems to be following in the footsteps of earlier critics. Austen’s ironic writing skills were initially decoded by Alice Meynell in 1894, calling her a “mistress of derision.”
One hundred years after her death Reginald Farrer called Austen “the most merciless, though calmest, of iconoclasts.”
It was D.W.Harding, in 1939, who truly shocked Austen devotees with his essay: Regulated Hatred, An Aspect of the work of Jane Austen. He saw her as explicitly trying to change the social order but as preserving the dignity of her subjects without sacrificing her right to protest.
This book appears to have been rushed and the editing is poor. The author, herself, speaks of her “somewhat incoherent thoughts” being shaped, but sadly, in our opinion, insufficiently. Kelly fails to define what she means by “radical” and many of her arguments start with possible assertions followed by the same ideas, suddenly presented as fact. Repetition, at times, became tedious.
Her research was very thorough but needed to be “lopped and cropped”. While the topics of the pursuit of money and status predominate in Austen’s writing, Kelly sees each novel as focusing on particular aspects of these themes – primogeniture, snobbery, poverty and the navy.
The initial chapter about Northanger Abbey is packed with information about the political tenor of the times – approaching totalitarianism, it would appear. The elucidation of The Mysteries of Udolpho was impressive in its detail and very relevant in a reading of the adventures of the supposed heiress, Catherine. However, Anne Radcliffe herself states:
“When the mind begins to yield…trifles impress it with the force of convictions”
Helena Kelly appears to fall into this very trap on many occasions, not just Catherine Morland. Kelly believes Catherine’s attempts to unlock the cabinet in her room to be a description of masturbation. She relates this idea to an incident in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy, of 1975, in which a fictional American lecturer shocks his class by suggesting that Anne found the moment when Wentworth lifted the little Walter Musgrove from her back as being orgasmic. Surely this was a very strange source of inspiration for her book.
Some material about the connections between the church and slavery in Mansfield Park was new to us but Kelly provides too much detail about Norris and Clarkson. The idea of Fanny’s cross and chain symbolising the connection between the church and slavery, while appealing, seemed far-fetched.
We questioned whether Austen was trying to be a secret radical or whether she was simply a very keen observer of society who wrote naturally about serious matters.
Kelly, at times, seemed to be too dogmatic and even at times, contradictory. She makes outlandish claims concerning Harriet’s Smith’s parenthood. We were divided as to whether Sir Thomas Bertram was simply promoting Fanny’s confidence and cause when he praised her appearance or whether he was overly interested in her as a sexual object. We questioned too, whether Kelly’s interpretation of a “hug” bestowed upon Fanny by her father was more than friendly. Her interpretation of Edward Ferrars cutting the scissors case to pieces also seemed outrageous.
Jane Austen’s borrowings from other contemporary writers were enlightening, in particular, the comparison with Wollstonecroft, proving how being overtly radical at the time, was unwise.
It seems strange that a writer who is obviously such a voracious researcher fails to argue her point more clearly and coherently. She often leaves her reader to join the dots.
Kelly certainly succeeded in reversing some readers’ viewpoints and wanting to consider things they hadn’t thought of before. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical contains gems of information but fails to deliver a powerful conclusion.
Jane Austen was highly critical of the society in which she lived. She was concerned about the role of fathers and the way money ruled people’s behaviour. But she admired responsible landowners and the navy and she welcomed changes in the social class structure. Overall we were not convinced this made her a secret radical – more a profoundly political and skilful social critic. But everything would finally depend upon your interpretation of the words “secret radical”.
Lee, Wendy Anne: Resituating “Regulated Hatred” D.W.Harding’s Jane Austen, ELH (English Literary History), 77 (2010), John Hopkins University Press.
JASACT will celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday on December 16 with a lunch at 12 noon at Muse, in the East Hotel in Kingston.