Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review: Jane Austen, The Secret Radical by Helena Kelley

Some people believe you should judge and interpret the works of a writer in isolation, without consideration at all about the life, beliefs and times of the author. Helena Kelley, to her credit, is not one such person. Jane Austen, The Secret Radical is exhaustively researched, and presents a wealth of details about how Jane discussed her life and her opinions in her correspondence, what current events were shaping popular opinion at the time Austen was writing, and what literature Austen was likely reading and could expect her readers to have read. For this reason, I think the book is a worthwhile read for fans of Austen’s work, or people who teach Austen. 

But what of the thesis, that Austen was a secret radical? 

I share the author’s frustration with those who dismiss Austen as love stories. But I think it would take a fairly undiscerning reader to not interpret Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as critiques at the very least of inheritance laws, the lack of financial independence allowed to women, and other oppressive social institutions aimed at women. The depiction of the (moral and financial) decay of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie is even more palpable in Persuasion. In Mansfield Park, there is an overt, critical, if brief reference to the slave trade that funds the lives of the main characters, and frequent discussion about the role of the church and the clergy in society. The satire in Emma and Northanger Abbey is aimed more towards manners and literature and the relationships between the wealthy and the less wealthy within the gentry, but both books are far from simple romances (indeed I’ve argued Emma is instead secretly a romance story about a girl named Jane).

However, the author’s assertion that Austen was secretly a far more radical than most readings of her rest either on innuendo and/or on some rather toothless definitions of radical:

We’ve seen [Austen] criticise primogeniture and suggest that change, voluntarily undertaken, may be the only safeguard against revolution.

[Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet] is, fundamentally, a radical. She knows her own mind; she reserves the right to decide questions for herself. There are plenty of kinds of authority that she doesn’t recognize, or tolerates only as far as it suits her.
This isn’t the same definition of radical that I use. However, let’s work on Kelley’s frame of reference, and take ‘radical’ to mean ‘critical of the status quo.’ 

Kelley argues that many of the sharpest, most progressive of Austen’s critiques are hidden in literature references, and that these were so dated by the time Austen’s early books were published (i.e., some 20-40 years after their being written) that they went entirely unnoticed by Austen’s contemporaries. Imagine making a Harry Potter reference or a Jaws reference in 2022; no one would get it. Other examples of hidden radicalism were naming the characters in Persuasion after members of the Stuart line of succession, supposedly a critique of the royal Georges that followed them. 

I found her argument that Mansfield Park met nothing but silence in literary circles to be more persuasive evidence of radical politics; this stony quiet could very well be related to the one impertinent question Fanny asks her uncle about his business in the slave trade. It could also be related to Fanny being a bit of a limp heroine in general. However, as Kelley notes in chapter 7, by Austen’s death and for the decades after, Mansfield Park was thought of as Austen’s second or third best novel (after Pride and Prejudice, and maybe Emma). Regardless, her argument about the transgressive narrative of Mansfield Park felt diluted and not bolstered by the tenuous lines she draws between the novel and radical contemporary poetry and by the exegesis on peach tree varietals.

What of the secrecy of it all? Why not be more overt? Kelley argues Austen wrote in direct allusion to Mary Wallencroft and her 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the anti-slavery poetry of William Cowper. These works (and many others) were published, popular, and more clearly radical than Austen’s works on the same topics. Austen was writing anonymously. Was her secret radical style from concern that her brother may not act as her publishing intermediary? Or did she simply enjoy being so cryptically critical that not even her contemporaries remarked on how radical she was?

Speaking, briefly, of radicals, Kelley dislikes Marxists. Since Marxists view class based on their relationship to production, Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, both of whom survive based on the rents of their [fathers’, husbands’] lands, are members of the same class. She views the Marxist lens of critiquing Austen (e.g., Raymond Williams) to be too blunt. To truly appreciate the secret, radical Austen, you need to use the British Aristocracy’s conception of class – the one that produces a near insurmountable difference between a Baron and a Baronet. Through this lens, Kelley is able to declare that a soldier and an unmarried woman with lawyer relatives making fun of a pompous Lady is “a revolutionary moment.”

The Marxist critique of Austen has a solid case in that Austen’s class critique is limited by the perspectives she chooses to center. As Williams writes, “where only one class is seen, no classes are seen.” Austen rarely, as Kelley concedes, shows members of the working class. Northanger Abbey has not a single named servant. The most prominent servant in Pride and Prejudice exists mostly to extol the physical and moral virtues of her master, Mr Darcy. However, I was swayed by Kelley’s argument that this changed throughout Austen’s life. She provided many compelling examples of three-dimensional and compassionately sketched servant characters in Emma (although they were all minor, uncentered characters).

For all this, I think Kelley’s close read of Austen does have value (if only she could have made her point about Persuasion being about the decline of the gentry (what a hot take) without seven pages about a fossil salesman), and changed my perspective of several books. I’m excited to reread some of them, particularly Emma. Here are some of her arguments I like the most:

  1. Northanger Abbey: Jane was concerned about the lack of autonomy women had when it came to choosing when and how often to give birth. Pregnancy was particularly dangerous. The mysterious illness that took the life of Mrs Tilney could have been related to pregnancy, which would mean that in a sense, General Tilney would indeed have been (partially) responsible for the death of his wife, as Catherine fears. I also liked Kelley’s observation that the privacy of a married couple’s bedroom is a very strong western cultural practice (such that one feels trepidation at crossing the threshold of someone’s room), and that this novel alone of Austen’s featured an unusually high number of bedroom scenes. If I reread this book, I think I might skim Udolpho, the novel that so inspires Catherine, first.
  2. Sense & Sensibility: Kelley points out that many sentences that seem to praise particular individuals instead equivocate. Edward “appeared to be amiable” and “gave every indication of an open and affectionate heart” (emphasis added). Kelley notes that we shouldn’t take either Edward nor Colonel Brandon – who mathematically could be the biological father of his adopted daughter – at their words. An additional stain against Brandon: even in Austen’s time, the mention of the British Navy’s exploits in India would have been seen as violent (by the radicals in society only, presumably…).
  3. Pride & Prejudice: I usually forget that for so much of Austen’s life, England was at war. Kelley brings the violence and fear of soldiers and militias to the center. I liked also her description of 1890s fashion and how Ms Bingley was making fun not only of the mud on Elizabeth’s skirt but also of its dated style; her description of the contemporary meaning of the word “prejudice”: “tradition, ‘inbred sentiments’, unquestioned cultural assumptions”; and her historical content on the nuances of introductions. 
  4. Mansfield Park: I now feel reasonably convinced that Fanny accepting her marriage to Edmund, as his second choice, was a bit of a selling out of her own morals. This, unfortunately, doesn’t make me like her more.
  5. Emma: Kelley’s description of enclosures was fantastic background information – even for those with more of an interest in the economic trajectory of Britain in the 19th century than in Austen. Her highlighting of Austen’s portrayals of poverty (Romani people, parishioners, thieves) was also excellent.
  6. Persuasion: perhaps because it was Austen’s most overtly political book, but Kelley finds nothing particular secret to point out here other than that people fall a lot, much like the gentry is tumbling down in power and wealth and social stature.

If you have bad politics, it comes through in your writing (see Ender’s Game, Anna Karenina). If you have good politics, it also shines through. I liked that view of Jane Austen – that of a perceptive and thoughtful critic of her times – much better than one of some smug women weaving her stories with obscure peach tree varieties and gothic novel references to make a point like a petty Dungeon Master with too much time on their hands.

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