If you are happy reading Jane Austen’s novels as the Regency era love stories that I have always believed them to be, then don’t read this book. It might help you to understand some of the influences that affected Jane’s writings which might lead to a greater enjoyment of her work, but it is also possible that you might not like everything you discover. If you take all Kelly’s ideas seriously, this book could completely undermine the way that you look at some of Jane’s plots and characters.
I love Jane Austen’s novels and I know something of Jane’s life and period. I certainly ought to, as one chapter in my new book (What Regency Women Did For Us) is given over to my favourite author! However, I am not a literary critic and have never sought to pull Jane Austen’s novels to pieces in search for greater meaning. I accepted this review copy on the basis that it promised new insights into the novels through greater knowledge of the period in which Jane Austen wrote. As a Regency historian, I decided to hear what Kelly had to say.
|Jane Austen from A Memoir of Jane Austen|
by JE Austen Leigh (2nd edn 1871)
The book opens with a chapter entitled ‘The Authoress’. An interesting decision to use the word ‘authoress’ rather than ‘author’. After all, Pride and Prejudice was originally described as being ‘by the author of Sense and Sensibility’1 not the authoress.
|Illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho |
In the chapter on Sense and Sensibility, Kelly suggests that Jane was indirectly criticising the men in her family for failing to provide adequately for the women who were dependent on them – Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother. I already knew how hard Jane had found it when her father suddenly decided to give up the living at Steventon and uproot his family from the only home they had ever known and settle them in Bath, but I had never really considered the alternative. Kelly writes that Jane’s father need not have given up the majority of his income to his eldest son – who, by the way, already had the means to support himself – but could have hired a curate to help him and retained most of the income to support his wife and daughters. Another question that I had never asked was why, after the death of Jane’s father, it took Jane's rich brother Edward Knight four years to offer his mother and sisters a permanent home.
Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book and I dare anyone to spoil it for me! Fortunately, Kelly does not try to undermine the characters of Darcy and Elizabeth, but rather draws attention to the underlying prejudices of the novel which are far more revolutionary than a modern audience appreciates.
Mansfield Park has always seemed a more serious book to me than Jane’s other novels, but I had not made the connection between the names used in the book and the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. The very name of the book – Mansfield Park – links the book to Lord Mansfield whose judgement ‘removed the practical basis’2 on which slavery rested, and the hated Mrs Norris shares her name with a notorious slave trader.
There are many more comments I could make on this book which, in my opinion, is a mixed bag of fascinating insights and unhelpful suggestions that I could have done without. You may discover, as I did, some real gems that take you closer to Jane’s world, but if you love Jane’s novels as the love stories they are, then you might not want to take the risk!
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(1) From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
(2) From Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) p176
(3) From Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) p96
(4) From Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
(5) From Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) p99
(6) From Jane Austen - The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) p135
(7) From Debrett’s The Peerage of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1820)