The secret life of Jane Austen

English teachers at schools everywhere ought to plunge into this thoroughly impressive and convincing re-reading of Jane Austen's works '“ but it will throw all their lesson plans into disarray. Austen expert Helena Kelly takes the author's catalogue of works, much adapted, much loved, and turns them upside down, shaking out the petticoats and love stories to find a dark, politically motivated underbelly.

Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

Beneath the drawing room chatter and matchmaking, Kelly points us toward Austen’s carefully woven-in ideas and opinions on, among others, the deadliness of marriage and motherhood, corruption in the church, and the debilitating poverty caused by enclosure of common lands.

Beautifully written, Kelly introduces the reader to a passionate woman living in an age of revolution; to a writer who used what was regarded as the lightest of literary genres, the novel, to grapple with the weightiest of subjects – feminism, slavery, abuse, the treatment of the poor, the power of the Church, even evolution – at a time, and in a place, when to write about such things directly was seen as akin to treason.

At times you feel berated for having ever fallen for the romantic plotlines, the films, the blossoming love stories and the sillier characters. You will be left feeling blindsided, and quite regretful that you didn’t give Austen more credit when it came to seeing the political, economic, religious and social structures she at times seems to lampoon.

However, it is also the case that Kelly bludgeons you with her argument at times and is dismissive of previous universally accepted understandings – which is refreshing, but at the same time damning and patronising. Whether you agree with her or not, and I think it’s hard not to see the merit in these layers of nuance Kelly uncovers.

Uncovering a radical, spirited and politically engaged Austen, Jane Austen, The Secret Radical will encourage you to read Jane, all over again.