I begin by reposting the seven points I outlined at the beginning of part one:
In Jane Austen: the Secret Radical:
- Helena Kelly posits that Jane Austen was a secret radical. In other words, Austen held radical views, and these views were not out in the open for everyone to see, but were covert or secret in some way.
- Because in Austen's time, writing something critical of the government or the royal family could get you in trouble with the authorities, even jailed. "[T]he Austen family lived in a country in which any criticism [my emphasis] of the status quo was seen as disloyal and dangerous." (This is overstated, and requires some qualification. We are not talking about North Korean levels of repression.)
- Kelly explains that what you may think are light-hearted, superficial, romantic comedies are in fact very dark and complicated and multi-layered with lots of hidden (secret) messages.
- And that she, Helena Kelly, has the insight to understand those messages.
- It is Kelly's understanding of the context and the times in which Austen wrote her novels, that enables Kelly to analyze and explain the novels.
- And in fact, if you think Jane Austen was a sweet, conventionally-minded spinster who wrote romantic novels, you are reading her all wrong.
- And Kelly says, if you don't want to be disabused of your false notions, don't read her book.
I discussed points 1, 2, 4 and 5 in part one. In part two, I will focus on 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Having discarded the main hypothesis of Kelly's book in part one, what remains is a book of typical modern literary criticism. In case younger readers are led astray by the word 'modern,' I should mention that I encountered literary criticism like this back in the late 1970's, when I was attending university. The gist of the approach is as follows – I am paraphrasing:
Reader, you don't really understand that book that you like because you are not educated enough, or enlightened enough, or as the kids say nowadays, "woke" enough, to understand it. Allow me to suck the joy right out of that book for you.
Kelly: "the joke is, of course, at heart entirely unfunny in a world where women, and some men too, could be owned."
The reader who laughs at Austen has not yet had the terrible news.
For Kelly, Jane Austen's romantic comedies are neither comedic nor romantic. Which raises the question, why would Austen write something that looks like a romantic comedy, albeit with a lot of tongue-in-cheek social criticism, when she really intended to write tragedy or searing social criticism? Why present someone who appears to be the hero of the book, for example, Mr. Knightley in Emma, when he is really the villain, an evil, heartless man who oppresses the poor people of Highbury? As Professor John Mullan wrote: "Kelly’s eagerness to find a politically critical subtext leads her to ignore the narrative logic of the fiction."
It's like the cruise ship in the Poseidon Adventure – Kelly and similar critics turn Austen upside down and then insist that this is what she meant to do – construct a completely unbalanced, topsy-turvy piece of writing that makes no sense whatsoever structurally, emotionally or dramatically. Hey, she meant for the propeller to be above the waterline and the decks to be submerged, get it?
For example, as John Mullan points out, Kelly thinks that when Willoughby shows up when Marianne is gravely ill, he is drunk. When in fact he is saying: “Yes, I am very drunk” with bitter sarcasm.
She thinks Catherine Morland doesn't understand that the adorable, witty Mr. Tilney is having fun with her in the passage below, when he tells her what will happen during her visit to Northanger Abbey:
Henry Tilney: "How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment! -- And what will you discern? -- Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open…. [The housekeeper] Dorothy, meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call. With this parting cordial she curtsies off -- you listen to the sound of her receding footsteps as long as the last echo can reach you -- and when, with fainting spirits, you attempt to fasten your door, you discover, with increased alarm, that it has no lock."
Catherine Morland: "Oh! Mr. Tilney, how frightful! -- This is just like a book! -- But it cannot really happen to me. I am sure your housekeeper is not really Dorothy. -- Well, what then?"
Kelly says that the reference to Dorothy "sails over [Catherine's] head." What do you think?
"Catherine either hasn't read more than half of a Gothic novel, or if she has, has read it with such a breathtaking lack of attention that she might as well not have bothered." No, the exact opposite is the case. Catherine loves Gothic novels and it leads her to imagine that maybe General Tilney murdered his wife, like a villain in a novel.
Catherine's delusion about the General is the climax of the extended parody of Gothic novels contained within Northanger Abbey. In its first draft, Northanger Abbey must have been very similar to Austen's other juvenilia – a funny take off of contemporary novels. That's why Northanger Abbey, structurally, is like a house with a patched on bow window – the first half is a satire on the literary conventions of the novel ("No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine….") Then, after Catherine realizes she's been a fool with her gothic imaginings, it becomes a more typical love story.
And by the way, there is a novel, called The Female Quixote, which Austen admired, about a deluded heroine who thinks she's living in a land of chivalric romance. If you compare it with Northanger Abbey, you'll get a better idea of the context and intent of Austen's gothic parody. Reading an annotated edition of Northanger Abbey, like David Shapard's, would also help illuminate the text.
So never mind Lydia's and Kitty's girlish giggles over men in uniform. Austen really wants us to think of England as a land under occupation.
One wonders if Kelly would react the same way to all comedy that treats serious matters with levity -- what does Kelly think about The Mikado, or The Importance of Being Ernest, or Duck Soup, which feature the death penalty, child abduction, defrauding widows, and war. I'd say that Kelly doesn't understand black humour, but she'd only accuse me of having an unconscious hidden meaning.
In Mansfield Park, Austen paints Fanny Price, entering the ball room, with her beloved cousin Edmund's chain holding her beloved brother's topaz cross, around her neck. Supposing that we care about Fanny (another question entirely) aren't we supposed to feel her little heart flutter as she combats her shyness? Do we see the warm glow in her cheek as she takes comfort in wearing the dual talismans of the two people who mean the most to her in the world? Are you feeling the love, reader? The warmth?
Kelly: "For the reader, the associations [of the chain and the cross] are, or should be, by this point in the novel, very different."
The chain does not represent love and faithful friendship -- the chain represents slavery. (Obviously). And the cross does not represent sweet little Fanny's artless Christian faith, and the love of her brother, it represents the Church of England and we, the readers in Austen's time, are aware that the Church of England owns sugar plantations and slaves! Get it? The cross and the chain? It's dark, it's horrible, it's hanging around Fanny's neck like an albatross of guilt and complicity. Let's dance!
Kelly is not saying this is a romantic comedy novel that I don't happen to like, because I don't happen to like Fanny and Edmund. It just didn't hit the mark for me.
Nor is she saying, Well, books that featured slaves or 12-year-old girls getting married or Jewish money lenders used to be okay, in the past, but those subjects are problematic in today's world. And for some people, a book in which the main characters live off of slavery is too problematic to be read with enjoyment today. I am not going to dispute that. If you don't want to read Huck Finn, or The Merchant of Venice, or Romeo and Juliet or Mansfield Park, it's your choice. But Kelly is going even farther than that.
Kelly is saying, Austen intended for her contemporary readers to view the main characters, the ones who get married at the end of the novel -- you know, like people always do at the end of a romantic comedy -- as bad, horrible people.
And I think Kelly is quite wrong about that. She is unable to put aside her own modern points of reference - feminism, post modernism, post-colonialism and intersectionalism.
Fanny Price's father is either a pedophile or a sadist or both, and both of the male leads in Sense & Sensibility are despicable: Edmund Ferrars is nervous before he proposes to Elinor, so [he] "took up a pair of scissors that lay there, and while spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces as he spoke…" This is proof that Edmund is a sexual deviant, because the sheath for the scissors represents the female vagina. Colonel Brandon is the father of young Eliza, so he is both a seducer and a liar.
I think we can question whether a majority of people, then and now, would automatically associate the fumbling efforts of a girl exploring the hidden cavities of a cabinet, as being a metaphor for female masturbation.
Or even supposing that Austen had sex on her mind when she wrote that passage, how does a reference to female masturbation undergird the supposedly "real" message of Northanger Abbey, that sex with men is dangerous? Austen doesn’t write approvingly of Catherine's fumbling with the cabinet. She doesn't suggest that Catherine should be fumbling with a cabinet instead of fumbling with Mr. Tilney.
In fact, Austen is showing Catherine fumbling with a cabinet, because she is parodying gothic novels. Catherine is experiencing in real life the things that Tilney teased her about. As Freud said, sometimes a cabinet is just a cabinet.
In part three, we'll look at the evidence adduced by Kelly to demonstrate that Mansfield Park is really an anti-slavery tract and finish off with some other peculiarities of Jane Austen: the Secret Radical.