Kelly is not just unoriginal, she is mistaken. I disagree with the premise of this book and I think the examples adduced by the author to make her case are unpersuasive and in some cases risible.
I want to discuss my reaction to this book as clearly as I can, so I am going to take my time and start with an outline to lay out the points I will be discussing and elaborating upon...
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, in fact are very dark and complicated and multi-layered with lots of hidden (secret, radical) messages.
- And she, Helena Kelly, has the insight to understand those messages.
- It is Kelly's research and 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.
- So if you don't want to be disabused of your false notions, don't read her book.
Of the secret radical views that Kelly has unearthed, would any of them have been likely to get Jane Austen in trouble with the government, or with the public, or with her neighbours, or even with her family, assuming that they are all Tories and perfectly happy with the status quo?
If your Aunt Jane, the kooky radical member of your Tory, Church-of-England-loving family posted something on Facebook about "Moorpark apricots," would you think, 'oh, there's crazy Aunt Jane, banging on about slavery again, I hope she doesn't get hauled off to prison' or would you think she was talking about apricots?
Secret: Some of the secret messages that Helena Kelly points out to us are, in her view, not secret or subtle at all, they are "clear as daylight" and quite blatant. Most often, she says they would have been very clear to Austen's contemporaries, even if they are not so clear to us. Of course, if Austen's readers could understand her radical views easily, I couldn't venture to say how that comports with the theory that expressing any criticism of the status quo was dangerous. After all the Prince Regent himself read her novels. In any case, if the radical views were once "clear as daylight" but are now accessible only to Helena Kelly, I think that does not mean "secret" but "obscure." And I will tip you off and add that I think the words we're looking for here are actually, "non-existent," and "imaginary." But "secret" makes for a more dramatic title, of course and I have no problem with that. I'll give lots of examples of these hidden/blatant/secret messages below.
In part one, I am not disputing whether Jane Austen's work contains subtleties and symbolism and has many layers. I am specifically addressing Kelly's hypothesis that the reason Austen's radicalism is "secret" and impenetrable to the modern reader is because her "novels were produced in a state [that is, under a government] which was, essentially, totalitarian" and so she was forced to express her radical views subtly and indirectly.
Radical: Back then, in Austen's time, there were two main political parties, the Whigs (roughly speaking, liberal) and Tories (conservative.) The term "radical" was in use at the time in political parlance and it was used disparagingly to refer to someone whose views were well outside of the mainstream, perhaps even dangerous to the social fabric, or seditious. A radical was somebody in favour of democracy, and trade unions, and freedom of religion (in those days you had to be a member of the Church of England to get your degree from Oxford, Catholics couldn't sit in Parliament, etc.) A radical could also be in favour of more rights for women, more equitable distribution of wealth, maybe even in favour of free love, like the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Think of John Lennon in knee breeches and a cravat. Okay? Radical.
Kelly appears to use the word "radical" more loosely, as meaning someone who is opposed to the restrictive social milieu of the time. For example, she describes Elizabeth Bennet thusly: "Elizabeth is, fundamentally, a radical. She knows her own mind; she reserves the right to decide questions for herself." You see, in an age when women were expected to be modest and deferential and so forth.
So, time to test Kelly's hypothesis, which, I remind you, is – Austen used covert messages in her novels to get across her radical ideas because she lived in a society, and under a government that repressed criticism, sometimes with censorship and prison sentences.
"This, in the end, is the mystery, the terrifying secret at the heart of Northanger Abbey… sex can kill you. All of Jane's heroines--all of the women in her novels who marry --are taking a terrifying risk."
By the way Kelly puts it, one might think she's saying that Austen is the only author who wrote about creatures called "women" who "marry," a thing that never happens in other novels or was ever mentioned in real life, which is why it's such a terrifying secret.
18th-century maternal mortality rates may come as an appalling revelation to an English or history undergraduate today, but for women of Austen's time, there was absolutely nothing secret about the fact that sex can kill you. Austen personally knew, and knew of, many women who died in childbirth, including her own sisters-in-law, but any woman going into labour back then, knew that death was a very real statistical possibility. Therefore, this inevitably meant that when a man married the woman he loved, he could end up, in a very real sense, being the cause of her death. One famous example is Mary Wollstonecraft, who married William Godwin.
To have pointed this out, directly or obliquely, would be in no way controversial, in no way rebellious, in no way seditious, and in no way counter to the teachings of the Church of England, which had a ceremony called "churching," whereby women went to their local church 40 days after having given birth, to give thanks for the fact that they were not dead. [Update: I recently read Katherine J. Chen's Mary B., a modern take on Mary Bennet, in which (spoiler) Elizabeth Bennet suddenly tumbles upon the fact that women sometimes die in childbirth, but only after she becomes mistress of Pemberley. She blames Darcy for wanting her to risk her life. It is of course impossible that Elizabeth could have grown to adulthood without understanding the legal and religious commitments involved in matrimony and the possible consequences of getting pregnant.]
[Update: I just remembered that the opening paragraph of Northanger Abbey, which Dr. Kelly says is about the dangers of dying in childbirth, includes this about the heroine's own mother: She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. Yes, Austen opens the book by laughing at the idea of the mother dying in childbirth as a novelist cliché.]
But…. where is the hidden message in Northanger Abbey that sex can kill you? Did I miss that? Yes, either because (a) the hidden messages flew right by you when you read Northanger Abbey or (b) there are no hidden messages. I opt for (b) and in part two, I will discuss why I choose (b) over (a). But right now, I am staying with testing Kelly's hypothesis that Austen had to pull her punches, so to speak, because of the totalitarian times in which she lived.
Mansfield Park was published in 1814. In 1807, the English parliament passed a law banning their countrymen from trading (selling, that is, not owning) slaves. The Navy had ships patrolling the coast of Africa to intercept slave ships and rescue the captured Africans. In 1808, Thomas Clarkson published a book about the successful campaign of the Abolitionists to end the slave trade. This is the title of Clarkson's book: The history of the rise, progress and accomplishment of the abolition of the African Slave Trade. Notice that he says, "slaves" and not "apricots."
Powerful editorials and poems had been written explicitly--I note, explicitly--condemning slavery, for example, as Kelly herself notes, William Cowper's The Task, which was published in 1785. I repeat, by 1814, the eradication of the slave trade was official government policy.
And yet, Kelly thinks that in 1814, secret radical Jane Austen could not, for fear of the consequences, speak out against slavery and had to resort to using code words like 'Moorpark apricot' and 'Hawkins Browne' and 'chain and cross.'
Oh-ho, but perhaps, it's okay for men to say these things, but in Regency times, maybe it was not okay for women to say these things!
Well, no, women played a major role in the Abolition movement in England, organizing boycotts against sugar produced by slaves. Hannah More, a leading evangelical and best-selling author, was a well-known abolitionist who also wrote anti-slavery poetry. Then there is Aphra Behn, one of the first published women authors, who wrote an anti-slavery novel called Oronooko, way back in 1688.
Okay, but maybe she was soft-pedalling the anti-slavery message because she didn't want to alienate her pro-slavery readers, just like she only talked about apricots on her Facebook page so as not to offend her relatives.
Sure, maybe she prudently decided to avoid the subject. But that is not Helena Kelly's hypothesis. We are not talking about a consciously made marketing decision here, we are talking about a secret radical who is forced, because of the times she lives in, to speak in allusions and veiled references that only her well-educated readers would understand.
But… why are apricots an allusion to slavery? Why not coconuts or some other tropical fruit from Africa? I'll explain later, in part three. We're still testing the main hypothesis of the book.
The message: Elizabeth does not treat Lady Catherine de Burgh, a member of the aristocracy, with deference. "From the corner of our eyes we can see the shadow of the guillotine."
Did Austen have to be so circumspect that the anti-nobility message eludes the modern reader?
Can we find contemporary examples of writers of prose and essays, who criticized the nobility, either individual aristocrats or the class as a whole? Yes, we can--the immorality and decadence of the aristocracy and the heirs to the throne was a huge social concern and a hot topic in Austen's time. Openly discussed, criticized, joked about. And can we find writers and cartoonists in those times who satirized and criticized the Royal Family? Yes, we can.
As well, Kelly says: "Isn't it possible, then that Pride and Prejudice isn't quite so light and bright and sparkling as we've been led to believe? That there are darker, more serious layers to be uncovered?" Well of course, any literary critic worth her salt is going to find darker and more serious layers. But we are still testing the central hypothesis of the book, not sifting through the rest of Kelly's commentary. We'll come back to that in parts two and three. [I've written more on P&P and class here]
How about Persuasion, her last published novel? I thought the main theme of Persuasion was maybe, persuasion. But according to Kelly the theme is history, "not as a smooth, orderly progression, but as disrupted, random, chaotic, filled with death and destruction, invasion and revolution."
The highly-respected Austen scholar Tony Tanner made this same overarching point in 1986: "Everything is in a condition of change in this novel..." --but in what way was this a radical thought? Why would she have to hide or disguise this message? Kelly spends a lot of time discussing the fact that people like Mary Anning were finding dinosaur fossils at Lyme. Fossils of course helped upend the biblical version of the creation of the world. But Austen doesn't mention fossils, not once, and it would not have been against the law to mention fossils.
Certainly Austen's contemporaries knew that not only the past (history) was random, chaotic and violent, but their present day was random, chaotic, and filled with death and destruction, invasion and revolution. How could Jane Austen possibly have endangered herself by promoting such an idea? Did Edward Gibbon write The Smooth, Orderly Progression of the Roman Empire (1776)? No, he wrote, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Did Thomas Hobbes (1651) write that life before governments arose among men was "a smooth orderly progression," or did he write that it was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"? Rhetorical question.
Okay, it would be radical to put "chaos, destruction, and death" as the main theme in a bittersweet romantic comedy novel. Or maybe not so much 'radical' as a 'bad marketing idea.' But again, not radical in the sense that Austen would have been in danger for suggesting this idea.
[Update: In my new series, I also discuss Kelly's take on Emma and Sense & Sensibility. Click here and here and here. And I ask whether a hedge can have a symbolic meaning.]
Kelly also says that "Jane's novels aren't romantic. But it's increasingly difficult for readers to see this." She argues that Austen writes about sad and serious things, things that should not be funny. The men that you think are the romantic heroes in Austen are really awful, awful people.
Are Jane Austen's novels, if not radical, much "darker" than we were led to believe? Stay tuned. We will examine more in Part Two.