Kelly is not saying [Mansfield Park] 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 mentioned 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, I think you are missing out on some great literature, but it's your choice. But, as I said, Kelly is going farther than that.
Kelly is saying, Austen intended for her readers to regard the main characters 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. Mansfield Park and Emma may look like romantic comedies on the surface but they are actually condemnations of slavery and the practise of land enclosure.
Mrs. Weston's poultry-house was robbed one night of all her turkeys--evidently by the ingenuity of man. Other poultry-yards in the neighbourhood also suffered.--Pilfering was housebreaking to Mr. Woodhouse's fears.--He was very uneasy; and but for the sense of his son-in-law's protection, would have been under wretched alarm every night of his life.
Austen treats the theft of the poultry with mock-drama, but of course it's deadly serious to Kelly, a comedy of terrors.
Did you think that when Austen began Mansfield Park with the phrase, "About thirty years ago," her readers would say to themselves, 'Okay, Miss Maria Ward met Sir Thomas Bertram thirty years ago?" No! They would think about slavery!
Her contemporary readers, upon reading the phrase, "About thirty years ago," were supposed to be instantly reminded, and mentally review, the events of the abolition campaign, the Zong case, Cowper's poem, the Haitian slave revolt, all of which transpired during the thirty years before the publication of Mansfield Park. They weren't going to think about Mozart, or how fashions had changed, or how they used to have a full head of hair back then, or how much the pound sterling was worth, or who was on the throne, they were – obviously – going to think about slavery. As you do, you know, whenever someone mentions courtships that occurred in previous decades.
Or when Mary Crawford mentions the poet, Hawkins Browne? Well, his son once went to a dinner party with Dr. Johnson and slavery was discussed at that party! And everybody knows about Dr. Johnson. (That much is true, they did).
When young Julia mentions the Roman emperor Severus, what are we supposed to think about? Hint: Severus was an African. Yes, slavery!
No, actually, Severus is mentioned in a passage which is a comedic reference to a common topic of concern at the time -- how to educate girls and how much education girls should have. Instead of didactic passages where the novel's characters sit around and talk about female education, Austen shows, rather than tells, and is poking fun at the same time:
"Yes," added [Julia]; "and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the heathen mythology, and all the metals, semi-metals, planets, and distinguished philosophers."
"Very true indeed, my dears, [says Aunt Norris], but you are blessed with wonderful memories, and your poor cousin has probably none at all…. And remember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn."
"Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen….."
This is a funny, brilliant passage. Are we also supposed to be thinking about slavery while we are chuckling quietly? Ah yes, we are not supposed to be laughing.
Timid little Fanny "has married a man who doesn't love her, who is a fool and a hypocrite." Austen has not written a hero and heroine who don't appeal to modern tastes, she deliberately wrote unlikeable main characters.
And did you think they will live happily ever after? No! You have forgotten about the apricots!
Here's the final, thunderously condemnatory passage in Kelly's chapter on Mansfield Park:
Thoroughly perfect, though the Moor Park apricot tree is still in the vicarage garden, a reminder of the evil that everyone knows about but no one is willing to discuss, a tree not of knowledge, but of forgetfulness. With every spoonful of apricot jam, every apricot tart that's served up on the parsonage table, Fanny will eat the fruits of slavery.
And the tree will keep on growing.
Why apricots? Because Kelly claims the word "Moor" in "Moor Park" is a subtle reference to slavery that Austen's readers would instantly understand.
"Is Jane really using this name, and this kind of apricot tree, out of all the alternatives, by accident? Is it just coincidence that it's the same word Shakespeare uses to describe the ethnicity of black Africans?"
But of course it's not the same word, it's a homonym. The Moorpark apricot is named after a landed estate called "Moor Park." "Moor" refers not to black people but wild, windswept heaths, moors, like in Wuthering Heights. Please don't tell Kelly about the word 'niggardly,' she'll have conniptions.
Of course, you can't make a good apricot tart without some sugar. Sugar was actually made by slaves, in horrible conditions. That's what they are making at Sir Thomas' plantation in Antigua. Hmm, the word "sugar" does not appear in Mansfield Park. Maybe if Austen had mentioned someone putting sugar in their tea, that would have been a more intelligible reference – to slavery! Easier to "get" than a homonym. But never mind, apricots = slaves.
Mansfield Park, as many critics have knowledgeably explained, is Jane Austen's response to a genre of novel called the "conduct novel." Coelebs in Search of a Wife, a best-selling novel of the day, is a prime example. It features serious discussions of religion, piety, education and choosing a good wife or husband, all issues that are featured in Mansfield Park.
Once you know about conduct novels and what they were like, the style, structure and characters of Mansfield Park make a lot more sense. Coelebs is a highly didactic book in which the characters sit around and talk. Austen is a better writer, she shows her characters wrestling with moral dilemmas, rather than talk about them.
But I'm not going to digress about that. Here is a link to a fantastic essay on the subject written by someone who possesses more than superficial knowledge about Regency times (women were oppressed back then, did you know?).
May I also recommend David Shapard's foreword in his annotated Mansfield Park.
But, she makes head-shakingly blithe assumptions from clues that only she can perceive in Austen's text. For example, read this passage:
[Henry Crawford] honoured the warm-hearted, blunt fondness of [Fanny's sailor brother William] which led [William] to say, with his hands stretched towards Fanny's head, 'Do you know, I begin to like that queer fashion already, though when I first heard of such things being done in England, I could not believe it; and when Mrs. Brown, and the other women at the Commissioner's at Gibraltar, appeared in the same trim, I thought they were mad; but Fanny can reconcile me to anything.'
Do you conclude, as does Kelly, that the "the intensity of William's reaction suggests that we are dealing here with cropped hair and not just short front ringlets."?
What? He's a young man saying when he first saw a new hairstyle, he thought it looked silly, but now that he sees it on his beloved sister's head, he is okay with it. What is 'intense' about that? Why does Kelly think hair has been cut, rather than styled? The expression, 'appeared in the same trim,' is a nautical expression. 'Trimming the sails,' does not mean cut the sails, right? It means adjusting them. Or is it the word 'queer'? Please tell me it's not the word 'queer' that has Kelly thinking Fanny is now wearing short hair. And in the end, Kelly does not explain what is so significant about short hair.
Or maybe they are not. And if they were, why would Austen bury but not reveal the secret in Emma, a book that is filled with hints and clues that are all revealed in the end. What narrative purpose would that serve?
Jane Austen: the Secret Radical is not about Austen's innovations as a writer, her technique, her inimitable voice, her way with dialogue, or her characters. It's about a quest to find certain opinions and points of view embedded deeply within Austen's texts. Kelly has claimed to find these secret opinions, and no doubt she is as well-intentioned as was Emma Woodhouse, when she mistakenly thought she was bringing Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton together. But Kelly's inclinations have led her astray and she has found clues that aren't there at all.
As for me, "I do not think I am particularly quick at those sort of discoveries. I do not pretend to it. What is before me, I see."
My recommendations for books about Austen:
What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, by John Mullan
Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time, by Mary Waldron
Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen, by Joan Aiken Hodge