A reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read and revealing how subversive and daring a writer she was.
...a meticulously researched book that is, at its heart, a stern telling-off of us as readers ... Through a combination of beautifully precise close readings alongside Austen’s biographical, literary and historical context, Kelly shows us that the novels were about nothing more or less than the burning political questions of the day ... It is a shame that Kelly doesn’t leave much room for Austen’s bitingly funny letters and juvenilia, both of which can leave no reader in doubt of Austen’s disposition toward the satirical, the radical and, more often than not, the grotesque. I was also not sold on Kelly’s decision to open each chapter with a short fictional section based on Austen’s letters ... But these are minor complaints in an otherwise deeply welcome book. Kelly has produced a sublime piece of literary detective work that shows us once and for all how to be precisely the sort of reader that Austen deserves.
Jane Austen: The Secret Radical sets out to raise hackles. As she asserts, almost everything we think we know about Jane Austen is wrong. There has been, according to Kelly, only one person who has ever read Jane Austen right. That would be Helena Kelly ... Kelly sweeps the board clear of all previous critical commentary — just so much clutter, we must understand. Claire Tomalin’s acclaimed 1997 biography is dismissed in a footnote as having hopelessly missed the point of Mansfield Park. R. W. Chapman, the scholar who founded modern Austen studies, is a purveyor of 'nonsense' ... But, taking a deep breath, I concede that it is, stripped of its flights of fancy, an important revisionary work for 2017 ... Kelly’s book is reckless, but she knows the novels inside out. Her views, when not designed to annoy the reader, are informative ... Helena Kelly provokes. But in Jane Austen: The Secret Radical she has given us a book for 2017, perhaps the most turmoil-filled year in Britain since 1945. So, with a patient sigh, let’s do what she tells us to and read the novels again.
Kelly argues — passionately and engagingly, if not always convincingly — that modern readers have failed to read Austen as she was meant to be read: in the context of her historical moment ... Her critical method is to focus microscopically, generating meaning from the smallest details of the novels — names of people and places, lines of poetry quoted, the etymology of words — juxtaposed with historical context ... We don’t have to subscribe to Kelly’s vision of Austen as a political revolutionary to understand her as a radical, though not a secret one. That her novels prioritized the true circumstances for women in her era is radical enough.