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Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

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It is notable that, alone of her novels, Mansfield Park was never reviewed on publication; if we miss the significance of Austen’s most openly radical and anti-establishment novel, it seems clear that her intended audience did not. 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. obviously someone familiar with the 18th century British literary culture will be aware of some of them, but of all of them?

One might think it is a matter of seeing what one wants to see in a book, but I will warn you that Kelly builds her case based on the texts and family letters and a thorough knowledge of Austen's life, time, and place. Despite what Kelly suggests, I retain my right to believe that Edward and Eleanor could live happily ever after. She shows us that despite those who “stubbornly insist that despite using the word enclosure, Jane doesn’t really mean it”, at least two of Austen’s novels ( Mansfield Park and Emma) were engaged with the effects of the Enclosure Acts and their attendant dangers of poverty and misery. Yes, Austen was an author remarkably well tuned to her time and yes her books are far more radical than many of the works of her contemporaries, but a lot of Kelly's claims just sound like very arduously constructed wishful thinking.Having warned the reader about how little is known about Jane and her intentions, she then spends the remainder of the book second-guessing authorial intent and inserting fictionalised scenes of Jane's life that might have prompted her novels. It makes the contrasting ideas and perspectives in her novels all the more intriguing because it was a mind at work and the ideological tensions are worth sorting out. Threats from abroad (wars with France and America; the French Revolution) made for a country on alert for threats from within, where “any criticism of the status quo was seen as disloyal and dangerous”. If you want to read an AMAZING book on Jane’s works, check out John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?

What I did not expect on rereading this book was to be more impressed with it than I was the first time.Austen was unique as a novelist of this period in writing “novels which were set more or less in the present day, and more or less in the real world”. The Northanger Abbey chapter was insightful about the use of the Gothic within that text, if I ever get around to actually reading the Mysteries of Udolpho, I intend to read both NA and the chapter here again. I loved this one too much to speak intelligently about it, though I loved the bit about the hazelnut. I listened to this book on audio, which is usually a medium that I have trouble maintaining attention, but this book failed to disappoint. The background is a stately home “where Jane didn’t live” and the selected quotation – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!

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