Jane Austen: The Secret Radical

Book Review by Brenda S. Cox

Fanny Price, “having, with delightful feelings, joined the chain and the cross—those memorials of the two most beloved of her heart, those dearest tokens so formed for each other by everything real and imaginary—and put them round her neck, and seen and felt how full of William and Edmund they were, . . .” wore them to the ball, along with the Crawfords’ necklace.–Mansfield Park

We all want to know what Jane Austen was really trying to say in her novels. What did she expect her original readers to hear and understand? Was she writing light romances, or did she have deeper messages?

Earlier this month, we talked about Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Butler proposes that Austen was strongly presenting a Christian, moral, conservative point of view. Personally, I agree.

But this time, let’s consider an author who answers those questions very differently. Helena Kelly, in Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, also examines ideas and issues from Austen’s time and applies them to the novels. She is much more speculative, however, and sometimes her suggestions are shocking.


Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly brings startling possibilities to Austen’s novels.

This book is relatively recent (2017). It’s beautifully written and enjoyable to read. Each chapter begins with an imaginative description Austen at some point in her life, what she might have been thinking and feeling. Then Kelly draws us into a discussion of one of the novels.

Like Butler’s book, each chapter is full of intriguing ideas. For this post, I’ll just give one or two interesting thoughts for each chapter, though I’ll go more deeply into what Kelly says about Austen and religion.

At the end of the introductory chapter, Kelly warns, “These novels deal with slavery, sexual abuse, land enclosure, evolution, and women’s rights. They poke fun at the monarchy and question religion. . . . If you want to stay with the novels and the Jane Austen you already know, then you should stop reading now. If you want to read Jane as she wanted to be read—if you want to know her—then read on” (34). I don’t think Kelly is always giving us Jane as she “wanted” to be read, but she’s certainly giving us a different perspective on Jane than the one we know.

Northanger Abbey: The Anxieties of Common Life

Kelly believes Northanger Abbey is primarily about the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. Catherine’s own mother, of course, “had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more . . .” But Austen knew well the dangers of childbirth. Her sister-in-law Elizabeth Knight died from her eleventh delivery, just one more than Mrs. Morland had. Kelly says that during the Regency, an estimated one woman died for every fifty babies that were born.

In the scene where Catherine is looking in Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom, she may be imagining herself married to Henry. And, Mrs. Tilney dying from a “bilious” condition—which would cause vomiting and abdominal pain—might have been a miscarriage or mismanaged early labor. Perhaps a pregnancy, following other miscarriages or lost babies, finally killed her.

“All of Jane’s heroines—all of the women in her novels who marry—are taking a terrifying risk. They’re placing their lives, potentially, in the hands of their husbands” (68).

Sense and Sensibility: The Age of Brass

With the law of primogeniture, the eldest son got almost everything. Women, keepers of the home, might be left with very little if they did not marry.

Kelly criticizes Jane’s father for handing over his parish to his eldest son James, “giving the lion’s share of his income, the family home, and almost everything else to James” (74). In fact, however, James was the only clergyman son at the time, and Mr. Austen wanted to retire to Bath. So he took James as his curate. Jane’s father must have kept most of the income for himself (and his wife and daughters) until he died. Certainly his wife and daughters had a better income before his death than they did afterwards. We don’t know how much he chose to pay James as his curate.

The house belonged to the church living, not to Mr. Austen, so it was reasonable that James should live there as he was ministering to the parish. Many of the Austens’ possessions were sold off. It’s not surprising some were left for the son who was moving in. Their relatives the Knights were patrons of the living, and Mr. Knight made James the rector when Jane’s father died. So none of this was a matter of George Austen taking from his other children to give to James.

Norland Park was left to the eldest son’s eldest son; an example of primogeniture.

However, we do see in Sense and Sensibility a family in which an estate is left to a male descendant, leaving the women of the family with little provision. Themes of the book do include, as Kelly claims, property, inheritance, greed and selfishness in families, and injustice to women. Money, wealth, and jewelry recur in the novel. Financially independent single women—Miss Grey, Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Smith, and even Mrs. Dashwood, illustrate different family issues.

Kelly goes on to discredit various characters, especially Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon. She concludes, “In the world of Sense and Sensibility love and family, honor and duty, have hardly any meaning. Promises are made to be broken. Women are exiled from their homes. Guardians don’t guard . . .” (107). A very bleak view.

Pride and Prejudice: All Our Old Prejudices

Kelly sees Pride and Prejudice as a radical novel. The main evidence is Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine is ill-bred. She does not fulfill her responsibilities to her tenants, who are poor and discontented. In contrast to Lady Catherine’s failures, many characters in the novel described as gentlemanlike or genteel  are not from the traditional gentry: Mr. Gardiner, Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Annesley, even Mr. Wickham.

In Lady Catherine’s confrontation with Elizabeth, Lady Catherine appeals to “the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude,” virtues of traditional English society. Kelly says Elizabeth, in a revolutionary way, rejects those traditional claims. Elizabeth says she will consider only her own happiness, not the claims of society. She believes—and Darcy comes to believe—that she and Darcy are equal. That was a radical idea. Thus Kelly argues that the main point of the novel is to show how “with reform, with radical rethinking, society can be safely remodeled. Darcy, who represents both the politically powerful nobility and the landed gentry, has to embrace change . . . he has to recognize that worth lies in morality and behavior, not in bloodlines” (153).

Personally, I think this argument goes a little too far. In Elizabeth’s conversation with Lady Catherine, she does not say that duty, honour, and gratitude are not important values. Instead, she says that none of them would be violated by her marriage to Darcy. And, she does not claim that everyone is equal. She says that a gentleman’s daughter, is equal to a gentleman.  I can’t quite imagine her saying, for example, that a parlourmaid would be “equal” to Darcy. (And in fact, in Emma, while snobbery is condemned, people still end up marrying those at their own “level” of society.) Also, as Kelly admits, reviewers of the time did not see anything revolutionary in Pride and Prejudice.

Austen is certainly not supporting the upper classes here, though, and she does challenge some expectations of society.

Mansfield Park: The Chain and the Cross

Kelly believes that Austen was severely critical of the Church of England at that time, particularly in Mansfield Park. She claims that that is why reviewers ignored Mansfield Park during Austen’s lifetime.

Kelly lists many references to slavery in Mansfield Park. Some are obvious, like the names Mansfield (judge who made anti-slavery rulings), Norris (notorious slave trader), and Cowper (abolitionist writer). Others are less obvious; for example, when Maria quotes from a poem, “I cannot get out,” she is feeling trapped, and the next line of that poem refers to the bitterness of slavery. A more labored reference is the mention of the Roman emperor Severus; one of the three emperors named Severus was a black African.

Kelly points out the Church of England’s involvement in slavery at that time. In the early 1700s, a man named Christopher Codrington bequeathed two plantations in Barbuda to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). The SPG is a missions branch of the Church of England. Barbuda is an island off the coast of Antigua. These plantations used the labor of enslaved peoples. The SPG profited from the plantations, and thus from slave labor, into the 1800s. Some church leaders objected to this situation, while others attempted to justify it. A well-known clergyman named Henry Handley Norris was involved in the SPG. His name may also be reflected in Mrs. Norris. (The modern Church of England has apologized for their past connection with slavery.)

 One of these topaz crosses belonged to Jane Austen, the other to her sister Cassandra. They were gifts from their sailor-brother Charles, like Fanny Price’s cross from her brother William. From the Jane Austen Centre, where you can order a replica.

In Mansfield Park, Fanny’s brother William brings her an amber cross, which she joins with the chain her cousin Edmund (who is preparing to be a clergyman) gave her. For Fanny, the cross and chain connect her two most beloved people.

However, Kelly thinks readers would have seen this as a symbol of the Church of England’s connection with the chains of slavery. She says, “Christianity itself is not to blame: Fanny’s “amber cross” . . . is, in itself, guiltless. . . . “It’s the Church of England that is tainted.”

Marilyn Butler, on the other hand, sees the cross and chain as straightforward symbolism, showing that Henry (whose chain did not fit through the cross) is not the right partner for Fanny, but Edmund is (Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, 246).

Kelly also points out Edmund’s flaws as a representative of the Church. He ignores Fanny and goes against his own conscience in his fascination with Mary Crawford. Edmund and his father speak of the need for a clergyman to reside in his parish. Yet at the end of the novel, Edmund takes a second parish and presumably keeps the first as well. He becomes one of the “non-resident” clergymen the book criticizes.

Certainly throughout her novels Austen shows the flaws of the Church of England. As a faithful Anglican, she could see where the church needed reform. She may have known of the SPG’s connections with slavery and almost certainly would have disapproved. But I don’t know that we can read that into Mansfield Park.

Emma: Gruel

Kelly sees Emma as a book about the needy poor and enclosures. At this time, wealthy landowners were enclosing common land, traditionally used by the poor. Enclosure improved agricultural production because of new technology. But in the short term, the poor suffered.

Emma includes numerous references to the poor, food, farming, and crime, which may have been caused by poverty. The Gypsies (or more accurately Romani) who frighten Harriet are on the road. They probably normally camp on common land, but it’s been enclosed and hedged so they can’t access it.

The vagrants who frightened Harriet had probably been excluded from common land where they would normally camp.

That road wasn’t previously dangerous. Kelly writes, “It’s enclosure that has made the road dangerous, enclosure that’s turning the landscape into a hostile one” (218).  Austen may be criticizing the practice of enclosing land and causing the poor to become desperate, leading to crime and upheavals in England.

Persuasion: Decline and Fall

Austen shows a time of change in Persuasion. The landscape at Lyme shows geological changes. A naval officer taking over a baronet’s estate represents social changes.

Kelly states, “Persuasion, from the very beginning, challenges us to think about history not as a smooth, orderly progression but as disrupted, random, chaotic, filled with death and destruction, invasion and revolution. . . How can you rely on tradition or order or identity when the whole world is mutable . . .?”

The End

Kelly quotes a London obituary which names Jane’s four published novels  and says, “she lived and died as became a humble Christian.” Kelly claims that this phrase was most commonly associated with “writers who questioned Church of England orthodoxy, with Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, and evangelicals of all persuasions” (288-9). Kelly speculates that Jane or Cassandra might have written the obituary. Was it intended to connect Jane Austen with people who criticized the Church of England?

As with many questions this book raises, we simply don’t know for sure. The questions are interesting to explore. Be aware, however, that Kelly reads sexual implications into some scenes. She also attempts to tear down Austen’s heroes, whom many of us love.

The strongest critiques of a church, or any organization, may come from those who are committed to that organization and want to make it better. What do you think are Austen’s strongest critiques of the Church of England? What do they imply to you about her beliefs and goals?

Jane Austen: The Secret Radical  by Helena Kelly, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

2 thoughts on “Jane Austen: The Secret Radical

  1. I am reading this book now and am disappointed. I think Helena Kelly is reading what she wants to see in Jane Austen’s novels rather than what Jane might actually have wanted readers to see. I think Kelly’s line of reasoning is strongest with Sense and Sensibilty and primogeniture, but her theories on Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars rely too much on speculation


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