Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Helena Kelly. Knopf, $28.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3210-3
Kelly, an Oxford lecturer, enters the busy Jane Austen industry on a path already hewn but not overly traveled: the argument that Austen encoded radical beliefs into her famously well-mannered novels. This route into Austen deserves more attention, but Kelly’s book, despite offering interesting tidbits, meanders in too many directions. Kelly shows a solid knowledge of Regency history, but her larger point is unclear. A fundamental flaw lies in the fuzziness around Kelly’s use of “radical” (she defines it as “questioning unexplored assumptions”). She brings up contemporary political issues, such as Britain’s slave trade, but also suggests that Pride and Prejudice is a “revolutionary novel” because it doesn’t convey “unthinking respect for the nobility”—which can be said of many English novels of the time. Kelly also makes the questionable decision to open each chapter with a fictionalized “sweet” vignette about Austen’s life. A reader might wonder whether Kelly considers Austen a serious radical or, as in one segment, a silly child-woman “giggling” as she “skips.” This book, written with airy nonchalance, seems to hope to cater to multiple Austen constituencies but is likely to end up pleasing few. Agent: George Lucas, InkWell. (May)
Reviewed on: 02/13/2017
Release date: 05/02/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 352 pages - 978-0-525-43294-4
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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