Jane Austen Was a Secret Radical: A Book-by-Book Breakdown

Jane Austen illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

There’s a problem when it comes to Jane Austen. The problem has to do with Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley and a shirtless Colin Firth. It has to do with Bridget Jones and novelty coffee mugs and the BBC and even Bollywood. It has to do with zombies and a cottage industry built around the misperception of the value of Austen’s work. Jane Austen’s novels are not significant because they comprise the evolutionary pool out of which the contemporary romantic comedy crawled!

So says Helena Kelly in her new book Jane Austen, Secret Radical, a novel-by-novel examination of Austen’s work that serves as a sharp rebuke and smart corrective to the way we’ve been reading Austen. That is, if we’re reading her at all and not just streaming sexy adaptations and esteemed miniseries.


But before you think Kelly’s book could have been alternately titled Wet Blanket, notice that Kelly is interested in making sure we understand that Austen’s work is important because it’s fierce and progressive. She’s not just finger-wagging about the books being better than the movies, but giving the novels a close reading that makes them fresher than the movies. In each chapter, she gives a re-reading that reshapes the way we think about Austen. She shows, for example, the way in which a comedy of manners like Pride and Prejudice is actually a take-down of high class elitism, which implicitly posits a statement about demilitarization. Or the way that Persuasion’s long view of history and evolution questions the validity and stability of the British Empire.

austen-comp-580The cottage industry around Austen makes her quaint, cute. Important, sure, but not that interesting. Kelly’s book makes Austen vital. You needn’t worry about Kelly ruining the fun movies, novelty coffee mugs (“Mr. Darcy is a proud man. Elizabeth Bennett doesn’t like him. They change their minds and get married. The end.”), or zombie mashups, if those are your thing. Kelly’s book isn’t really a take-down as much as an occasionally stern note that you could do better. It’s not that you shouldn’t like Jane Austen for whatever reasons you like her. It’s that you could like her even more if you read her the way that Kelly does.