- - Thursday, May 18, 2017


By Helena Kelly

Alfred A, Knopf, $27.95, 336 pages

The default setting for a novel is the present day. We also have historical novels, sci-fic novels, gothic novels, and novels about other worlds — including chicklit and Scandi Noir. We call them “genre novels” to distinguish them from mainstream fiction about believable characters and events in credible places.

This was not the case in Jane Austen’s day. When she began writing in the last decades of the 18th century, the novel was fairly new. Already it had explored imaginary worlds in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” There were sensational low-life novels as in Defoe’s “Moll Flanders” and erotic fantasies ranging from Cleland’s “Fanny Hill” to Richardson’s “Clarissa.”

Most importantly, there were masses of gothic novels. Among them Ann Radcliffe’s “Mysteries of Udolfo” was enormously popular, not least with Catherine Morland, heroine of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.” Reading it convinced her its tropes were being re-enacted in General Tilney’s home.

Mocking this popular form, Jane Austen set out on a new and different realist path. She focused on “two or three families living in the country,” delineating them with the precision of a miniaturist painting on ivory with the finest brush,

Her six novels were published between 1811 and 1817, a momentous era when Britain, having already lost its American colonies, was almost constantly at war abroad and grinding through the world’s first industrial revolution and an agricultural revolution at home.

Some 20th-century critics objected to her lack of attention to these extraordinary times, especially to the Napoleonic wars. Defenders hastened to point out the soldiers who cause so much excitement in “Pride and Prejudice.” Helena Kelly goes much farther. In “Jane Austen: The Secret Radical,” she brings up the heavy armory of historical research and close reading to assert that Jane’s novels are “not an undifferentiated procession of witty ironical stories about romance and drawing rooms.”

They are about “A world in which parents and guardians can be stupid and selfish; in which the Church ignores the needs of the faithful, in which landowners and magistrates … are eager to enrich themselves even when that means driving the poorest into criminality. Jane’s novels, in truth, are as revolutionary at their heart, as anything … Tom Paine wrote. But … they are so cleverly crafted that unless readers are looking in the right places — reading them in the right way — they simply won’t understand.”

She points readers to the right places and the right way by noting the social and political facts of Jane Austen’s times. Significantly, politicians feared a revolution like those of the United States and France, and the country was at virtually continuous war with France from 1792 to 1815. Jane Austen had a brother in the militia, two brothers in the navy, and a sister-in-law whose first husband had been guillotined. She always lived on or near to the south coast, where the government was building defenses against potential French invaders. She knew about the exigencies of war.

She also experienced first-hand what happened to women, like herself, who never married. She was largely supported by her brothers, especially Edward, who inherited great wealth from the uncle who adopted him. Nonetheless it took him four years after his father’s death to offer a home to his mother and sisters.

This will remind Jane Austen’s readers of John Dashwood, who is easily persuaded to limit aid to his sisters and mother to a bare minimum in “Sense and Sensibility.” Does this imply that Jane wished to marry then? Maybe not. Her letters show that she understood the dangers of motherhood, and her novels have few happy marriages and plenty of women whom men betray.

Helena Kelly mines Jane’s biography to highlight other experiences that possibly prompted fictional situations. She also pinpoints the effects of laws and customs. The financial plight of Jane and her mother and sister, for example, occurred because primogeniture was the basis of the English inheritance law, and entails were a legal means of securing an estate to one male relative.

Marianne and Elinor in “Sense and Sensibility” suffer from this, as do the Bennett sisters in “Pride and Prejudice,” and it will affect Anne, Elizabeth and Mary in “Persuasion.” She also writes about enclosure acts that enabled large landowners to fence common land that had supported villagers.

In “Emma” Mr. Knightly often mentions enclosing projects, and the novel also shows poor people who suffer as a result. Throughout Jane’s life, reformers were fighting to abolish the slave trade and slavery in British dominions. In “Mansfield Park,” Helena Kelly shows that both the plot and the characters’ names reveal the author’s awareness of the church’s involvement in slavery.

Though “Jane Austen: The Secret Radical” rests firmly on scholarship, Helena Kelly’s writing is closer to the real language of common people than to the abstruse cliche of academic texts. She makes her case convincingly, though occasionally it helter-skelters from the breezy heights that show Jane Austen’s novels freshly and clearly, to sloughs where the view is clouded by overinsistence, often about names or relationships.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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