Her just released Jane Austen the Secret Radical has been animating a new interesting debate around our beloved Regency lady. Helena Kelly has been under the spotlight in the latest days as the author of this interesting non-fiction book which uncovers Jane Austen as a radical, spirited and politically engaged woman writer. So those who have in their minds the tranquil, smiling woman on the new £10 pound banknote apparently got everything wrong about her.
After receiving my review copy of this brilliant work and after reading its original analysis, I ended up with a few questions to ask Helena Kelly so I wrote them down and was graciously granted the answers.
I must thank Helena for her kindness and generosity in the fuss that must have been the promotion of her book in the first days after the release. There have been reviews and interviews even in the major press, but she could find some spare time and answered my questions!
Here I am now, happy and proud, to share my little interview with you.
Hello Helena and welcome to our online Jane Austen book
club! My first question is … I’ve always thought Jane Austen was rather
revolutionary, but now you’ve taken a step ahead of me: a radical?
Hello, and thank you
for inviting me! The title
Jane Austen the Secret Radical isn’t actually mine, but it is a good choice
for the book. I don’t know that Austen wanted to overturn things, but she did
want to dig down and examine them, to show people how they actually worked, and
that’s what radicalism is about, isn’t it, getting down to the ‘radix’, the
root of things.
I totally agree with you, of course. But when and how
exactly did you come to realize her novels are not simply grand houses, balls
and dashing heroes?
Much as I loved – and still love – the 1995
Pride and Prejudice, I was soon
introduced to a very different side of Austen. We studied
Mansfield Park for A-Level; a novel which has a very
un-dashing hero, only one ball, and a heroine who doesn’t end up in the big
house. I really struggled with
Mansfield Park and I suppose I’ve been trying to bring those two very different sides
of Austen into some kind of balance ever since!
This is more a request for confirmation, then a real
question. Something I want to discuss with you. I find that Jane Austen’s stubborn wish to write and publish novels is her
first political statement and her most revolutionary act as a woman living in
that time and that place. Then came her
refusal to marry. Weren’t those truly
Certainly Austen was
stubborn about her writing; hugely stubborn. She had to endure a lot of
disappointments – as you probably know,
Susan (almost certainly
Northanger Abbey) was accepted by a publisher in 1803 but didn’t appear. She wrote to
the publishers in 1809, trying to persuade them to publish the novel and her
letter is shockingly forceful and really quite aggressive.
Jane Austen the
Secret Radical begins with her writing
that letter. But she was less of a maverick than people often think; she grew
up reading quite a number of successful women novelists, several of whom
published under their own names. Novel-writing was a reasonably acceptable
occupation for women, though (like most female occupations) not highly-valued.
With regards to
marriage, there’s not any real evidence for the one-night engagement to Harris
Bigg-Wither; the ‘proof’ seems to have been pieced together by a niece who
wasn’t even born at the time of the engagement. So it’s possible no one ever
proposed to Austen at all!
Would she have married
if the right man had come along? Maybe. But she’d seen enough of the dangers of
marriage and the demands of endless child-bearing to have made her cautious.
Among the several serious subjects Austen dealt with in her
major novels – feminism, slavery, abuse, poverty, power – which is the most
revolutionary and dangerous of all in your opinion?
Mansfield Park Austen doesn’t just confront the subject of
slavery, but of the Church of England’s active involvement in slavery. To take
the Church to task like this really was incendiary, and it’s no coincidence, I
Mansfield Park is the
only one of her novels which wasn’t reviewed on publication. In fact, there
seems to have been something of a conspiracy of silence about it.
Which is her most
revolutionary novel? What about her most
radical heroine, instead?
Park – it’s profoundly
anti-establishment. The heroine Fanny Price, though, embraces Mansfield Park
and everything it stands for. I think the most radical heroine is probably
Elizabeth Bennet – she who loves to question, to debate, to laugh at power and
challenge authority to justify itself.
I know you teach Austen to hundreds of people of all ages,
nationalities and backgrounds. What about one or two tips to poor me attempting to teach Austen –
among other classics – to the most difficult audience one can expect, I mean
teenagers and mostly boys?
My students have been
overwhelmingly female and I think even men who do enjoy Austen tend not to come
to her until they’re older. So many people already ‘know’ what they’re going to
find in the novels (grand houses, balls, and dashing heroes, as you say above).
I’m always a bit hesitant about telling other people how to teach, but since
you’ve asked for advice, I reckon start them off with
Persuasion, if at all possible – it has some really
manly men in it, with all those naval officers and there’s a great adaptation
of it starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds which really foregrounds the war.
Go for the bits that aren’t at all romantic and work backwards from there. The
popular image does get in the way of the text.
May I ask you what
you think of the great deal of Jane
Austen fan fiction and film adaptations of the recent years? Do they contribute
to the popularity of her work or do they contribute to their misinterpretation?
Both! I’m really torn
on this question, to be honest.
As I said above, the
popular picture of Austen does conceal the text. But many of adaptations and
the continuations and sequels and so on are really fun and they make Austen
accessible; those aren’t bad things. I’ve just finished reading a book called
Lydia by Natasha Farrant which I very much
enjoyed and which I think would be a great ‘gateway’ book into the original
novels. And then, look at something like
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – it’s absurd but at the same time anyone
reading it has read a good three-quarters of Austen’s novel. Plus, of course,
it makes explicit the sense of external menace in the book, though Austen’s
characters are bothered about the French, not the zombie hordes!
But, yes, I suppose
I’d like to see less romance, and more of the grittier adaptations, like the
Mansfield Park, directed by
Patricia Rozema. The Jane Austen conjured up by the adaptions, etc. doesn’t
bear all that much resemblance to the authoress of the novels!
So, in conclusion, why did you feel the need to write your “
Jane Austen The Secret Radical”?
As your readers will
know, the Bank of England is about to introduce a new £10 note next year, with
Jane Austen on. Except it’s not really Jane Austen. It’s an idealized portrait
that was commissioned fifty years after she died, and in the background is a
picture of a big house which Austen never actually lived in. It’s such a
reductive image of who she was and what her novels are doing that I thought it
was time for a corrective!
Helena Kelly holds degrees in Classics and English from Oxford and King’s College London. She teaches Austen at an Oxford summer school, and for a programme for American visiting students in Bath. She has taught Austen to hundreds of people, of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds. Jane Austen, The Secret Radical is her first book.
Maria Grazia, please read this carefully!:
ALL the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist) http://tinyurl.com/j6mh3k4
Thanks so much for sharing your questions with us! Ms Kelly’s book looks like it has a lot of food for thought.
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