I read several reviews of Jane Austen The Secret Radical before reading the book itself. Reviewers Abigail Bok and John Mullan agree that there isn’t much new. This is amusing as Mullan’s What Matters In Jane Austen* has even less original material. I agree with him that Edward Ferrars and Catherine Moreland’s behaviour is unlikely to have Freudian undertones. But those who view Austen’s novels as romances may be surprised (“Jane’s novels aren’t romantic. But it’s become increasingly difficult for readers to see this.” p. 31); readers who know about Austen herself won’t be.
Kelly (the author) points out that much of what we take for fact is hypothesis or family tradition. The book includes a lot of historical fact, not all of it solidly tied to Austen. For example, abortion was legal during part of Austen’s lifetime (an interesting point as there is a movement to legalise it in NZ). She declares the real reason Jane Austen never married is because “sex can kill you” (p. 69). What then for Charlotte Lucas who married Mr Collins a “fate worse than death” (p.137)?
There are some strange ideas; that Mary Musgrove is pregnant, that Catherine never finishes the Mysteries of Udolpho, that Anne and Fredrick aren’t in love at the beginning of Persuasion, that Harriet and Jane Fairfax are sisters. But the most laughably absurd is that Mr Knightley has ulterior motives in marrying Emma and that he’s a “terrible landlord” ( p. 235).
Jane Austen The Secret Radical is written on the premise that “it’s impossible for anyone to write thousands upon thousands of worlds and reveal nothing of how they think or what they believe” (p. 30). But almost anything can be twisted to mean what you want it to – just look at The Bible. Do give it a read though, she might convince you.
All quotes from Kelly, H (2016). Jane Austen the Secret Radical. London: Icon.
*I recommend you read Jane Austen the Secret Radical over What Matters in Jane Austen. Or read both.
This review is also posted on the Jane Austen Society of NZ