Feminist Reading Journey: Helena Kelly ‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical’

Image: The Kawaii Kollective

First of all I want to apologise for being so behind with posting, as if you look at my Instagram you will find that the actual book I am reading is several posts ahead of this post! April is deadline time (I’m currently studying for a Masters) so I am afraid I won’t be catching up anytime soon, but be prepared for a serious amount of catch up work in May (I am hoping that May is going to be the month I bombard this website with content). This post then is about the third book in my feminist reading journey ‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical’ by Helena Kelly.

This book was actually purchased right at the start of my reading journey when I had not really formulated a plan yet to what I wanted to read, but I actually like how it fits into my journey because of the way it paints the secret feminist history of one of the world’s most famous writers: Jane Austen (and I think before I look forward I need to a certain extent look back). Having been a Jane Austen addict in my youth (both of the novels and the various film and TV adaptations); I instantly gravitated towards this book when I saw it in my local Waterstones.

Jane Austen The Secret RadicalImage: April Wilson 

When I saw this book it reminded me of how I wished when I was doing my literature degree that we studied Jane Austen more, and I also was fascinated to see how the author was going to convince me that Jane Austen was a radical. Though I did by no means position her as a conservative or the alt-right icon that was recently bizarrely attributed to her (and has been frequently attributed to her in the past). I always thought for the time period she was in she had to be different and strong willed. After all, she was a female author when they were sparse/ often censored and she allowed her characters to breach class boundaries, which was radical for the time.

I was also interested in reading this book, as although I have read most of Jane’s novels I have to admit I have never read ‘Persuasion’ or ‘Emma’ (though I have seen a TV adaptation of it) so was interested in learning more about the novels, especially ‘Persuasion’ as I often seen it credited as a bit of a dud in the Jane Austen canon.

What was refreshing when reading was that each chapter had an equal amount of attention and care dedicated to it making me want to go out and read each Austen novel again just as much as the other. I have to admit though that it made me want to read ‘Mansfield Park’ again the most because of the complexities surrounding slavery that Kelly reveals lie within the novel that I had not picked up on (seeing the adaptation on ITV starring Billie Piper before reading the novel I think made my reading of the novel clouded by wanting to compare the two). I think it also didn’t help that Britain’s past concerning slavery is often glossed over in the school curriculum. We learn about the Tudors, the Egyptians, the Romans and then we usually end up skipping a great chunk of history and covering the First and Second World War (or at least that is what I remember from my experience).

I have seen and read a lot about American slavery, but British slavery and the true cost of the luxuries that were in Britain at the time are often overlooked, and not mentioned. I studied the effects of the empire in Victorian Britain but Jane Austen belongs to the point in British history that I think has become lost a little in school education (at least from my experiences in the UK).

I think if you are going to take anything from the book it is the desire to read Austen again. Though that doesn’t mean you will want to devour every work she ever wrote. Despite, the merit her novels have in discussing issues relating to the time she lived in; some are still more enjoyable and well written than others.

I for one plan to read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Mansfield Park’ again, as well as delve into ‘Emma’ and ‘Persuasion’ for the first time.

Whether Helena Kelly’s findings are new and revolutionary I do not know. I have not studied Austen enough academically to judge, but either way she gives an accessible starting point to both those used to academic scholarship and to those who are not. Whether you agree with everything she says about Jane Austen’s works or not doesn’t matter as she does her job by making you think about them. You end each chapter wanting to read the work she is talking about and see if your reading will now match hers, or if there will be differences.

In this way Helena Kelly certainly achieves what she intended to do:

“I’ve been working quite hard in this book to convince you Jane is an artist, that her work is carefully considered, structured, themed, that she uses her writing to examine the great issues of the day”.

 – Helena Kelly, ‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical’ 

That is why the quote I choose and Caroline from The Kawaii Collective very kindly illustrated is one that calls on the reader to read Jane Austen’s novels again, as all Kelly wants is for Jane to have the voice that in her life she was often denied.

Helena Kelly Jane AustenImage: The Kawaii Kollective

This drawing, along with all of my other collaborations with The Kawaii Collective was originally inspired by Kimothy Joy’s collaboration with The Huffington Post.

Be sure to also check out Caroline’s Etsy shop if you like what you see and want to purchase her art work!

For all Jane Austen fans, ‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical’ is a great book to read to get you excited about Austen again (though I doubt a lot of people need this encouragement), and a valuable part of my reading journey.

The book I am reading this week is yet to be announced. Be sure to check out my social media channels tomorrow for the announcement!

Last week’s book was Rupi Kaur’s ‘Milk and Honey’.

If you have any suggestions for what I should read next please comment below.

If you are interesting in collaborating with me on this project as well please let me know. My inbox is always open!