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200 Years After Her Death, Jane Austen Refuses to Meet Our Polite Expectations

‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical,’ reassesses the writer and new face of the £10 note as Jewishly attentive to the complex moral challenges of life

Ann Marlowe
July 18, 2017
Original image: Library of Congress
Original image: Library of Congress

Two-hundred years after her death at age 41 on July 18, 1817, Jane Austen is both wildly popular and often disliked; she’s accessible yet distant. She’s canonical enough to be pictured on the new British £10 note, yet some men unabashedly say that they just don’t get her, it’s a chick thing. Her subject matter is too restricted, or her novels are too “indoors,” or she’s a prisoner of unexamined assumptions about social class, or her morality is too prim.

I would venture a different explanation for these criticisms: “Feminine” is code for something else. These readers are annoyed by her unfailing moral alertness, her insistence on the endlessly examined life. (A quality she shares with another loved-but-hated novelist, Fitzgerald—think of the opening page of The Great Gatsby.)

This is a Jewish trait. Consider Lionel Trilling’s take in 1954, when he was 49: “It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality. … Never before had the moral life been shown as she shows it to be, never before had it been conceived to be so complex and difficult and exhausting.” Well, except if you were an observant Jew.

Of course, this “Jewishness” is a function of Austen’s taking Protestantism seriously. Austen was the daughter and sister of Anglican priests and kept abreast of new currents in Christianity, including the controversial Evangelical creeds, about which she was ambivalent. She wrote to her family about sermons the way we write about movies or TV shows.

Austen’s moral seriousness and her religion bear directly on Helena Kelly’s first book, Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, which purports to reveal new insights into Austen’s six major novels, bursting the bubble of the safe, drawing-room Jane Austen who’s made for so many attractive movies—even while calling her “Jane.” Secret Radical has created a minor stir, even attracting a cavalier dismissal on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page by someone who appears to have slept through the last few decades of Austen research.

I had hoped for a scholar who would combine sensitivity to Austen’s language with heavy lifting on the context. Kelly satisfies completely on neither account, and she offends against both Austen’s vision and common sense. But she’s still written a book worth reading—and some of the details she’s unearthed will be useful for anyone thinking seriously about Austen.


An Oxford lecturer, Kelly does some good work at the start bringing us up to date on Austen’s letters and what we know and don’t know about her. She’s also good at setting up the political climate of the Napoleonic period in Britain—I had not known the writ of habeas corpus had been suspended for about a year in 1794 and then again in 1817. But in what we will come to recognize as characteristic overstatement, Kelly’s first description of Britain at the time looking “more and more like a totalitarian state” is later elided to calling it “a totalitarian regime.”

Kelly tackles the novels one by one, in order of publication, using a combination of fictional scenes from Austen’s life and close reading of the text. She does not argue her own case particularly well at the start:

These won’t be the novels you know and love. These novels deal with slavery, sexual abuse, land enclosure, evolution, and women’s rights. They poke fun at the monarchy and question religion.

These are sentences to make the heart sink in their lack of nuance—and many similar ones follow. (“A man called Edmund Burke, a famous orator and politician and occasional idealist.”) And you wouldn’t know from reading Kelly that scholars before her have opined about these very questions. She omits any account of the critical orthodoxy on each novel and how it has evolved over time. This may be because she writes for an unsophisticated reader, as the remark about Burke hints. Or it might be to magnify her own contributions; she is very slow to credit or to praise other scholars.

Kelly calls to mind those Austen characters like Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park, who sparkle on first acquaintance but are later shown to be not all that they seem. But unlike Mary Crawford, by the end of the book Kelly has won back a good deal of credit by sheer dogged persistence.

There are original ideas and valuable observations in Secret Radical; about maternal mortality in Northanger Abbey and about enclosure and the rural poor in Emma. Kelly notices that the Baronetage entry on his family that Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot loves to peruse differs in many ways from the real Debrett’s, and she catches that Austen gives her own birthday, Dec. 16, as the date of Mary Elliot’s marriage. And where she fails, as to my mind she does on Mansfield Park, Kelly fails in a way that spurs us to do more work and ask the right questions.

Kelly’s most ambitious chapter is on Mansfield Park. She promises a revelatory interpretation:

Mansfield Park, alone of all her books, wasn’t reviewed on publication. This, as I will show, is because it was an inescapably political novel, from the title onward—a “fanatical novel” that continually forced its readers to confront the Church of England’s complicity in slavery.

There are many problems with this. First of all, it is no secret that Mansfield Park addresses slavery; Fanny Price asks her uncle Sir Thomas about the slave trade over dinner. Kelly makes the connection between the title and Lord Mansfield, the jurist who ruled slavery illegal in Britain in 1772, and surmises that Fanny’s horrid aunt Mrs. Norris refers to an actual Mr. Norris, a purported opponent of slavery who insinuated himself into the anti-slavery cause only to sabotage it from within. But Kelly gives the impression that this is her discovery, and it’s not.

One earlier writer who has publicized it is the best-selling literary biographer Paula Byrne. Mansfield is in her 2013 The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. This isn’t surprising, for Byrne is also the biographer of Lord Mansfield’s mixed-race great niece Dido Belle.

Secondly, if the main focus of Mansfield Park is to confront the Church of England’s minor but undeniable involvement in slavery, and if Kelly is right in thinking this is why Mansfield Park is both about slavery and, as Austen said, about ordination, then Austen would not have made the Bertrams slave owners too. Because they are, Edmund is implicated in slavery whether or not he becomes an Anglican priest.

Kelly makes much of the Church of England’s ownership of slaves on Barbuda—an island off Antigua—through the Church’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel having received a bequest from one Christopher Codrington in 1710. He left two estates to the SPG to found a college or seminary, originally of a monastic bent, which still exists today.

But it seems extreme to say that the comparatively tiny portion of Church revenues coming from one plantation would contaminate the whole. (Slavery was ended on the estates in 1833.)

While Kelly makes much of Austen’s sympathy for abolition, she underplays a major Austen family relationship with the slave trade discussed by Claire Tomalin in her 1997 biography of Austen. In 1760, 15 years before her birth, Jane’s father, George, became a trustee of an Antigua plantation belonging to a prominent planter, James Langford Nibbs.

Kelly only says that Nibbs was an “acquaintance” of Austen’s father who sent his son to the Rev. George Austen’s boarding school, and stood godfather to two of the Austen brothers, omitting the plantation trusteeship. (Edward Said, in his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, seems to have been ignorant of this link.)

To figure out exactly what’s going on with slavery and ordination in Mansfield Park, we would need Kelly to dive into what Austen and her contemporary readers would have thought about ordination, but she does not. Clergymen in the Church of England are priests, they celebrate the sacraments, including marriage, they offer communion, and ordination is itself a sacrament. However cynical Austen’s contemporaries had grown about the giving of livings and pastoral care, they also went to church every Sunday, sometimes twice, and lived in a culture centered around the Anglican church.

Because she is pushing her slavery trope so strenuously, Kelly slights the novel’s other subtext, love-slavery. It is phrased in terms of chains in a scene where Mary Crawford has come to argue Fanny into accepting her brother Henry’s proposal. She tells Fanny that Henry has not been silent about his feelings for her: “For as to secrecy, Henry is quite the hero of an old romance, and glories in his chains.” Kelly rightly makes much of the two chains given to Fanny Price by Mary Crawford and by Edmund Bertram so that she might wear an amber cross given to her by her brother at her debut.

Mansfield Park is about more than one kind of slavery. The novel is centered around a Park called “Man’s Field”: The field in which mortal men and women, having been expelled from Eden, must earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. It’s about “human bondage” in the broadest sense, asking what kinds of ties, duties, and passions are necessary and desirable, which are evil, and the role of the church and an individual’s conscience in liberating the soul, if not the body.

And here’s the larger problem with Kelly’s book: It is often tone-deaf to the novels. It doesn’t allow them to breathe, to be more than one thing at one time. Austen’s subtexts emerge gradually, like our awareness of themes in our own lives, and that is part of her greatness. Even Edward Said had the grace to note of Mansfield Park that “a lesser work wears its historical affiliation more plainly.”

For Kelly, Austen’s characters always act with deliberate calculation; no one can act from a mixture of motivations or from conscious and unconscious motivations that are partly at odds. No one acts out. Cannot an heiress-hunter like Henry Crawford also have a susceptible heart? He is dangerous, he can deceive, precisely because he does feel—sometimes. (The same is true of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.)

Kelly is particularly blinkered about behavior she sees as sexual infractions. She has the idée fixe that Mr. Knightly has decided to marry Emma in order to further his plan to enclose previously common land in the parish—and that his interest in her was pedophilic because it avowedly began when she was 13. (Never mind that in the mid-18th century, elite women were considered marriageable at 14 or 15; see, for instance, Sarah Tillyard’s biography of the 18th-century Lennox sisters, Aristocrats. Emily Lennox became duchess of Leicester at 16; her sister Louisa married at 15.)

Kelly also raises alarm bells about potential sexual abuse in Sir Thomas Bertram’s admiration of Fanny’s looks, and in Mr. Price’s possible menace to his daughters in Mansfield Park. She is not manufacturing these concerns out of thin air, but they are more ambient than concrete. It’s again a question of taking the right measure of the text.

Kelly is good on the context of Emma, which she takes to be about “need,” in the sense of rural poverty. In this perspective, Mr. Woodhouse’s avoidance of rich food in favor of gruel becomes a cruel joke. She finds the key in the then-current practice of enclosure, the privatizing of hitherto common village land in the interest of farming efficiency. It had a direct positive effect on the Church of England clergy, like Austen’s father and brother, who were paid from tithes on agricultural produce, but worsened the situation of the rural poor.

Kelly links enclosures to the appearance of the gypsies in Emma and may be the first scholar to focus on enclosures in relation to this Austen novel, though the trope of Austen and enclosures isn’t new. (In 2002, Celia Easton of SUNY published a paper on enclosures in Sense and Sensibility, coming to the conclusion that Austen saw both sides of the issue. Kelly gives an inaccurate account of her work in her text and mentions her only in a footnote, dismissively.)

The problem with Kelly’s casting Austen as a socially conscious observer of the poor is that there’s no sign that any character in any of her novels finds the lot of the poor in itself unjust or envisions a different social arrangement. As Kelly notes, most of the servants in Austen’s novels are nameless, and none are developed as characters. (Darcy’s housekeeper may be the closest to an exception.) Nor are they treated sympathetically; consider the slovenly, and probably almost starving, housemaid Rebecca in Fanny’s parental home in Mansfield Park. Kelly never mentions Jo Baker’s brilliant 2013 novel Longbourn, which describes events of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the Bennet servants. It’s especially good on Elizabeth’s parents and on the role of the militia in Pride and Prejudice that Kelly makes much of, and makes clear just how miserable the lot of a servant in an upper-middle-class household was.

Kelly’s chapter on Pride and Prejudice is perhaps her least controversial, but also her most useful. She points out that the characters behave under the supposition that they cannot address each other unless properly introduced. This accounts for many oddities in the dialogue. Kelly also notes that Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy flout that rule, because true love knows no rules.

This insight also opens up a larger theme in the novel, the connections between people and how they are to be judged and mediated. Consider Elizabeth Bennet’s speech to Lady de Bourgh: “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.” This statement of autonomy, which I’ve previously pointed out echoes the Declaration of Independence, has to be read in the light of many of the characters’ inappropriate attitudes toward connection and autonomy.

Kelly’s scattershot chapter on Northanger Abbey culminates in some interesting work on maternal mortality as the real horror of the house (as well as a silly over-reading of Catherine’s search of a cabinet in her bedroom as a metaphor for masturbation). But as Colm Toibin has argued in 2012’s New Ways to Kill Your Mother, the absent mothers of Austen, and their replacements by aunts, are as much a psychological device as a reflection of maternal death rates. He quotes Ruth Perry’s 2006 Novel Relations that the 18th-century novel’s motherless heroines “may derive from a new necessity in an age of intensifying individualism,” separation from the mother, solitude. For instance, it’s hard to imagine Sense and Sensibility if Mrs. Dashwood had accompanied her daughters to London. In other words, despite her constant urging to consider Austen as an artist, Kelly mistakes a literary device for a historical artifact.

Lionel Trilling offers a clearer statement of the point Kelly seems to be trying to make about Northanger Abbey:

Catherine Morland, having become addicted to novels of terror, has accepted their inadmissible premise; she believes that life is violent and unpredictable. And that is exactly what life is shown to be by the events of the story: It is we who must be disabused of our belief that life is sane and orderly.

Trilling, like Kelly, but with infinitely greater elegance and delicacy, emphasizes Austen’s “interference with our moral and intellectual comfort.” But he then makes a claim more in keeping with Austen’s great stature: “We recognize in her work an analogue with the malice of the experienced universe … which is always disclosing more than we bargained for.”

Austen’s intense moral seriousness comes from her vivid—indeed, anxious—apprehension of the human lot. Kelly offers us some intriguing partial views of Austen here, and many hints at fruitful research. Perhaps as she matures as a critic, she will combine her energy and ambition with greater sensitivity and offer perspectives that rise to the grandeur of her subject.


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Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a writer and financial investigator in New York. She is the author of How to Stop Time. Her Twitter feed is at @annmarlowe.