This year marks 200 years since the passing of Jane Austen, so it feels apt to review a book about the lady herself. “Jane Austen, the Secret Radical” by Helena Kelly was plenty hyped this year, so I kind of (forcefully) suggested my book club read it as soon as it came out.
A brilliant, illuminating reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring–how truly radical–a writer she was.
The description above (taken from the promos online) seemed overly confident, but I was willing to give it a try. I’d been reading other Austen bios and was eager for a fresh, new take. What Janeite doesn’t want to dive deeper into her works and find a hidden gem or two? We all want a new way to inhale her novels, or new insight into the rather mysterious woman herself.
This book gives us a whole lot of potential context for reading Austen. I say “potential” because not every hypothesized perspective came off as legitimate. I appreciate the immense research and detail put into this, but I do not feel every chapter was convincing. The Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility chapters felt strongest, but everything else came off very weak, or a stretch.
I appreciate the new info on her life and the era, but her “facts” on how to read Austen are questionable. Overall, this wasn’t “brilliant” nor “illuminating” because it really didn’t give me new information, just new “radical” theories from the author’s perspective.
And we already knew Jane was “subversive and daring” without needing to read this book of essays.
Who should read this: People who have read every other bio about Jane and need to complete the collection.
What you should drink with this: Seltzer, you’ll want to stay sober for this one so you can stomach the more outlandish assertions.