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An Interview With Helena Kelly, Author of Jane Austen the Secret Radical

Jane Austen the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

An Interview With Helena Kelly, Author of Jane Austen the Secret Radical

Helena Kelly’s book, Jane Austen the Secret Radical,  began an interesting debate around the beloved Regency author when it was released in November 2016.  Kelly’s book explored Jane Austen as a radical, spirited and politically engaged writer, and this was a shock for
those people who’d only thought of Jane as a tranquil, smiling woman who spent her time penning purely romantic novels.

After receiving a review copy of this brilliant work, and after reading its original analysis, Jane Austen blogger Maria Grazia ended up with a few questions she wanted to ask Helena Kelly. So she wrote them down and was graciously granted the answers. Here’s the interview that resulted.

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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 New Jane Austen portraithow 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 BBC 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 revolutionary acts?

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?

In 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 think, that 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?

As above, Mansfield 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 Wentworthsthey’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 1999 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.

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This interview was first published online on Maria’s My Jane Austen Book Club blog, and reproduced here with her kind permission.

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Jane Austen News – Issue 56

The Jane Austen News gets set to vote

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?   

Jane Austen Fans – Lend Us Your Eyes!     

The Jane Austen News is pleased to announce that over the next few weeks we will be publishing a most interesting letter written by Hans van Leeuwen, a lovely Jane Austen fan from the Netherlands.  

Below is just a taster:

Dear Jane

It is no uncommon occurrence for me to be seen opening a book not written by yourself for the sake of propriety, but hardly have I progressed to chapter two of such a book when I find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable from an anxiousness to replace it by one of your works. How exasperating that I should think it wrong sometimes to be always seen reading the same book or a book by the same authoress! I do, in the end, follow my own inclinations rather than bend to the wishes of others, but only after caring too much about other people’s opinions and patiently putting up with their suggestions to read what they themselves probably have not read. Yet even then I feel the shackles of conventionality, as testified by my continually looking about me when, at length, I have mustered courage enough to go to our library upstairs and choose one of your books again, on which, to your credit, dust never has time to settle.

Hans is hoping to receive remarks and tips for improvements from native speakers of English, preferably Jane Austen devotees, and the purpose of sharing the letter with us is so that some valuable feedback might be gained. 

We hope you might enjoy reading it as much as we did, and that you might share your thoughts in our comments sections as it is published. 


Meeting Young Jane Austen

This week the Jane Austen News heard from Cecily O’Neill; a writer, director and workshop leader based in Winchester. She had exciting news for us that the world premiere of her stage work, Meeting Miss Austen, is going to be performed at the Winchester Discovery Centre as part of the Winchester Festival this year.

In these plays, based on Austen’s Juvenilia, we hear the voice of the teenage Jane, exuberant, saucy and often surreal in tales of love, loss, vice and victuals…

‘The company partook of an elegant entertainment. After which, the bottle being pretty briskly pushed about, the whole party was carried home dead drunk.’ (Jack and Alice)

Cecily also treated us to a sneak peek at one of her most compelling characters – Lady Greville. You can read more about what Cecily had to say about her here.

The performances will be on Saturday 8 July 2017. 8:00pm and again on Sunday 9 July 2017 3:00pm.

Continue reading Jane Austen News – Issue 56

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Jane Austen News – Issue 43

What’s the Jane Austen News this week? 

2017 Is The Year Of Literature 

waxwork head and shoulders (low res)Next year is a milestone for quite a few heroes of British literature, and to celebrate VisitEngland has declared it the ‘Year of Literary Heroes’. Among the anniversaries being celebrated are the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and publication anniversaries for Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes and Enid Blyton. 2017 will be mark the 75th anniversary of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, and it will be twenty years since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone!

As well events surrounding these, there will also be special programmes of events to celebrate the wartime poet Edward Thomas in Petersfield, Hampshire, an exhibition on writer Arnold Bennett, and a festival dedicated to children’s author Arthur Ransome – the writer of Swallows and Amazons.

So it seems 2017 is the year to visit England if you’re a fan of literature. Of course there will be plenty of special events on across the country to mark the 200th anniversary of Jane’s death, and we’ll keep you up to date with what’s set to be going on.


A Christmas Dinner at Chawton Library        

ah-christmas-supperBest-selling author Edward Rutherfurd (his debut novel Sarum, a 10,000-year story set in Salisbury, was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 23 weeks) will add star appeal to the Christmas supper at Chawton House Library next month.

Offering an opportunity to partake of a festive meal in the atmospheric oak-panelled rooms where Jane dined with her family, the black tie event on December 3 will include the viewing of a unique manuscript and rare books. Edward Rutherfurd will talk about the inspiration that characterful 400-year-old houses like Chawton House can provide to the creative imagination, and guests at the Christmas supper will have the opportunity to view the unique ‘Sir Charles Grandison’ manuscript, written in Jane Austen’s own hand, as well as seeing a selection of her first editions.

Proceeds from the tickets (£85 per ticket or £750 for a table of ten) will go towards the library, its maintenance, and the academic work it undertakes.


Introducing Jane Austen to New Audiences (via Zombies) 
Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesIt’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but it has to be said that Seth Graham Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a hit with some readers, and it may have one big distinct benefit; it introduces people to Jane Austen’s work who probably wouldn’t have found her otherwise.

During the course of our Internet perusals this week, we came across a blog by Rebecca Thorne who explained perfectly what drew her to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and from there, onto original Jane Austen novels.

What interested me in the idea of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is that I’m quite in to fantasy so zombie killing sounded like fun. Additionally, I do love a strong female lead, so the Elizabeth of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a professional zombie slayer with a fearsome reputation was right up my ally. As I also quite like historical fiction, the historical setting iced the cake.

 

Personally, I think it’s a great idea to experiment with stories and secondly adapting older works may inspire audiences who wouldn’t normally be interesting in them to try them.

It may not be everyone’s thing, but if it leads people to Jane’s work, then surely that’s a positive?


Constable in Brighton   

JConstable Brighton Beach w fishing boat and crew c 1824-28 c. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.jpg
JConstable Brighton Beach w fishing boat and crew c 1824-28 c. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A new exhibition which might be of interest to fellow fans of the Regency period will be running at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery between 8th April and 8th October 2017. It will explore John Constable’s time in the emerging seaside resort of Brighton, where he stayed with his family between 1824 and 1828.

A bit of background: John Constable (1776 – 1837) was an English Romantic painter known principally for his landscape paintings. Qualities associated with his work include a freshness of light and a delicacy of touch; he also saw landscape painting as a scientific as well as a poetic form, and believed the imagination cannot alone produce art comparable with nature. His paintings are so treasured that they hang in galleries such as the British Museum, the Courtauld Gallery, the National Gallery, the Royal Academy, Tate, V&A, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Constable in Brighton will form part of the Royal Pavilion & Museums’ Regency Summer season in 2017, which will also include Jane Austen by the Sea at the Royal Pavilion and Visions of the Royal Pavilion Estate at Brighton Museum.


Jane Austen The Secret Radical – A Review     

9781785781162-293x450“Almost everything we think we know about Jane Austen is wrong.” This is the declaration from Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, an eminently accessible study of Jane Austen’s six major novels.

At the Jane Austen News we’re very excited because Helena will be visiting Bath this week and signing copies of her book for us. They’re available for pre-order here, and will be shipped out next week!

In Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, which is her début book, Helena argues that we’ve started to read the Jane Austen we’ve constructed through adaptations and shared wisdom, rather than Jane as she was. After 200 years she says we have strayed too far from the novels themselves, and Helena herself has been a victim of this: “When I was teaching Austen [she has taught students at Oxford University for the past ten years] I often had to go back to the text to check that what I was remembering was actually there. And I would get students writing essays on scenes that didn’t actually happen in the novels but which they remembered from somewhere else.”

Helena also puts forward the idea that Jane Austen would have expected her readers to pick up on contemporary references to politics, societal values, world events and religion. Going back and looking again at Austen’s novels with all of these things in mind will, explains Helena, reveal a writer who was spirited, opinionated and deeply concerned with the political and social issues of the times in which she lived.


Mrs Dashwood Visits the North Pole!     

The Jane Austen News spots Mrs Claus

The new Christmas adverts have started to appear on TV, and when we at the Jane Austen News watched the new M&S Christmas advert we couldn’t help but think we’d seen Mrs Claus somewhere before. It turns out we had. The actress who plays her is Janet McTeer who played Mrs Dashwood in the BBC’s 2008 production of Sense and Sensibility. So we though we’d share that fact with you in case, like us, you were wracking your brains trying to work out why you recognised her.


Jane Austen Day with Charlotte

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