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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 41

Jane Austen 200

What’s the Jane Austen News this week? 

Romance At The Centre 

There was excitement in the Jane Austen Centre this week when one visitor was asked an unexpected question by her boyfriend, Jamie Scott. Charlotte, one of our centre guides, described what happened.

“I only saw a little bit because I wanted to give them some private time. But by some luck, they were the only two in their talk. When they got to the writing desks, they were alone in the room with only me! While she was reading some of the information boards he wrote ‘Will you marry me?’ on one of the cards.

“She then sat down at the other desk and he went and gave her his card. I had left at this point to give them a moment, but was just outside with Serena (another of our guides) when she said yes. He gave her the ring he had kept hidden until that moment, and then we came around the corner and congratulated them. She seemed overwhelmed. It was lovely!”


Help Design Jane Austen Benches 

the-house-that-jane-built-2-700x515Basingstoke and Deane is going to honour the 200 year anniversary of Jane Austen’s death by placing 25 specially decorated ‘BookBenches’ in and around the town during Summer 2017.

Local artists are being invited to come up with their own Jane Austen related designs which will be put onto benches that look like open books. Eventually the benches will be available as street furniture for the public of Basingstoke and Deane.

Director of the Sitting With Jane project, Sally Ann Wilkinson, said: “We look forward to a wide range of designs and different interpretations of all aspects of Jane Austen’s important contribution to literature be brought to life and celebrated by artists.

“The BookBench sculpture offers artists the opportunity to visually tell Jane Austen’s stories; the characters as well as her life, and bring enjoyment to thousands of people from around the world.”

Those who want to be involved have until December 1st 2016 to get involved through sittingwithjane.com.


If You Love Jane Austen, You Might Also Love….        

x500Jane Austen and the Brontës endure as British literature’s leading ladies (and for good reason)—but were these reclusive parsons’ daughters really the only writing women of their day?

This is the question which Shelley DeWees addresses in her new book Not Just Jane – Rediscovering Seven Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature.

Within her book DeWees aims to throw light on some of the female writers from the late 18th and the 19th century. Most people have heard of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Jane Eyre; but there have to be more great female authors from history than that. DeWees introduces us to seven amazing but forgotten female authors as she weaves history, biography, and critical analysis into a narrative which tells the evolution of female life and the changing literary scene.

The Jane Austen News is looking forward to having a look at the book and discovering who some of Jane Austen’s contemporaries were.


Jane Austen – The Secret Radical
9781785781162-293x450On November 3rd Helena Kelly will be in Bath at Waterstones launching her new book Jane Austen The Secret Radical.  

Helena argues that Jane’s novels don’t confine themselves to grand houses and they were not written for readers’ enjoyment. Helena puts forward that Jane writes about serious subjects and her books are deeply subversive, we just don’t read her properly – and we haven’t been reading her properly for 200 years.

Within Jane’s novels are arguments on the subjects of feminism, slavery, abuse, the treatment of the poor, the power of the Church, and even evolution – at a time, and in a place, when to write about such things directly was akin to treason.

Reviewers have said ‘However well you think you know the novels, you’ll be raring to read them again once you’ve read this.’ We have to say; we’re intrigued…

 


What to Expect From The Jane Austen Writers’ Club     

jausfinalFrom one new Jane Austen book to another.

Rebecca Smith has just published her how-to novel which explains how to write a novel using examples from Jane Austen’s novels and letters of advice which she wrote to her own aspiring-author niece.

Smith starts with advice on how to plan your story, and create believable, well-rounded characters and their environs. Then she moves onto how Jane uses irony, and picks out details and speech mannerisms, which has to be one of her most honed skills. Smith herself writes: “This whole book could be devoted to Jane Austen’s use of dialogue.”

Some of the other key pieces of advice Smith offers are:

  • Be a people-watcher (and listener)
  • Find somebody you trust to edit your work
  • In the face of rejection, keep writing
  • Suspense, suspense, suspense!

This month the Jane Austen News will have a lot of reading to do!


For Austen Fans Near Reading  

reading-abbey357-correctionThis past weekend (28th-30th October), Jane Austen fans living near Reading got a treat when Helena Kelly (the author of Jane Austen The Secret Radical which we mentioned earlier) was in conversation with fellow “Janeite” Gill Hornby discussing Jane Austen’s political and social views and how she weaved her thoughts into her supposedly “safe” novels.

The talk was part of Reading Book Festival, and was a particularly good city to discuss Jane Austen in because it was in Reading at Reading Ladies’ Boarding School that Jane and Cassandra attended boarding school for a time. The boarding school was located by the Abbey Gateway and that fact is commemorated by a plaque on a nearby wall.

Hopefully there will be more events for Reading-based Jane Austen fans soon!


Jane Austen Day with Charlotte

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