First Published on the 18th of July 2017

200 years ago, on this day Jane Austen passed away from what was most likely a lethally prescribed heroin overdose (laudanum). She had been ill for some time so who is to say whether it was a merciful unintentional euthanasia or if left to her own devices she would have lived into her eighties like the rest of her family. Her brothers worked hard to paint a picture of a quiet and well-behaved woman who was loyal to prince regent and the church, and only dabbled her literary endeavors as an acceptable gentlewomanly pastime. English Literature professor and Jane Austen expert Helena Kelly recently published Jane Austen: Secret Radical. A highly entertaining and thoroughly researched book that paints a very different picture. Kelly suggests, and backs up with convincing evidence that this supposed shy and retiring spinsters, was in fact a highly active political activist, and radical evangelical who coded into her works subversive statements that bordered on the seditious.

Northanger Abbey, far from a humorous novel, warning young women the dangers of confusing fact with fiction, is an exploration of the very real risk that romance and matrimony posed when the death rate during pregnancy was astoundingly high. Even referencing a commonly used abortitant should her young female readers face the very real danger of an unwanted pregnancy.

Sense and Sensibility is more than a polite romance with a happy ending, but rather a scathing exploration of the unjust inheritance laws of the time, and the tendency of men to exploit women their own financial gain. Even the supposedly innocent Colonel Branden, is a man who has benefited financially from the unjust separation of the woman he supposedly first loved and her inheritance.

Pride and Prejudice a utopian ideal, extolling the virtues of character over the commonly held opinions that class and birthright bestowed nobility. And in a time when England was at war with France, and the French were beheading lords and ladies left right and centre, it is no accident that Elizabeth Bennet, tells Lady Catherine De Bourgh, a noble woman with a French name where to stick it, and marries above her station to a man with a similarly French sounding surname who had been thoroughly schooled on his scornful attitude towards her working-class relations.

Emma, is full of statements around poverty and food shortages, and the supposedly heroic Mr Knightly spends the entire novel trying to push through an enclosure of common land. A practice which denied the poor access to firewood, game, fish and opportunities to farm and forage for food. In marrying his neighbor, he overcomes the one obstacle standing in his way, Emma’s hypochondriac father who worries constantly about food and dislikes change. Austen’s letters show she was very opposed to enclosures, and her almost constant references to ‘shrubberies and hedges’ were not simple set dressing, but targeted political statements.

It is well known that Mansfield Park is a very thinly veiled comment on slavery, the text is littered with references to Antigua, every poem, book and play referenced in the book features abolitionist sentiment, or characters of African or Indian decent. What most people miss is the codified commentary on the Church of England’s involvement in the slave trade. It was clear from her previous works Austen didn’t have the highest opinion of clergy men, or a fondness for cousins marrying cousins. So, is Fanny Price’s eventual marriage to her cousin, the clergyman who literally gives her a chain on which to hang her cross, is meant to be a happy ending?

After all Jane Austen never married. And frequently attempted to dissuade her older nieces from marrying too young, too soon, or too quickly. Even Persuasion which seems to be her most romantic and least satirical work, is dotted with references to the rise and fall of history, and Helena Kelly argues is actually a novel about the importance of changing with the times, the uncertainty of the future, and the rise and fall of kingdoms. Anne Elliott marries a Naval Officer, during war time and in the book, does not return to her childhood home, but instead is gifted with the same type of carriage that had only very recently killed one of Austen’s best friends. If Anne survives childbirth and fast carriages, who is to say her husband and his fortune will survive the end of the Napoleonic War?

I have always found Jane Austen’s work to be bold, feminist, cynical and highly critical of societal mores and traditions. I never felt like the romantic resolutions of Sense and Spontaneity or Mansfield Park seemed entirely satisfactory and always wondered why an author so pragmatic and cynical when it came to ‘happiness in matrimony’ always gave her heroine’s happy endings.

The thing is, Jane Austen wasn’t solely a romance novelist, she was writing pointed social satire about class, gender equality, corruption in the church, history, politics and even race. And in the last 200 years many of the thinly veiled references have lost their meaning to us, but regardless you don’t have to read very hard into her words to see she is an intelligent woman, with something to say, who despite the very limited freedom she had in regard to her time and person went her own way, made her own money, and fought to have a voice.

For a different perspective on Helena Kelly’s book have a read of John Mulland’s review in The Guardian.

Jane Austen, The Secret Radical is published by Icon.

Own Your Words

First Published on the 14th of May 2018

Let me introduce you to Faleena Hopkins. She is a self-published romance author, who has published a ridiculous amount of books in an incredibly short amount of time, as a part of a series known as the ‘Cocker Brothers.’ Recently, Hopkins trademarked, not only the ‘The Cocker Brothers’ but also the word, ‘cocky’ she then went after romance authors on Amazon with the word cocky in their title. Even books that had been written a long time before hers. The outcry as you can imagine is incredible. The twitter storm is known as #cockygate, and if you want to spend an afternoon viewing some outrage porn, then spend a day looking into Faleena Hopkins. The woman’s gall, and narcissism are amusing if not disturbing in the least.

If this is not an interesting example of how copyright can go very wrong, let me follow this up with referencing. How do I reference this story? (Twitter, 2018?) (Not an actual reference, an example of how this is difficult to reference.) (My mum, telling me about this while we hung out the other day, 2018), (A bit of a google later so I could find an article to back up the common knowledge by osmosis, that let this tidbit into my consciousness?)

Here I will make it simple for you, here is an article I found after I wrote everything down, in order to look like I was referencing something.

Alison Flood has written an article for The Guardian. This was the most official looking article I could find, so I will attribute all of the above to (Flood, 2018) even though I will probably only skim the article after I finish typing. Nevertheless, you have a reference, and my copyright guilt is assuaged.

Of course, once I did read the article, (after referencing it) I was able to find out officially that The Romance Writers of America are working with an intellectual property lawyer, as well as that a petition has been signed by more than 17,000 people to cancel the trademark.

And one will hope this ridiculous decision will be overturned because it is common sense that one can’t own a word. It is becoming increasingly difficult to own our words sans the communication revolution created by the invention of the internet. As a member of the proverbial starving arts, I understand the importance of being paid for your words, after all, no matter how nice the idea of sharing our creations in common with others might seem, we can’t eat our own words. However, with the invention of crowdfunding resources, like Pozible, Kick Starter, Patreon and Ko-fi* options to give your art away for free and be paid by those who appreciate it are increasingly available. I have no answers, copyright is complicated, and I know I would never want my words to be stolen, I also would rather lots of people read my work, than only a very few who paid me a very little.

*(again, how do I reference these these sites, do I add hyperlinks, or just let people google on their own? Is referencing becoming an increasingly redundant practice?)

Flood A, 2008, ‘Romantic novelist’s trademarking of the word ‘cocky’ sparks an outrcry’, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/08/romantic-novelist-trademarking-of-word-cocky-fameela-hopkins