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.