“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” for example, “that every biographer of Jane Austen, in possession of the exact same sources, must find an entirely different character, one most suited to their own inclinations.” —Laura Michele Diener
When writing a review of two recent biographies of Jane Austen, it is difficult to resist the temptation to begin with a pithy line that parodies her most well-known openings. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” for example, “that every biographer of Jane Austen, in possession of the exact same sources, must find an entirely different character, one most suited to their own inclinations.” Or perhaps, “No one who had ever seen Jane Austen in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine of literature honored by one and all on July 18, 2017, the two hundredth anniversary of her death.” But then I would be veering into the ridiculous, not to mention the overdone. So I channeled some Elinor Dashwood-style self-control and forced myself to focus on the project at hand, which was more a pleasure than a task, as both Helena Kelly and Lucy Worsley write with the lively spirit of true Austen devotees.
For the youngest daughter of a rural clergyman, an unmarried woman of no fortune who died two hundred years ago, Jane Austen bequeathed a surprising amount of source material for her biographers. In addition to her six completed novels (four published in her lifetime and two posthumously), her unfinished novels and her childhood writings, there are over a hundred and fifty letters to friends and relatives detailing her failed courtships, her hopes for publication, and her increasing poverty, as well as her jewelry, her writing desk, a few pages of a corrected draft of Persuasion, a lock of her hair, and the still–standing Chawton Cottage, her last home, now the Jane Austen Museum.
Well, forget them all, Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, tells us. If you want to understand what Austen truly intended in her novels, forget the beloved canonical facts of Austen’s life—her broken engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither, her flirtation with Tom Lefoy. Ignore the turquoise ring and the topaz cross on display at Chawton Cottage; in fact, don’t bother with the Cottage–“if any trace of Jane remains, then the thousands of tourists who trudge through the rooms each year will have driven it away.” If you must make the pilgrimage, step to the windows, look outwards, and imagine the changing landscape of the late-eighteenth-century British countryside, envision the seaside bustling with sailors and soldiers preparing to meet Napoleon’s armies, with civilians gearing up for a French invasion. Stretch your eyes across the Channel to the revolutionary ideas overturning the existing order, and even further, across the oceans to the wider world of Britain’s colonial holdings in the West Indies.
Most importantly, look to the novels, which, Kelly argues, “are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote.” Austen lived during extreme times in a Britain that was “an essentially totalitarian” state, where such revolutionary ideas could land you in prison. Thus she wrote in a type of code, so that only the truly insightful readers could tease out her arguments, “just as readers in Communist states learned how to read what writers had to learn how to write.”
This Jane Austen is a severe lady, more akin to earnest young Mary Bennett than her witty sister Elizabeth. Kelly’s Jane doesn’t have time to smile at a dashing young clergyman—she’s too busy crafting a subtle critique of the church’s stance on slavery to spare a thought for who will partner her in a quadrille.
She intended for readers to read her books slowly and deliberately, perhaps aloud in the evening, accompanied by discussion. In each chapter, Kelly deciphers a novel, explaining how to read beyond and around the narratives of courtship for the radical social critiques on issues from class to inheritance law to human trafficking.
Northanger Abby, she argues, parodies popular gothic novels by suggesting the real horrors that await women in marriage, where birth control was nonexistent and childbirth was a Russian roulette. Austen herself lost two sisters-in-law to childbirth, and watched a healthy niece wear herself out with perennial labors.
Marrying might kill women in Northanger Abbey, but not marrying will most certainly destroy them in Sense and Sensibility, where the inequities of primogeniture could leave women impoverished and homeless. Sense and Sensibility, in Kelly’s retelling, reads as downright creepy, full of secrets, untrustworthy men, and dangerously sharp objects lurking in parlors. If you put out of your mind, as she cautions, the broodingly sexy Alan Rickman and the loveably clumsy Hugh Grant of the popular 1995 film adaptation, Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars suddenly look decidedly dodgy, and just two more of the men who betray the women whom the law prevents from protecting themselves.
Mr. Darcy still retains his romantic sheen, as he embarks on the most radical relationship of an Austen novel. Kelly declares Pride and Prejudice to be “a revolutionary novel,” even “a revolutionary fairy tale,” in which Austen permits her heroine Elizabeth Bennet to mock aristocrats and eschew conventional courting rituals, and rewards her for it with a happy marriage and wealth. In doing so, Austen critiques the more reactionary writings of Edmund Burke, who defended the established order after witnessing the excesses of the French Revolution.
Kelly’s chapter on Emma, is undoubtedly her strongest, and is based on her earlier dissertation on enclosure (the closing off of common or unclaimed lands by private owners) in English literature. Emma, she argues, directly addresses the effects of enclosure on the laboring class. Between 1795-1815, England witnessed dramatic increase of Enclosure Acts, with Surrey county (where Emma takes place) undergoing thirty new enclosures in twenty years. Emma herself may live comfortably, but the novel chronicles her encounters with poverty in its many shades, from struggling cottagers, to begging gypsies, to the genteel but penniless Bates women.
In Mansfield Park, which Kelly considers Austen’s most flagrantly radical novel, Austen attacks no less a mainstay of establishment values than the Church of England itself, which she condemns for its tacit support of slavery. The lack of reviews on its publication indicates that the public comprehended Mansfield Park not only as “an inescapably political novel,” but also “a deeply troubling,” one full of lecherous fathers, neglectful mothers, and hypocritical clergy harassing the heroine on the homefront while the sinister shadows of sugar plantations and slave trading lurked abroad.
Persuasion, in contrast, may be Austen least revolutionary but perhaps most philosophical of novels. Alone among her works, it possesses a concrete context, set specifically in the coastal town of Lyme Regis during the year of peace when Napoleon languished in restless imprisonment on Elba. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth marry during the exact week he escaped, plunging Britain into war again. But rather than merely a diatribe on the hazards of war, Persuasion fixates on the progress of time, the inevitability of change, and the ephemerality of all certainties. Nothing under heaven escapes—family names, national identities, happy marriages–even the limestone cliffs of the British seaside must succumb to ruin.
How radical is Kelly’s argument? After all, few readers will have missed that Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice decry the practice of primogeniture, not to mention the careless fathers and callous brothers who failed to ensure against the legal inequities barring women from receiving inheritances. And even the most cursory reading of her novels suggests a critique of women’s place in society, the boredom of the social whirl, and the merits of character over title.
Certainly Kelly isn’t the first to address these issues critically, either. Perhaps to appeal to a popular audience, she rarely references other scholars, many of whom have made similar arguments regarding the political nature of Austen’s works. Which is a shame, because Kelly provides a lively counterpoint to many of them, particularly Marilyn Butler’s 1975 Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Butler famously argued that Jane Austen wrote in a political vein, but a conservative one, actively opposed to the revolutionary stirrings around her. Kelly, who holds degrees in Classics and English and lectures at Oxford, is clearly well-versed in Austen criticism, and could easily have included a few attributions.
The book contains a few other frustrating tendencies. Kelly can throw out a game-changing point and then move on in the next paragraph– if Harriet Smith really is Miss Bates’ illegitimate daughter, then the theory deserves more than a tantalizing paragraph at the end of a chapter. Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, is Kelly’s first book; in her subsequent publications she will no doubt gain polish without losing her passion.
Most Austen readers will find something about which to quibble in Kelly’s work. But those issues are precisely why reading the book is such a genuinely pleasurable experience. Like your favorite high school literature teacher, Kelly stirs you up about your favorite characters and forces you to join the conversation with sails up and guns blazing. Don’t just read Jane Austen, Kelly demands, read her wisely, read her openly, and then read her again.
Lucy Worsley, the author of Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, resembles none other than Austen’s charmed heroine Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich,” who “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.” With her closet full of Boden dresses, her dream job as the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and her endearing speech impediment, Worsley is a familiar figure to the British public through her BBC presentations on some of the plumiest of historical topics, including the Romanov Tsars, the Tudor Queens, British murders, and most recently, Austen herself, in the program Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors.
A historian by training (she earned a DPhil from the University of Sussex), she plunks Jane firmly in the middle of the Georgian period, reminding us that even a Georgian woman of aspiring gentry had to get her hands dirty, digging potatoes, making jam, and repairing shirts. While some of Austen’s characters may idle about in drawing rooms, the authoress herself spent as much time in garden, cellar, and kitchen. Thus, in addition to the works of Paine and Burke, Worsley has consulted Georgian cookery books, household manuals, and medical treatises. Yes, she agrees with Kelly, you need to consider the revolutionary ideas in sweeping across the Channel and the debates raging in Parliament in order to comprehend Austen’s world, but also the daily grind of chores considered the rightful sphere of a dutiful daughter and spinster aunt, the “grimy, unexciting, quotidian domestic.”
Worsley, who has written the book If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, in which she delights in splendid tidbits about bed linen and water closets, not surprisingly finds an obsession with homes to be one of the driving forces of Austen’s fiction—“homes loved, lost, lusted after.” And homes to escape, fitting for a woman who spent “a lifetime of being passed around between relatives like a parcel.” Especially after Austen’s father retired in 1800, giving the family home to his eldest son, and leaving her and her sister effectively homeless and forced to sell their beds, the piano, the music collection, and their books. “The whole world is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expense of another,” Austen wrote after the family’s move to Bath.
So Worsley leads her readers on a tour of Austen’s homes, the modest Steventon Rectory, where George and Cassandra Austen raised their seven children and ran a boarding school for boys, the splendid Godmersham Park, where her older brother Edward lived grandly after inheriting a fortune from genteel relatives, the drafty apartments in Bath where Jane and her sister Cassandra settled into spinsterhood, the various vacation quarters along the seaside where her parents sought out therapeutic waters and cheap living, and finally, Chawton Cottage, where by her brother’s grace Austen lived with her mother and sister until she died. These homes illustrate Jane’s “downwardly mobile” status, as she moved from a marriageable young woman of prospects to the every-helpful Aunt Jane with no life or room of her own.
Worsley doesn’t eschew the world of ideas, but she exhorts us to look squarely at the material objects of Austen’s life—the cast-off shoes of her pet donkey, her bad pens, her bonnet ribbons, because, she argues, those material things shaped her life as much as the ideas she absorbed. In this approach, she draws inspiration from Paula Byrne’s remarkable 2013 The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, a biography told through a catalog of her possessions.
For all their different approaches, Kelly and Worsley agree on a number of revisions to the classic narratives of Austen’s life and work. Both proffer extreme skepticism about the memoirs of Austen family members, who softened the political acumen of Aunt Jane through a romantic Victorian haze. Both writers are cognizant of Austen’s awareness of the wide world beyond Britain. Even the domestic ties of home bound her to other lands and peoples; she herself may never have left England, but she possessed close relationships with two brothers in the navy, with an aunt who traveled to the West Indies for marriage and became the mistress of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India, and the offspring of their union, and with her colorful cousin Eliza, whose life was filled with the kinds of gothic escapades in which Catherine Morland delighted. With such a cast in her immediate beloved circle, Austen in her novels could hardly be “resisting or avoiding that other setting,” namely Britain’s colonial holdings or any other setting, as Edward Said claimed in his chapter on Mansfield Park in his 1993 Culture and Imperialism. Like Fanny Price, she asked questions about the slave trade, she read Thomas Clarkson’s abolitionist writings, and she knew exactly where her sugar came from.
In recent years, Jane Austen has received the dubious title of the great-grandmother or fairy godmother of chick-lit, and both Kelly and Worsley caution against the general tendency to read Austen’s novel as romantic escapism. Yes, courtship and marriage are at the center of her plots, but these are hardly lighthearted tales of romance. “Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence, as a legal adult,” Kelly reminds us, and as Worsley points out, most marriages in Austen’s novels are unhappy, tragically or comically so.
And for all their well-done scholarship, neither Kelly and Worsley can help succumbing to genuine fan-girl love for Jane Austen. Worsley admits to being “a devotee and a worshipper,” who wrote every word of her biography with love. And Kelly maintains a Twitter identity as @MsAshtonDennis, the pseudonym Austen used (acronym MAD) when corresponding with the publisher who had bought the rights to her first novel but refused to bring it to press.
Kelly and Worsley have given us a politically and socially aware woman who attacked the established order with irony and ingenuity, an Austen for the global age whose desire to remake society from the ground up extended into the servant’s quarters and across the oceans to the outskirts of empire. Worsley has suggested that, “every generation gets the ‘Jane Austen’ it deserves.” I don’t know what we have done to deserve this Austen, but perhaps she is the one most suited to 2017. Two hundred years after her death, she appeals more than ever. As an artist and intellectual, she refused to be complacent in a stultifying society, and she used the limitations of her own life as a springboard for clever critique. Worsley and Kelly, two extraordinarily clever authoresses in their own right, urge us to find new meanings in her classic works. Women may no longer lust after the sizable fortunes of baronets, but truths can still be universally acknowledged, and Jane Austen, in her novels, her letters, and her life, can certainly teach us quite a few of them. Who knows what the next two hundred years shall yield?
— Laura Michele Diener
Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.