Under the surface

Caroline Criado-Perez reviews a new book about Jane Austen. It’s not about the sweet, quaint, diminutive lady that so many people think Austen was – as illustrated by the new banknote that CCP herself campaigned for but that she calls

yet another representation of Austen that fed the beast that enables presumably intelligent people to describe Austen with a straight face as “the 19th-century version of Barbara Cartland”.

A fluffy pink romance-writer Austen wasn’t.

It is this beast that [Helena] Kelly tackles in a meticulously researched book that is, at its heart, a stern telling-off of us as readers. “We’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled or allusive,” she admonishes. “But we haven’t been willing to do that with Jane’s work.” With Austen, we do not skim further than the surface.

Some of us do. (#notallAustenreaders) I do. I go below the surface enough at least to notice how carefully she structured the novels, and above all how she pared away all the fat. She’s ruined me for so many more average novelists, who bore me rigid by going on and on and on about little gestures and what Sandra ate and passing thoughts while running a red light – bastard children of Virginia Woolf who think detail is the essence of The Literary.

Austen was writing at a time of intense political turmoil. Threats from abroad (wars with France and America; the French Revolution) made for a country on alert for threats from within, where “any criticism of the status quo was seen as disloyal and dangerous”. Britain became “more and more like a totalitarian state, with all the unpleasant habits totalitarian states acquire”. Habeas corpus was suspended; the meaning of treason was expanded to include “thinking, writing, printing, reading”. Kelly tells us of carpenters imprisoned for reciting doggerel and schoolmasters imprisoned for distributing leaflets. “There can hardly have been a thinking person in Britain who didn’t understand what was intended – to terrify writers and publishers into policing themselves.”

Like Bangladesh today.

It is therefore not to be wondered at that Austen may have hidden her radical politics under the surface of a seemingly more “frothy confection”, although, as Kelly points out, to view marriage as a frivolous topic in an 18th- or 19th-century novel is shamefully ahistorical. “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. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law.” And that is before we even get on to the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth that were implicit in any marriage plot at a time where “almost every family had a tale of maternal death to tell”.

Charlotte Lucas had a low opinion of marriage, but she did want to get out of her parents’ house.

Through a combination of beautifully precise close readings alongside Austen’s biographical, literary and historical context, Kelly shows us that the novels were about nothing more or less than the burning political questions of the day. Contrary to Churchill’s infamous assertion that her characters led “calm lives” free from worry “about the French Revolution or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars”, Kelly reveals an oeuvre steeped in the anxiety and fear of war. She shows us that despite those who “stubbornly insist that despite using the word enclosure, Jane doesn’t really mean it”, at least two of Austen’s novels (Mansfield Park and Emma) were engaged with the effects of the Enclosure Acts and their attendant dangers of poverty and misery.

And although Kelly doesn’t mention Edward Said’s thesis that Mansfield Parkglorified slavery, she nevertheless shows it up as the nonsense it is by relentlessly tracking down each and every hint Austen drops, until she can show that the novel is so heavily littered with stabs at both slavery itself and the Church of England’s complicity in the trade, that for them to be unintended would be a “truly impossible number of coincidences”. It is notable that, alone of her novels, Mansfield Park was never reviewed on publication; if we miss the significance of Austen’s most openly radical and anti-establishment novel, it seems clear that her intended audience did not.

I look forward to reading this.

Jane Austen: The Secret Radical is published by Icon (£20). Click here to buy a copy for £16.40

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