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Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  1,073 ratings  ·  267 reviews

A brilliant, illuminating reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring--how truly radical--a writer she was.

In this fascinating, revelatory work, Helena Kelly--dazzling Jane Austen authority--loo
Kindle Edition, 336 pages
Published May 2nd 2017 by Knopf (first published November 3rd 2016)
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Average rating 3.84  · 
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 ·  1,073 ratings  ·  267 reviews

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Sean Barrs
Unfortunately, there is a certain stigma attached to Austen’s works. On the surface, Austen is a sentimental romance novelist who writes about love and relationships and their place within society. Her stories are often perceived as fluff pieces with the romance always prevailing in the end. But beyond that she is so much more.

Austen is ruthless, brilliant and tenacious. I find it extremely entertaining to read the early reviews she received for her books. The critics who wrote them clearly
Abigail Bok
Mar 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The publicists of Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical would have us believe that the book is itself a radical document—an upending of all we “know” about Jane Austen. If the “we” envisioned here means fans who have come to Jane Austen through the filmed adaptations and other popular-culture manifestations, those publicists are doubtless correct. Austen scholars, by contrast, will find less that is new or surprising, along with some ideas that are overstated or simply odd. Still, Auste ...more
Rachel Knowles
Jan 18, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Rachel by: Review copy
Consider carefully before you read this book!
If you are happy reading Jane Austen’s novels as the Regency era love stories that I have always believed them to be, then don’t read this book. It might help you to understand some of the influences that affected Jane’s writings which might lead to a greater enjoyment of her work, but it is also possible that you might not like everything you discover. If you take all Kelly’s ideas seriously, this book could completely undermine the way that you look

Originally I gave it 2 stars, but after ruminating on it I had to knock it down to 1 star for the author’s sheer audacity because in her mind the only one person to have ever read Jane Austen correctly is herself.

*hello eye roll, my old friend*

It is as if she imagines herself to be the only person who has ever contemplated Jane’s writing before, and the few critics she does acknowledge are swiftly swept aside, sometimes only in a footnote!

Spoiler alert for s
I was just sort of expecting a fun book where the author points out passages in Austen's work that add credibility to the idea that Jane Austen was a radical thinker for her time. And that does occur here. (Radical, by the way, has a bit of a different usage here, in that it mostly means someone who is open to new ideas, and to rejecting the old if that is the right thing to do. That word has a negative association now that isn't really meant here.) But, what we really get is a pretty thorough b ...more
This is a strange book and (sorry) a ludicrous one. There's plenty of context, but the method and manner in which Kelly sets about "radicalising" Austen means ignoring all of the work on Austen that came before. Like, Emma is not "about" enclosures and Mr. Knightley is not simply a kind of Marie Antoinette. These are issues percolating through the book and these are factors that must be considered, of course: class, gender, politics. Doing so makes for fruitful reading. But this is a book of wil ...more
Jan 01, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this but agree with those reviewers who feel that it is (1) overly assertive about what Austen thought and felt - something which it criticises fairly fiercely in other authors -, that (2) it draws some fairly tenuous connections (just one example; Edward Ferrars and the scissors is far too heavily relied upon for what is ultimately a fairly weak Freudian interpretation) and (3) it could have done without the fictitious/imaginary sections.
Whilst I am glad I read the book and feel I lea
Katie Lumsden
I'm having a hard time rating this one - so I think I won't. This was a very interesting read and I absolutely sped through it - surprising for a work of literary criticism! On the one hand, I disagree with pretty much everything Helena Kelly says. On the other hand, her love of and fascination with Jane Austen informs every page, and her conclusions inspire rereading, rethinking and debate. ...more
Her comments about Mr Knightley are ludicrous!!!!(Dept of Disclaimers: Mr Knightley is my favorite Austen hero) And I'm not talking about those old boring trite age/closeness of family things that I've fought against repeatedly and written about.

From John Mullan's review of the book( from the Guardian:

"As elsewhere in the book, however, Kelly’s eagerness to find a politically critical subtext leads her to ignore the narrative logic of the fiction. Few ar
Jul 09, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I found this book to be frustrating for a couple of reasons, mostly for the way that Kelly constantly acts like she is the first person to ever imply that Austen's writing was subversive and radical. Most people who are fans of Austen (and thus are interested in reading this kind of book about her) are already aware that nearly all her books are heavily critical of the society she lived in; today, her reputation is essentially as a feminist writer. As somebody who personally is a fan of Austen f ...more
Kathleen Flynn
Listening to the excellent Bonnets at Dawn podcast about Mansfield Park inspired me to download this book and read it at last. I enjoyed the chapter on Pride & Prejudice the most, and appreciated Ms. Kelly's work putting Austen's work into more of a historical and political context than is often found. Austen's work is capable of being read many ways, as befits its genius. I sometimes felt that Ms. Kelly felt strongly that she had hit on the "right" way and other people's ways were "wrong," whic ...more
Feb 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Kelly shakes our view of Jane up...a lot! Jane's younger family members grew up in the Victorian Age and tweaked Jane's image to fit the ideal of a pious, quiet, unassuming, Christian woman.

Through a deep reading of Jane's novels, Kelly concluded that Jane was a secret radical whose books addressed issues that her first readers would have recognized: slavery, poverty, enclosure, war, feminism, changing societal values, the hypocrisy of the church.

One might think it is a matter of seeing what one
Jul 15, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition

Oh, how I wanted to like this more. There are some strong moments like the explanations of gypsies and dinosaurs, but UGH. UGH UGH UGH. There are far too many outrageous one-liners that argue wild points without any solid evidence or explanation. For instance, "The word 'sadist' hasn't been coined when Jane was writing, but that's undoubtedly what Mr. Price is." Um, what? If the author had run with her over-the-top ideas like her suggestion of Edward Ferrars's sexual perversion, maybe this would
The author's tone really rubbed me the wrong way. She wrote very condescendingly, as if anyone who didn't agree with her ideas was a complete idiot. It felt like she was working too hard to make Jane Austen's works fit the "secret radical" image, choosing the most cynical, negative interpretations possible. There was some interesting background info on the social issues of the time, but I did not agree with all the conclusions drawn. ...more
Eleanor (bookishcourtier)
As much as I love Jane Austen, I did not enjoy this. In fact, I didn't even finish it. In some places it was interesting, but the things Kelly spoke about just seemed very far fetched and the evidence thin and flimsy. She also didn't focus very well on one topic and would start talking about another book in a chapter that was supposed to focused on a particular one. I also didn't really enjoy the way her voice came across in this one. I just did not have enough interest to finish it. ...more
A few arguments were interesting, some... far-fetched, but others frankly ridiculous.
I expected something that read less like conspiracy theories.
Mandy Shanks
Oct 08, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
So frustrating. While this book was well-researched and did contain fun nuggets of knowledge about the Austen family, Kelly makes what I feel are a number of post hoc logical fallacies- jumping to conclusions that could be true, but have no roots in primary sources. She contests that the timing of the publication of Austen’s works have changed the way the novels were read, the arguments that Austen was sneaking in commentaries on slavery and enclosure are weak- filled with much historical contex ...more
Aug 23, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
If you know nothing about Austen or if you somehow think she was just sitting in a room drinking tea and not at all engaging with the outside world, this would seem groundbreaking. But if you have a little more than cursory knowledge of Austen, this should infuriate you. It proposes that JA is a secret radical because she's...commenting on her society? Basically, Kelly seems to have started from the faulty premise that books and writing aren't inherently political, when OF COURSE they are. There ...more
Angela Clayton
Jul 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ka-boom. This is a great analysis of Jane Austen's 6 novels, putting them into a context that was lost when her publisher sat on her submission for 10 years without publishing, a supremely frustrating act, because it renders her subversive commentary on society out of date. Nothing is more maddening than when someone thinks Austen's books are romances. No, they are social critiques hidden in little domestic stories. The real background is vibrant and full of intrigue--and mostly lost to us as mo ...more
Heather Moll
I only finished this book because a friend asked me to. And I gave it two starts rather than one because I know how hard it is to write a book. I've strained a muscle from all the eye-rolling. Too many sentences from the novels are out of context and from there become an outlandish premise that's not based on fact. The author doesn’t prove most of the claims she makes. Yes, Austen knew there were wars and class struggles and slavery and that people had sex! Not earth shattering news. ...more
Mar 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I always thought Jane Austen had a subversive sense of humour, it's good to see my theory proven right with actual real research and academic rigor. If only there was a similar book for Dickens my literary life would be completely complete. ...more
Leslie Basney
Jul 10, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This entire book reads like a petulant author yelling I'm right and you're wrong. Lots of research no proof. ...more
Jul 15, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020-nonfiction
While Helena Kelly surely knows how to write nonfiction, I can't get past of her interpretations of Jane Austen's novels. Kelly has a point of view that is highly anachronistic and far fetched at many points. She has surely done her research; when it comes to the contemporaries of Austen and the historical background, Kelly comes across as a good scholar. However I am so frustrated by everything else in this one, including how it seems that Kelly thinks her interpretation is only point of view t ...more
Aug 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I LOVE this so much. I had the pleasure of having a class with Helena on Jane Austen, where many of the points she brought up in this book were discussed, so I am a bit biased - she introduced me to Clueless AND Bride and Prejudice and was generally awesome, how could I not love her, right?

Many of the negative reviewers seem to believe they are being individually condescended to by Helena's assertion that they've read Jane wrong. Come on, no. You may perfectly well have noticed the occurrence o
As other reviewers have pointed out in varying degrees, this book is a problematic voice for Austen, from its tone, its imaginary section, and less-than-innovative ideas.

There are also flaws in the arguments - the beginning of her argument about Mansfield Park centres around the oddness that it has a location as a title, conveniently forgetting Northanger Abbey . Kelly uses the literary allusions in the novels to date their creation, then proceeds to call the references in the unfinished Sandit
Amy Louise
A DNF for me sadly. Whilst obviously thoroughly researched, I got frustrated with the author's conviction in her own interpretation of Austen's work. Having warned the reader about how little is known about Jane and her intentions, she then spends the remainder of the book second-guessing authorial intent and inserting fictionalised scenes of Jane's life that might have prompted her novels. To me this just undermined the many good points that the book was making and eventually it frustrated me t ...more
Jul 11, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018-books
I don't agree with many of the points made in here, but it was interesting, well written, and well researched. ...more
This was my second Jane Austen July pick this year. I listened to this book on audio, which is usually a medium that I have trouble maintaining attention, but this book failed to disappoint.

Kelly asserts that Austen was a feminist, progressive, ahead of her time in every way. She painted a condensed story of Austen's life, while using each of Austen's main books to argue a different way Austen was unlike the modern viewer's conception of her. Despite reading all of Austen's works, many of them
Jan 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Sep 17, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Bought in the hope of a convincing argument and feel robbed. £9.99 I could have spent on a proper book.

I can forgive the claims to some sort of insightful originality. All readers of novels will occasionally think they've discovered something for themselves. But this woman is a teacher! At a reputable institution! Her lack of critical understanding of her own arguments is thus indefensible. Her failure to acknowledge the considerable academic literature that has covered this ground before her i
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HELENA KELLY grew up in North Kent. She has taught classics and English Literature at the University of Oxford. She lives in Oxford with her husband and son.

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