Tracking the “shadowy, curiously colorless figure” of the revered novelist.
In her debut book, a fine-grained literary study, Kelly (Classics and English Literature/Univ. of Oxford) amply shows her deep research into some of the lesser-known elements of Austen’s life and work. The author’s close attention to the period’s history supports her assertion that her subject was a radical. Austen’s readers must remember that during her lifetime, England was at war with France and was essentially a totalitarian state; habeas corpus was suspended, and treason was redefined in the strictest and most frightening terms. At the time, Austen was one of the only novelists to consider current events in her work. She never resorted to grand heroes or wicked villains, dealing instead with society’s ills—not least of all women’s rights, which were nearly nonexistent. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen alludes to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and decries women’s reliance on the kindness of relatives to provide for them. Slavery, especially as dealt with in Mansfield Park, receives the full Austen treatment with quotations from abolitionist writers, subtle character names, and mind manipulation. However, slavery was not Austen’s only target. Also in Mansfield, the author attacks the Church of England for enclosures of common land, pluralism, and outright ownership of slaves. In both Emma and Pride and Prejudice, Austen challenges the then-strict societal norms, particularly regarding introductions. Elizabeth Bennett shows her radicalism, deciding things for herself and tolerating authority only as far as it suits her. In dissecting Austen’s feelings on parents, especially fathers, sexuality, and 19th-century life, Kelly exposes a depth beyond what at first may seem to be silly characters.
A fine-grained study that shows us how to read between the lines to discover the remarkable woman who helped transform the novel from trash to an absolute art form.