Jane Austen: Inventor of “Chick Lit” or Subversive Radical?

Why I Read Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Fanny, from Mansfield Park , shows some of the contradictions found in many of Austen’s novels, according to Kelly.

Fanny, from Mansfield Park, shows some of the contradictions found in many of Austen’s novels, according to Kelly.

I ran across this book somewhere…sadly, I don’t know where…but I was attracted to the title.  I have never particularly wanted to read anything about Jane Austen even though I have read all of her completed novels at least once. 

I’m not interested in the idea of Austen’s sitting around drinking tea and chatting…like many of her characters…and then sneaking over to the writing desk to work on her novels.

I am attracted to the idea of a woman’s pretending to do all of that, while not.

Upon starting this book, I discovered that little is actually known about her, and what is is mostly through the lens of her family, who had their own interests in representing her a certain way, so what we do “know” is unreliable.


I probably forgot I knew that, but there we are.


Why You Should Read Jane Austen, Secret Radical


If you are a Jane Austen fan, you are definitely going to enjoy Helena Kelley’s socio-historical interpretation of Austen’s novels.  If you are not such a big fan, you might become one after finding out about the “hidden meanings”. 

It is true that sections of Austen’s novels, to me, seem to get bogged down in long conversations that are meaningless because they don’t seem to advance the plot of the book. Kelly helped me understand that the conversations are not meaningless…I simply don’t have the background knowledge to understand them.


The first thing I learned is that England 200 years ago is a much different place than it is now.  If anything, I think the British press is even more outspoken than that in the US, but 200 years ago, British subjects did not necessarily enjoy freedom of the press, and, in addition, the powers were a bit worried about the Revolution that first affected the U.S. (and brought the U.S. into being), and then France, would come to England too. 


So the thesis of this book is that if Ms. Austen felt the need to address any controversial topics, she needed to do it in a coded way.  In addition, a lot of things that would have been obvious to Austen’s English contemporaries aren’t so obvious to people 200 years later, especially if you aren’t English. 


In short, this is what I learned each of Austen’s finished novels are actually about, when you look beyond the romance on the surface. Below is my highly subjective summary of Kelly’s theses regarding each book.


Helena Kelly Explains It Better Herself….

Austen’s novels in no particular order…click image for source.

Austen’s novels in no particular order…click image for source.




Quick, Dirty, and Highly Subjective Summary of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Northanger Abbey

Although Sense and Sensibility was published first, Kelly addresses Northanger Abbey first on the grounds that it was written first, and may have even been a revamped version of Austen’s first novel, Susan.

Northanger Abbey is a riff on the gothic romance…with the gothic being an offshoot of the Romantic period in literature. Just a reminder here…the Romantic period wasn’t about romantic love as it was an appreciation of the natural, and idea that Austen addresses and questions in Sense and Sensibility as well.

The heroine of the novel…Catherine…is a fan…sort of…of a book called The Mysteries of Udolpho, a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, which was very popular at the time. It’s Catherine’s “favorite”, but she only half reads it, and then of course reads all kinds of mysteries into her surroundings at Northanger Abbey.

Many people take this to be a lighthearted, comic novel, but Kelly asserts that what concerned Austen, along with many women at the time, were the very real fears associated with marriage and pregnancy. There really weren’t any good options for women…it seems to me that the best option was for women to get married, since the alternatives were worse, and then try to “beat the racket” by surviving pregnancy anyway they could, and one way to survive pregnancy would be to avoid it…and that meant avoiding sex.

Austen is asserting that the marriage laws of her time were unfair and in fact dangerous to women. 

If marriage meant that you had to give up all of your legal standing and money for the honor of having a child every year (up to 20!), would you? 

Add to that the fact that the extremely high possibility that you would die during one of your deliveries, which would not only literally cost you your own life, but leave your children motherless and vulnerable to your husband’s future wives…especially dangerous for your daughters, most especially if you have no sons, given strict inheritance laws that usually entailed the estates to individual males (so the land couldn’t be divided).

But then your other option, usually, would be to stay unmarried and be seen as a burden on your natal family, especially when your parents died and you left (most likely) in your brother’s household. If you worked, most likely it would be under similar circumstances, since the main occupation for unmarried women of any social class was as a governess, which was a lonely position in a household since you were considered neither servant nor family member.

Whatever you did, unless you were lucky enough to have an “income” (and few women were), you were going to work hard for a subsistence lifestyle.

Dear reader, what would you do?

So teenage girls’, and women’s, interest in gothic novels might have been about more than a lurid escape. There really might have been something lurking in all of those big old houses that were meant to hurt them.

Sense and Sensibility

The unfairness of British primogeniture laws, which kept estates from being divided up into nothing, meant that all the other children in the family were left with little or nothing in a time when very few careers were open to “gentlemen”, and even fewer, other than marriage, to “ladies”. 

There’s also an awful lot in Sense and Sensibility about all the ways men can rip off women…and sometimes the revers…in the process.

Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Collins displays an attitude toward novels in Pride and Prejudice that might mirror what many people feel about Austen’s novel…good, but light, literature.

Mr. Collins displays an attitude toward novels in Pride and Prejudice that might mirror what many people feel about Austen’s novel…good, but light, literature.

Even in this analysis, Pride and Prejudice is the happiest of Austen’s novels because the central couple, Elizabeth and Darcy, have such a modern relationship.  Somehow, the two manage to get to know and understand each other pretty well for a couple who were never actually formally introduced, something unheard of at that time!


Yes, Austen gets plenty of criticisms in (she has 5 sisters to work with), but Elizabeth and Darcy are the exception to the rules of the time and just about all of Austen’s characters. 

What’s particularly interesting about Kelly’s analysis the attention that Austen pays to war and the military in this novel. I never really thought about this angle before, but she’s right, it’s there. So in a way, what appears to be Austen’s lightest novel could be said to have the most serious undertones.

I’m a bit sad Kelly doesn’t address more WHY Austen skewers certain characters, such as Mary and Mr. Collins, but regardless, this is an excellent chapter and my favorite in the book. 

If Pride and Prejudice is the only Austen novel you have read, it’s worth getting the book from the library from this.

 Mansfield Park

Andrew Hull Foote The lower deck of a Guinea-Man, in the last century , 1854

Andrew Hull Foote

The lower deck of a Guinea-Man, in the last century,1854

After reading this new analysis, I have to admit, I really want to reread Mansfield Park because of the idea that Kelly proposes: that Mansfield Park is set up as a kind of sequel to Pride and Prejudice in that the novel begins with the marriage of three sisters, one brilliantly and one into poverty.

Along the way, Austen brings characters who marry their first cousins, others who divorce, and a woman who wears short hair.

And then, in the midst of it all, Kelly explains how this book is about slavery!

The image at the top of this entry, of the slave ship, heads the chapter on Mansfield Park. For anyone, this image might be a bit jarring in a book about Jane Austen, but I think almost every American has seen that picture in their AMERICAN history book: for me, it definitely was a shock to see here.

As an American, and a Southerner at that, believe me I have been part of the collective guilt that all Southerners (or ones with a shred of decency) feel about slavery. We are under the impression that we, as a section of a nation, are solely responsible for the curse of slavery. I mean, I know that technically slavery started when we were still a colony, and I also know that the North had slavery too, but you know, we were the ones to hang onto it the longest and also start a war over it.

What I happened into with Kelly’s analysis of Mansfield Park is British collective guilt over slavery, or at least using the spoils of slavery, which in Austen’s time meant sugar.

If you are American, and especially Southern, you learned in school and possibly through Gone With the Wind that the Confederates thought that England was going to assist the Confederacy in the Civil War because they wanted Southern cotton. Cotton, not sugar. Cotton. I, for one, never heard of the sugar thing. But then again, in the U.S., particularly the South, we could and did grow our own sugar cane. The British had to import it…from their remaining colonies.

But honestly, you know they aren’t drinking all that tea unsweetened! We know about the tea because we threw a bunch of it in the Boston harbor & started the Revolutionary War. The British bet (by placing a high tax) that Americans could not live without their tea and lost.

We became coffee drinkers, and eventually one of us opened Starbucks, which now dots as many street corners in London as they do in the U.S.

So Mansfield Park, which according to Kelly was started nearly a decade after the LAST novel Austen had started (other novels were in various stages of revision for a long time), is a much different novel from Austen’s others. Also, if you believe Kelly, it was considered so incendiary upon publication that it was ignored by the press. Not bad, but radical.

I really want to reread it.


Kelly’s take Emma is almost completely different than mine, and I’ve always enjoyed this story.  But Kelly points out that Emma is actually about enclosures, and how the wealthy landowners at the time were enclosing what had been common land and bringing hardships onto the working classes.  Who would have ever thought?  I also never thought much about how there are so many characters that are actually social misfits, especially the illegitimate ones. 

Kelly is also suspicious of Mr. Knightley’s motives for marrying Emma…I always assumed it’s because she’s awesome!


Here are Austen’s characters in Persuasion , on the seashore that holds many secrets of its own. Persuasion ch 12: “The horror of that moment to all who stood around (Louisa Musgrove, on the Cobb, Lyme Regis)”. C.E. Brock, 1909.

Here are Austen’s characters in Persuasion, on the seashore that holds many secrets of its own.

Persuasion ch 12: “The horror of that moment to all who stood around (Louisa Musgrove, on the Cobb, Lyme Regis)”. C.E. Brock, 1909.

Out of all of Austen’s books, this one turned out to be the closest to what I actually thought it was about, which is the story of an older woman than Austen’s other protagonists and about finding true happiness.

According to Kelly, Persuasion is also about the loss of another kind of innocence: the story alludes to the discoveries of fossils on the shoreline of England that seemed to prove that the Bible creation story could not be literally true as written.

Whether you are a creationist or not, you can’t have grown up in the last century without having at least been introduced to the idea that some people think the world is much older that the Bible indicates, but can you imagine living in a world where no one knew that it wasn’t true, until suddenly this evidence was unearthed?

That’s what Kelly thinks is the subtext of Persuasion: a time when what is perhaps a “childish” acceptance is put behind and people start to see that there is more to the Creation story than meets the eye. Just like there is more to life.

You Tell Us

Austen fan or not? Do you think there is any merit to these assertions? What is you favorite Austen novel and why?

Comment below.