I was just sort of expecting a fun book where the author points out passages in Austen’s work that adds 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 breakdown of the most relevant social and historical context that Jane’s contemporary readers would have understood implicitly, but we either miss entirely or misinterpret.
Misinterpretation, or reading our modern sensibilities and modern knowledge onto Jane, is very common. It’s one of the reasons people who haven’t read Austen seriously (close-reading with thought and care) often think she was just a woman who wrote small stories set in houses about romances, and write her off in much the same way male literary authors write off “chick-lit” today (I’m not even going to start on the name of that genre, it makes my blood boil). Anyone who has seriously read Austen knows that’s bunk, and that she was a very smart woman who wrote with care to her craft, and who packed a wallop of a biting undertone if you were really paying attention. Her books are stories, often with love in them, that also blatantly criticized the society she lived in. She was a satirist as much as she was a romantic (and Kelly calls her romanticism into question here as well).
And I tell you what, I have read Austen for pleasure many times, and I have studied her both as an undergraduate and in the course of my graduate work, and there was so much in here that I didn’t know, that seriously changes the way I see some of what happens in her books. Of course, all the professors I studied under were mostly followers of New Criticism, where historical context, and the life and intentions of the author are either ignored or barely acknowledged in favor of a close reading of the text as an enclosed object. But I definitely think most of what was in this book was extremely relevant, as it completely changes the way some things are viewed.
For example, allow me to quote a long passage here:
But for Jane a story about love and marriage wasn’t ever a light and frothy confection. Generally speaking, we view sex as an enjoyable recreational activity; we have access to reliable contraception; we have very low rates of maternal and infant mortality. None of these things were true for the society in which Jane lived. The four of her brothers who became fathers produced, between them, thirty-three children. Three of those brothers lost a wife to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law collapsed and died suddenly at the age of thirty-six; it sounds very much as if the cause might have been the rupturing of an ectopic pregnancy, which was, then, impossible to treat. 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. Avowedly feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Smith were beginning to explore these injustices during Jane’s lifetime. Understand what a serious subject marriage was then, how important it was, and all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.
This passage about knocked me over when I read it. And it’s so glaringly obvious when you think about it. Of course childbirth and marriage were deadly serious subjects to write about, at least for women. Their results could make or ruin a woman, even in the best case scenario. Later in the book, Kelly talks about how Jane includes a character in Mansfield Park who was blessed with ten healthy pregnancies, just as Jane’s sister-in-law was at the time of Jane’s writing, but who would later die of her eleventh.
The whole book is stuffed full of things like that that completely reset the way you interpret the smallest of things. Of course I have been reading these books through the lens of assumed safe and healthy sex and delivery, and though intellectually I knew marriage and legal rights were different back then and took that into account, it’s very different all laid out like that in front of you, and very hard to ignore. Sex caused pregnancy, and death was just as much a part of pregnancy as ending up with a baby at the end. It was normal.
The book is split up into sections following each of her published novels, as well as one concerning her life, and one her death. Some chapters worked better for me than others. The great chapters contained a unifying theory that brought together the historical context and the actual plot and actions of the characters: Northanger Abbey (where the childbirth stuff is contained, as well as some fascinating stuff about gothic novels), Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice were the standouts, followed pretty closely by the chapter on Persuasion. Unsurprisingly, despite some great historical context concerning slavery, Mansfield Park was one of the weaker ones, as even Kelly (who studies Austen for her job) seems unable to come up with a unifying theory for that book. For as much as the book hints at the subject of slavery and the complicity of the church, that is not what the book is actually about (I have read it twice, and still can’t figure out what we’re supposed to take away from the story of Fanny and her relations). The subtext may be all about the historical context, but the actual text for me remains obscure. The chapter about Emma was all right, but the subject of enclosure just isn’t as interesting to me as it seems to have been to Kelly.
This wasn’t a perfect book. There were quite a few moments where I felt the author was really reaching, but even those moments were interesting to think about, and when I disagreed with her, it was still entertaining. Some of her ideas seem to really have upset people, if the Goodreads reviews are anything to go by, but the examples used in the negative reviews are mostly just small moments in the book, and seem to ignore all the great stuff in here as well. Anyway, the way to read literary criticism like this isn’t to ascribe wholly to whatever the author’s interpretations are. Of course you aren’t going to agree with everything! Art is subjective. But it’s fun to consider new perspectives, and in balance, I got so much more from this book that I’m going to take with me than I will ignore. This was such a readable book, and it was fun to read! And educational. And it made me want to re-read all of Austen for the millionth time.