Hello and welcome back to Feminist Friday – I can’t believe it is already July! For those of you who are new to my blog (or you need a quick reminder), each month I select a book to read that fits my own feminist criteria, which I then share with you on the second Friday of the month. For me, the books I choose must embody female strength of character and be inspirational to read. I try to explore work from a wide variety of genres, reading anything from classics and memoirs to fiction and poetry. So without further ado, here is my choice for July: Jane Austen The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly.
Seen as this month is #JaneAustenJuly and I am an obsessive fan of this amazing author, I felt my Feminist Friday choice should be a tribute to one of the most understated feminists in history. The book I have chosen is one I have pulled out of the archives – I first read it a number of years ago now – I say first read as since then I have regularly re-read chapters from this incredible book!
In Helena Kelly’s book, each chapter is dedicated to one of Jane Austen’s six books. Centered around a theme, each of these chapters is an essay exploring the more subversive hints, and in some cases out right radical points, that can be found throughout Austen’s writing.
Kelly’s idea for the book came from being unable to cite one of Austen’s most famous quotations when marking a students essay. Austen is credited to have said that Emma is a heroine whom no one but myself will much like; yet nowhere in any of Austen’s original writing, letters etc. can this quote be found… Realising she could rely only on the published works and surviving letters of the author herself, Kelly set about reviewing the Austen she thought she knew. The result was a far more critical, sharp and discontented person than first observed.
Austen’s work tackles highly political topics such as war, slavery, poverty and starvation, to name but a few, yet all under the cover of light-hearted romance, and in an era when these topics were certainly not drawing room conversation! Her work is a social commentary, a reflection of the world around her. But it is not the worry-free, relaxed and romantic world which it is so often perceived to be – albeit through a nostalgic lens completely out of context! Instead her works are social observations of real life. Real life with the dark side never far away. For example, we may laugh and make fun of the ‘marriage market’ as-it-were, Austen herself may appear to do this, and indeed she does. But consider what she is really tackling – the fact that about 50% of the population are considered saleable goods and being reared for that purpose…women or cattle? For after all, marriage then was more often a financial transaction than a romance.
Austen was writing at a time when the divide between social classes was stark. Poverty was never far away and for financially unsupported women in particular it was an ever present threat. Austen managed to maintain her independence, when marriage was considered mandatory, not only that but she supported her sister and mother, and was a working women. Earning money! Despite this she was never ostracized from society (unlike George Elliott) and even earned a decent amount of praise for her work during her lifetime. Because Austen was clever enough to structure her work as harmless social observations and light-hearted romances, her work has made it in to the hands of many, and never gone out of print. For, if you do not read between the lines, she is rarely out rightly controversial. This is one of the reasons I so admire her and every re-read or bit of research I do teaches me something new. Much of Austen’s skill is in her references and signposting – miss these and you are only reading half the story…
I definitely recommend reading Kelly’s work. If you are already aware of Austen, then this is a fascinating perspective on her – but equally, if you have never read any Austen, or previously dismissed her work, she will make you re-think this iconic author. If Austen isn’t the image of a strong and inspirational women, I don’t know what is!
Happy feminist Friday – don’t forget to hit follow so you don’t miss out on my choice for August!
Meg Readz xx
Helena Kelly on Jane Austen, The Secret Radical: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0aautmVTxU