Monday, July 10, 2017

A Jane Austen Fit for the Age of Brexit

by John Sutherland

New York Times

July 10, 2017

The year 2016 belonged to Shakespeare; 2017 is Jane Austen’s, the 200th anniversary of her premature death. Her face has been chosen to appear on Britain’s 10-pound note (the same amount she was first paid by a publisher). There has been, and will be, a spate of commemorative events, festivals and, of course, books like this. We are, as the witty television series put it, “Lost in Austen.”

Helena Kelly’s publisher got her kicks in early by scheduling the British release of her book last autumn. And kicks they are. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical sets out to raise hackles. As she asserts, almost everything we think we know about Jane Austen is wrong. There has been, according to Kelly, only one person who has ever read Jane Austen right. That would be Helena Kelly. Moreover, that unique reader is closer to “Jane” (as she chummily calls her) than anyone since Cassandra, the sister with whom Jane shared a bed. (“Was Jane Austen Gay?” asked Terry Castle in a mischievous essay on the subject of that sleeping arrangement. It too sparked ructions.)

Kelly’s chapters open with biographical fantasias of Jane’s stream of consciousness at key moments. Inwardness is the essence of the book — and bossiness. Kelly ends with the schoolmistress instruction: “Read Jane’s novels. … Read them again.” Perhaps, enlightened by her, we can do something about our failing grade.


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