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Jane Austen died 200 years ago. We’re still debating her politics.

People pass a house that was occupied by Jane Austen when she lived in Bath, on March 15, 2012 in Bath, England Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On July 18, 1817, Jane Austen died of an unknown illness in Winchester, England. She left behind her assorted juvenilia, an unfinished manuscript fragment, and six of the greatest novels in the English language — along with teasingly little information on how she thought about and saw the world.

Many of Austen’s letters and personal papers were burned after her death, and her family’s description of her as an unprepossessing but nice lady can be hard to square with the wicked sense of humor lacing her books. So for the past 200 years, critics have attempted to piece together an idea of who Jane Austen was and what her politics were like, all the while grappling with the difficulty of doing so when we have minimal biographical information about her and when her books appear so firmly focused on the domestic.

That absence is the void around which two new books on Jane Austen, just released in honor of the 200th anniversary of her death, revolve. Helena Kelly’s treatise Jane Austen, the Secret Radical determinedly if haphazardly attempts to decode Austen’s novels in order to demonstrate that they contain radically progressive secret messages. And Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen is a lucid and thorough account of the history of various Jane Austens that different eras and readers have constructed to support their own particular agendas.

Of the two books, Kelly’s is more literary and Looser’s more scholarly. There are pluses and minuses in both directions. Kelly’s breathless vehemence means her argument is always throbbing with righteous indignation, but it’s also not always a particularly rigorous or convincing argument. Looser’s early chapters have a tendency to feel dutiful and plodding, but her argument is nuanced and subtle. Kelly’s book is a lot more fun to read, if occasionally infuriating, but Looser’s is much more convincing.

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical is entertaining, but also deeply frustrating

In Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, Helena Kelly refers to Jane Austen only as Jane; they are on a first-name basis, you see. (This causes some awkwardness when Kelly reaches Pride and Prejudice and has to refer to Jane Bennet as “Miss Bennet” to avoid confusion.) She opens every chapter with a biographical sketch from Austen’s point of view, each one so nicely written that I found myself wishing Kelly had written a novel about Austen’s life rather than a treatise. (Kelly’s prose is vivid and compelling, and giving some of her wilder claims the fig leaf of fiction would make everything a lot more bearable.) Over and over again, she attempts to make the claim that she has somehow mystically communed with Austen, and that she and she alone understands what was going on inside Austen’s mysterious, bonneted, long-dead head.

“If you want to stay with the novels and the Jane Austen you already know, you should stop reading now,” she announces at the end of her introduction. “If you want to read Jane as she wanted to be read — if you want to know her — then read on.”

The Jane Austen whom Kelly constructs is one who was radically progressive. But rather than taking the easy way out by explicitly discussing politics in her novels, Kelly posits, Austen buried her politics in deeply hidden codes. Luckily, Kelly is there to save the day.

Kelly’s methodology does not always bear close examination. In one chapter, she points out that a minor character in Mansfield Park gets into an argument with the vicar over a Moor Park apricot tree: vicar as in the Church of England, Moor Park as in Moor, as in African. Taken with the fact that in that novel’s climax, Fanny Price wears both a cross (for the church!) and a gold chain (for slavery!), can we doubt that Austen intended for Mansfield Park to be read as a deep condemnation of the Church of England’s use of slavery? “The references, large and small,” Kelly writes darkly, “are everywhere.”

Well, yes, in fact we can doubt that reading. It’s not new to suggest that Mansfield Park is subtextually preoccupied with slavery: Edward Said, whom Kelly does not explicitly cite but in response to whom she appears to be writing, famously and convincingly argued as much. But Said is a careful enough critic to have built his argument around the structure of the novel rather than on the breed of an apricot tree that is mentioned once; Kelly is not able to do the same when she tries to loop the church into her argument. And Said is able to make his argument without spouting any claims about how Austen intended for her book to be read, which is not a feat Kelly ever attempts.

Making claims about authorial intention is a very tricky move that doesn’t offer much reward, especially when the author has been dead for centuries. Barring the unlikely event of the ghost of Jane Austen appearing and proclaiming, “HELENA KELLY WAS RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING; I DID INTEND FOR THE CABINET SCENE IN NORTHANGER ABBEY TO BE READ AS A MASTURBATION SCENE,” there is no way to prove or disprove any critic’s opinions about how Austen might have wanted her readers to approach her books.

And in the meantime, is it really all that interesting to worry about how Austen meant her work to be taken? We’ll never meet Austen, but we have her books. You can find all sorts of interesting things in them that she may or may not have meant to put in there, including masturbation scenes if you are so inclined. Why waste so much energy and critical credibility worrying about whether or not we’re supposed to find them there?

It’s doubly disappointing that Kelly is so devoted to the idea that she has found the key to decoding Austen, because when she drops her agenda, she’s a careful and compelling close reader. Tracking the social introductions in Pride and Prejudice, she finds that Darcy and Elizabeth keep refusing to be formally introduced to one another, so that by the time they become engaged they have still never, by the rules of society, met.

“The two of them embark on a relationship,” Kelly argues, “that takes place, almost entirely, outside social norms, one in which all kinds of set ideas and traditional concepts — prejudices — are uprooted.” That’s a thoughtful, well-argued reading that’s genuinely illuminating and interesting. It’s enough to get you fully on board with the whole project of this book and the way Kelly reads Austen.

Then you get to the part where she explains that the reason we never learn Colonel Brandon’s first name in Sense and Sensibility is that it is undoubtedly William, and that if Austen were to reveal this to us, we would realize that his ward Eliza William is in fact his illegitimate daughter. You know what, sure.

The Making of Jane Austen is more academic. It can be dry, but its argument is also more compelling.

Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen doesn’t make the wild claims that Jane Austen, the Secret Radical does, but you get the impression that Looser would be entertained by Kelly. She’s interested in how different people have reinvented Jane Austen to suit their own purposes over the past 200 years, and she would know exactly how to slot Kelly’s reading into that history.

Looser traces Austen’s legacy: the Aunt Jane who emerged in the years just after her death; the nice old spinster aunt who happened to write a good yarn; the conservative Divine Jane of literary gentleman’s clubs, who gloried in exalting traditional gender roles and a traditional idea of England; the demure rebel icon of the suffragettes, who definitively demonstrated that women were capable of genius and who tore apart gender roles with her pen; the romantic of the sexy Darcy era, who wrote love stories.

Looser is careful to avoid any claims that are attractive in their sweep but reductive in their implications, like the idea that Jane Austen had a single all-encompassing brand in one decade and another in the next. Sexy Darcy was not an innovation of Colin Firth and his wet shirt in 1996, for example, but a trend that emerged from the theater in the 1930s. Jane the demure rebel and Divine Jane the conservative existed at the same time, in many of the same places — but since literary critics have traditionally paid more attention to literary clubs than to suffragettes, the Divine Jane is the only one who traditionally makes it into critical essays. Looser is out to correct these kinds of omissions in Austen scholarship, and her mission is fundamentally populist.

Her opening chapters, which track the way Austen’s early illustrators depicted the author’s books, make a strong argument that illustrations of the 18th century helped shape readers’ expectations of the novels — amusingly, she quotes some 18th-century cranks grousing at the way certain illustrations “spoiled” Austen for them, in the way that people today sometimes say the 2005 Keira Knightley movie “spoiled” Pride and Prejudice. But she also tracks the biographies of those early illustrators with a scholar’s thoroughness and zest for detail, and while this approach is academically laudable, lay readers are likely to find themselves bored.

More lively and compelling are the book’s later sections, in which Looser delves into the various groups of readers that used Austen as a political symbol, and into the theatrical adaptations that shaped our image of the author in the 20th century. It’s especially interesting for today’s reader, in a time in which Austen is so often dismissed as a writer for sad women with too many cats, to learn that for many years she was widely considered to be a men’s writer. Looser describes a cultural atmosphere in which Austen was held to be “happily inaccessible to the less-discerning, naïve female readers.” Instead, literary men used Austen fandom as a signifier of their developed aesthetic tastes, and liked to muse over which Austen heroine they would most like to marry. (Elizabeth Bennet seems to have generally won that round.)

But in the same moment that literary clubs were claiming Austen as a man’s writer, suffragettes were celebrating her as a female trailblazer. They waved banners with Austen’s name on them; they put on pageants in which “Prejudice,” cowed by the spectacle of Jane Austen and other lady geniuses, slinks off the stage in shame. Suffragette Bertha Brewster published articles on “The Feminism of Jane Austen.”

Crucially, Looser doesn’t make any claims about which group’s Austen is most authentic. She knows she doesn’t have access to the authentic historical Jane Austen, and she doesn’t pretend to try. What she does have access to is the way different people have explicitly stated that they think about Jane Austen over the past 200 years, and that’s what she builds her scholarship on.

If The Making of Jane Austen demonstrates anything, it’s that people have been arguing about Jane Austen for more than two centuries. And if Jane Austen, the Secret Radical demonstrates anything, it’s that they don’t seem likely to stop anytime soon.

Here’s to 200 more years, Miss Austen.