Cover courtesy Knopf; photo by Kelly Faircloth.

Jane Austen’s public image has undergone many a revamp since her death two centuries ago this July. Often, however, she has been seen as cozy and comfortable, a genius of the domestic.

In Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, Helena Kelly, who teaches at the University of Oxford, challenges the common stereotype of the author as a kind of creator of beautiful snow globes, never attending to the wider world. She suggests that, “contrary to popular opinion, Jane  did reveal her beliefs, not just about domestic life and relationships, but about the wider political and social issues of the day.”

Kelly points out that the author was writing in a time of reaction, during a cultural crackdown after the uncertainty of the French Revolution. She also argues that, since Austen’s novels were sometimes published years after they were originally written, even when they first hit public consciousness they were already slightly out of their intended context. All of this suggests that Austen has been perpetually miscast as far less radical than she truly was. To understand Austen, “We have to read, and we have to read carefully, because Jane had to write carefully, because she was a woman and because she was living through a time when ideas both scared and excited people.”

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To make her case, she dives into the context of Austen’s life and world, close reading for clues and possible connections. She ties Emma to the enclosure movement, which fenced off lands previously available for broad communal use and in so doing disrupted the rural poor, rereads Mansfield Park in light of the Church of England’s complicity with slavery, and makes the case for Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship as a profound—and leveling—destabilization of the social order. And in this excerpt, Kelly draws out the theme of inheritance that runs through Sense and Sensibility, which sees the Dashwood sisters ejected from their home in the very first pages.


Sense and Sensibility begins with the words “The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.” But “family,” it soon becomes clear, can expand or shrink at will. There’s little that is truly settled about the Dashwoods.

The “old gentleman,” the Dashwood whom we meet so briefly in the first paragraph, and whose last will and testament precipitates the plot, is the only survivor of his generation—an eldest son, who had “a sister” (either unmarried or widowed, because she lived with him until her death) and, clearly, a younger brother. We know the last fact because the old gentleman has a nephew who shares his surname and is “the legal inheritor” of the estate, that is, the person who would inherit it under intestacy laws. This is the first instance of a sibling pattern that we see repeated over and over again in the novel—a pattern of two brothers and a sister. It’s so neat a way of examining the question of inheritance that it looks very much as if it must be design.

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Other examples of the pattern are the Ferrarses—Edward, the eldest, who pays ambiguous court to Elinor Dashwood, Robert, the second son, and Fanny, who marries John Dashwood—and the Brandons; Colonel Brandon had an older brother who is now dead, and he has, we know, a sister. It also appears in the family of Sir John Middleton, where, though we’re once told that there are four children, only three are particularized: John; “the second boy,” William; and “sweet little Annamaria,” small cousins of the Dashwood sisters. The Dashwoods themselves are an exception; we have our joint heroines, Elinor and Marianne, their younger sister, Margaret, who is sketched in only very lightly, and their older half brother, John. The effect of this, of course, is to leave the girls without any male relative sufficiently close—or sufficiently interested—to protect them. They have only a mother who is considerably less aware than either of the other two widowed mothers in the novel, Sir John Middleton’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Ferrars.

An early and generally very favorable review of the novel in the conservative, Church of England–affiliated British Critic announced that “there is a little perplexity in the genealogy of the first chapter, and the reader is somewhat bewildered among half-sisters, cousins, and so forth.” The bewilderment is deliberate, or so it seems to me. What Jane describes in the opening is the setting up of an entail—the same legal device for controlling inheritance that menaces the future well-being of the Bennet sisters in Jane’s next novel, Pride and Prejudice, and the Crawley family in the recent long-running television series Downton Abbey.

Entails were only ever able to exist because English law assumes that something can be owned in two different ways by different people simultaneously. Say I own a pen; it’s my pen; I bought it with money I earned myself. Legally and morally, that pen is mine, there’s no question. I can do whatever I like with it: throw it away, give it away, sell it, leave it to a cats’ home in my will. But say I was left a watch by my grandfather and that his will also stated I should leave the watch to my eldest daughter. From the moment I inherit it with that instruction attached, she part owns it too; the two of us own it together. I can wear it or keep it in a drawer, just as I like, but I can’t sell it, I can’t leave it to my nephew, and I can’t give it away. It has to go to her after my death, because she has a kind of ownership of it already—equitable ownership—and that ownership is enforceable through the courts.

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What the old gentleman does in his will—and what some ancestor of the Bennet family must have done too—is a more complicated version of this. In simple terms, he leaves Norland Park, the Dashwood family estate, to three individuals at the same time: his nephew, his great-nephew, and his great-great-nephew. His nephew owns it, but not outright; John Dashwood, and his son, little Harry, have ownership too, though they don’t have the right to use Norland until it’s their “turn,” so to speak. This doesn’t just control inheritance; it means that Elinor and Marianne’s father is hugely restricted as to what he can do with the property: “It was secured, in such a way, as to leave . . . no power of providing for those who were most dear to him, and who most needed a provision by any charge on the estate, or by any sale of its valuable woods.” He can’t raise a mortgage, because the land isn’t his to mortgage. He can’t sell the timber, because that counts as “waste”—defrauding the other owners. But when John Dashwood takes over Norland, he can’t do those things either. And depending on the exact legal phrasing, this is a state of affairs that could continue indefinitely, with no one owner ever actually being able to deal freely with the property.

An entail basically forces adherence to primogeniture on a family; it makes explicit the superiority and greater importance of eldest sons. No one else matters—not siblings, not widows, not younger sons, and certainly not daughters. Given that the term “family tree” already existed before Jane was born, it isn’t such a stretch to wonder whether the name Dashwood was chosen deliberately. What she’s sketching out for her readers in the opening of the novel is, after all, a family tree in which all the extraneous branches and twigs are broken off and cast aside.

The opening chapter is bewildering because the concept it describes is. Jane is making explicit a deeply held (and deeply inconsistent) cultural belief—that women, the very people who are supposed to spend their life at home, in the bosom of their families, don’t really belong there. Whatever the domestic contribution of the Dashwood women—the “solid comfort” and “cheerfulness” they have provided, the “attention” they have given—it’s worth nothing at all; its “value” can easily be outweighed, ignored, dismissed. Behind Elinor and Marianne and Margaret and their mother are a whole imaginary army of others, generations of them, a disinherited multitude of Dashwoods both male and female.

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Jane wasn’t alone in questioning the fundamental fairness of primogeniture. The feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft did it too, in her 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, asserting that “children of the same parents” have “an equal right.” The passage in which she makes this claim is worth looking at more closely.

Wollstonecraft begins by talking about the common opposition between male “reason” and female “sensibility,” before moving on to discuss how women are persuaded—or coerced—into devoting themselves to “the duties of a mother and the mistress of a family.” Next Wollstonecraft touches on inherited wealth, on its tendency to promote selfishness and vice, a state of affairs that she suggests will persist “till hereditary possessions are spread abroad [that is, more widely].” Then she goes back to talking about sensibility, about how women’s “power” is “sensibility” and how “men not aware of the consequence, do all they can to make this power swallow up every other.” For Wollstonecraft, “female sensibility” becomes akin to sexual responsiveness; society being what it is, women are prepared and educated for only one thing—attracting a marriage partner. If they fail to do so, their sensibility is no use to them at all, because it’s no use to anyone else. She writes,

Girls, who have been thus weakly educated, are often cruelly left by their parents without any provision; and, of course, are dependent on, not only the reason, but the bounty of their brothers. These brothers are, to view the fairest side of the question, good sort of men, and give as a favour, what children of the same parents had an equal right to. In this equivocal humiliating situation, a docile female may remain some time, with a tolerable degree of comfort. But, when the brother marries, a probable circumstance, from being considered as the mistress of the family, she is viewed with averted looks as an intruder, an unnecessary burden on the benevolence of the master of the house, and his new partner.

Who can recount the misery, which many unfortunate beings, whose minds and bodies are equally weak, suffer in such situations—unable to work and ashamed to beg? The wife, a cold-hearted, narrow-minded woman, and this is not an unfair supposition; for the present mode of education does not tend to enlarge the heart any more than the under- standing, is jealous of the little kindness which her husband shows to his relations; and her sensibility not rising to humanity, she is displeased at seeing the property of her children lavished on an helpless sister.

This is a longer chunk of text than I usually quote, but the reason, I imagine, becomes clear very quickly: here, in a nutshell, are the first few chapters of Sense and Sensibility, the relationships and resentments that develop between the various Dashwoods, the brother and his wife, on the one hand, and, on the other, his sisters and his obligations to his birth family, and all of it tied up with a discussion of sensibility, inheritance, and the damaging effects of both.

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For Wollstonecraft, it’s clear that the current system of inheritance erodes instincts of fairness and generosity, that it warps the very idea of family and natural affection. In a society like this, even sensibility, fine feeling, a sense of connection to others, can only ever operate bluntly, selfishly, and with an eye to the main chance. And the sexual responsiveness that (most) men are looking for in women? Well, that becomes something to be exchanged, too.

The idea that Jane is drawing from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Sense and Sensibility isn’t a new one. If you put this passage in front of a roomful of students, nearly all of them will pick out the parallels. It’s really quite obvious. But is it obvious enough for us to conclude that Jane meant her novel to be read as a Wollstonecraftian critique of women’s position in society? That rather depends, of course, on when she first came up with the story. As I pointed out in the first chapter, Wollstonecraft was subjected to a vicious character assassination after her death in 1797. Even before her death, her illicit relationship with the anarchist philosopher William Godwin had put her firmly in the sights of conservative thinkers. If Sense and Sensibility is a work of the 1790s or very early nineteenth century, then it looks as if it were written as a deliberately and self-consciously feminist one. By 1811, of course, that effect would have been muted for a fair portion of readers who were less familiar with Wollstonecraft.

What we can say is that Sense and Sensibility, even in 1811, would have been read as a novel about property and inheritance—about greed and need and the terrible, selfish things that families do to each other for the sake of money.

Excerpted from Jane Austen, The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly Copyright © 2016 by Helena Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.