Book Review ~ “Jane’s Fame” by Claire Harman

book cover jane's fameMany of us who grew up in the late 40s – early 50s had our Jane Austen force-fed to us in high school (unless we were fortunate enough to be blessed with an Austen-loving mother or father!).  Pride & Prejudice was the standard text with little reference to the other works; followed by George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and / or Great Expectations, Shakespeare (hopefully!), and Hemingway, Steinbeck, Salinger for contemporary authors.  But I’ve often thought that Austen got a bum-rap with this “required-reading” status, the educational system’s way of compensating for what an early critic said in calling Austen “a critic’s novelist – highly spoken of and little read.” [p. 120]  And while I am the first to admit that Austen is not for everyone [their terrible loss!], I have long believed that this approach to Austen added to her suffering from the great reader-turnoff. 

For me, a voracious reader as a youngster and teenager, I went on to read some of her novels, but alas! not all, feeling more at home with Alcott, the Brontes, Dickens, and later Wilkie Collins, all those more accessible Victorian novelists.  So it was in later life that I returned to Austen – and I perhaps needed that distance of time (and some wisdom!) to re-appreciate her brilliance – the humor and irony, the language, that characterization, and of course, the age-old love stories.  So from my current vantage point I marvel at Austen’s ability to stay fresh, to speak to different generations, and to speak to each individual in different ways through one’s own life. And in these fifteen plus years of “re-Austenising” myself, I’ve gone much beyond the novels, to the biographies, criticism, her Regency / Georgian world, and the current surfeit of films, and sequels and continuations, and even the latest parodies, creating quite a book collection in the process – and I have really barely begun!  

So I was most excited to hear about the release of Claire Harman’s new book, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World [Canongate, 2009], stirring up controversy even before it hit the bookstores [see my previous post, “Discord in Austen Land”].  [Harman has authored Fanny Burney: A Biography (Knopf, 2001) and works on Sylvia Townsend Warner and Robert Louis Stevenson].   It is an engaging read – historical, biographical, critical and anecdotal, all rolled into a capsule of Austen’s claim to fame – and just why was she so popular?  “the public whipped into a frenzy” [p. 243]  in the late nineteenth century and again in the late twentieth? – by “[James Edward] Austen-Leigh’s Memoir in the first instance, and in the second, a man in a wet shirt” [p. 243] [with thanks to Colin Firth!] – simplified reasoning perhaps, but a good chuckle and that glimmer of truth. 

Harman explains that

…this book charts the growth of Austen’s fame, the changing status of her work and what it has stood for, or been made to stand for, in English culture over the past two-hundred years.  In the foreground is the story of Austen’s authorship, one of persistence, accident, advocacy, and sometimes surprising neglect.  Not only did Austen publish her books anonymously and enjoy very little success during her lifetime, but publication itself only came very late, after twenty years of unrewarded labor.  I have sought to reconstruct these pre-fame years in the spirit of uncertainty through which Austen lived them.  Her prized irony and famous manipulation of tone I believe owes much to it; part of the reason why she pleases us so much now is that she was, for years, pleasing only herself.  [p. 7-8]

Thus, Harman starts by placing Austen squarely in the context of her times – her family and friends as writers – her mother, brothers James and Henry, her friend Anne Lefroy’s brother Samuel Egerton Brydges, and her pride in her own quite delightful juvenile writings.  Incorporating a general account of Austen’s life [Harman assumes the reader brings much knowledge of Austen’s life and gives only a cursory telling], she presents us with a great summary of Austen’s writings, the publication history and early responses to each work, drawing heavily on Brian Southam’s Jane Austen, The Critical Heritage [London 1968], and emphasizing Austen’s literary ambitions. [for more on this, see Jan Fergus’s The Professional Woman Writer” in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, one of the earlier scholarly arguments to clearly see Austen in this light, far removed from the portrait painted by her brother Henry and later her nephew.]

Following Austen’s death in 1817, her copyrights still owned by Cassandra were sold to Richard Bentley and his issue of all six novels in 1833 did much to keep Austen in print; but her popularity waned, the rise of the Victorian novel sending Austen to the shadows, not to mention Charlotte Bronte’s dislike of Austen, quoted by Elizabeth Gaskell in her Bronte biography in 1857 [but ironically, how close is Gaskell’s North & South to Pride & Prejudice!]  So Austen remained largely unread until the Austen-Leigh Memoir of 1870, followed by various new editions of the novels and the selected letters in 1890. 

Harman explores in her chapter on the “Divine Jane” [quoting W.D. Howells] the publishing of these new editions and the illustrated versions that sought to “fix the characters in one’s mind” [p.159], the biographies, and critical analyses in this first burgeoning fame-fest, and her new status as darling of the intellectual snobbish-elite, championed by the likes of Leslie Stephen, Henry James, George Saintsbury, and Howells [and of course, not to leave out Mark Twain’s adamant dislike!] – all this culminating in R.W. Chapman’s Oxford edition of her works in 1923, “the first complete scholarly edition of any English novelist.” [p. 192]. 

In “Canon and Canonisation,” Harman chronicles the scholarly critical analysis that continues unabated to the present – the vast extent of academic and non-academic writing – on the one hand, Austen as a pleasure-read, the writer “who wrote so clearly and simply, and who was so small scale” [p. 200] – and on the other, the critical study of Austen’s “unconsciousness and brilliance” and here we see her “easy passage into English literature courses” [p. 201].  Austen makes critical literary history as manuscripts and contemporary memoirs became available for study – resulting in library collections, various illustrated editions, Jane Austen Societies, interest in her “homes and haunts,” more biographies from various standpoints, new paths of criticism taking into account the political, sociological and historical elements, and the many works on the manners and mores, fashion and handiwork, cookery and letter-writing – all things Austen indeed! [A friend visiting my home recently asked me what could all these Austen-related books on my shelves possibly be about when she only wrote six books!] 

And finally to film and what she terms “Jane Austen TM”, Harman again summarizing all that came before the “wet shirt” and after – the movies, the sequels, the internet and YouTube concoctions, the blogsphere , the Societies, the fan-fiction sites, the costume-driven fanatics, etc.  And Harman ends with the question, “What would Austen have made of all this? [p. 278] – in answer, she cites the differing views of D.W. Harding, Lionel Trilling, Henry James, and E.M. Forster to prove to us that “the significance of Jane Austen is so personal and so universal, so intimately connected with our sense of ourselves and of our whole society, that it is impossible to imagine a time when she or her works could have delighted us long enough.” [p. 281]

 One of the criticisms of Harman’s book has been her light non-academic approach to Austen [and perhaps her re-working of others’ ideas into this “popular” framework] – but it all works so well for what and for whom it is intended.  Harman’s gift is taking an inordinate amount of primary and secondary material and presenting it into a very readable, information-packed and anecdotal whole – everything you would ever want to know about Jane Austen all put together in a neat little package of 342 pages.  This of course may be its greatest shortcoming – too neat a package with strong authorial opinions thrown in [and a feeling to this reader of all being rather rushed at the end – “let’s wrap this up, throw in a few final tales and get it published” sort of feeling…] –  it must needs be leaving something out! [Indeed, the 2005 Pride & Prejudice barely gets a mention, either an oversight or the expression of the author’s opinion of that film – but no matter what your views of that adaptation might be, it has to be praised for bringing Jane Austen and P&P  to yet another generation who do not find Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene all that WE make it out to be – and thus it is a clear topic for Jane’s current and ongoing “fame.”] 

But as a resource, with a terrific reading list to be gleaned from the text and bibliography [though I do quibble with the number of un-sourced quotations and overly shortened citations that are unclear (especially in regard to the letters – a number and date would have been most helpful!)], Jane’s Fame should be required reading [not force-fed please…] for anyone interested in the facts of Austen’s writing life and how she has risen to such heights and commands such a presence in so many people’s lives.  And you will likely take away new and interesting tidbits such as finding what Katherine Mansfield had to say about Emma:  “Mr. Knightley in the shrubbery would be something!” [p. 247] [aah! indeed!]

4 1/2 full inkwells [out of 5]

 Further Reading: [all page citations above are to Janes’ Fame]

  • See my post on the various Reviews of Jane’s Fame
  • Copeland, Edward, Juliet McMaster, eds.  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Fergus, Jan.  “The Professional Woman Writer” in The Cambridge Companion, pp. 12-31, where Fergus summarizes and expands these arguments first presented in her Jane Austen: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan 1991.  These are must-reads…
  • Sutherland, Kathryn.  Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: from Aeschylus to Bollywood. Oxford, 2005, pb 2007.  Note that it is Professor Sutherland who started the controversy that Harman essentially lifted her ideas – I have this book and have skimmed it only, so cannot comment fully – but just looking at the table of contents, one finds the similarities a little alarming, and the Sutherland book has far more depth to the notes and bibliography – but again, I emphasize the “popular” nature of Harman’s book. 
  • Todd, Janet, ed.  Jane Austen in Context.  Cambridge University Press, 2005, 2007 with corrections. 
  • Claire Harman’s website with cites to reviews of Jane’s Fame
  • Austenblog:  Mag’s review of Jane’s Fame

Posted by Deb

One thought on “Book Review ~ “Jane’s Fame” by Claire Harman

  1. Pingback: Myth and Mirth: A Review of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman « Austenprose

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