The Oxford Times has a short interview with Claire Harman, author of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Canongate Books), a book that I read as part of my Austen Challenge and definitely recommend.
Jane didn’t grow popular until decades after her death, but since then her books have remained constantly in print and now, nearly 200 years after the publication of her first novel, Jane Austen remains a worldwide cultural phenomenon. The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is almost as widely used (and abused) as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.”
Jane’s fame long ago eclipsed that of her novels. In fact, as Harman points out, a large number of Jane Austen fans have never actually read one of her books. (In the preface to Jane’s Fame, Harman shares an anecdote about a woman who sent the first chapters of Pride and Prejudice, bearing Austen’s original title of First Impressions and with proper names changed, to 18 British publishers. Not only did they all reject it, but apparently only one editor recognized it.)
Harman is a good writer who builds an entertaining story out of what, in lesser hands, could be a dryly academic look at how the writings of a once-obscure early 19th century writer grew into an industry of books, movies, spinoffs, festivals and merchandise.
A Memoir of Jane Austen, published by Austen’s nephew in the late 19th century, catapulted the author to popularity but also gave us a distorted picture of her as a quiet, religious, mild-mannered spinster who wrote as a kind of genteel hobby. Not so, Harman reminds us. Austen wrote for fame and, yes, money. She took her writing seriously and earned much-needed cash from her works, though not as much as she would have liked.
Harman poses various reasons for the spread of Jane’s fame and the endless adaptations of her work. There was the fact that she published only half a dozen novels, leaving her admirers wanting more. She wrote for nearly 20 years before finally being published in 1811, giving her ample time to perfect her characters and her stories into finely polished gems. Some of the very things for which Austen is criticized—her narrow focus and her predictability—explain her universal appeal, Harman writes. Jane is like a comfortable aunt, writing about people we know in a reassuringly consistent manner.
Then there’s the lack of topical references in her works, which make little or no mention of events such as England’s war with France or the madness of King George—or for that matter, more mundane news and fashions of the time. Harman posits that the long period of being unpublished may partly explain this. What author wants to write about something you’ll have to revise or remove in a couple of years? As a result, her novels are timeless. Few modern readers care about the Napoleonic Wars, but we can relate to the bantering between Lizzy and Darcy, sympathize with Marianne’s grief, or roll our eyes at Emma’s cluelessness.
Serious Janeites will find Jane’s Fame a worthy addition to their libraries.