When Jane Austen died in 1817, she was an obscure unmarried daughter of the manse with limited means who had published four novels anonymously and had two more on the shelf. But by the mid-twentieth century, people on both sides of the Atlantic were vying over a lock of her hair, and by 1995 an early copy of Pride and Prejudice sold for £16,000 and Austen's shade shared an Oscar (if not, alas, the profits) with Emma Thompson. Claire Harman has written a number of fine biographies on now obscurish writers -- Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney -- but now, in Jane's Fame, she takes on a biggie. What is it about Jane Austen that has slowly but apparently inexorably led her to conquer the globe?
Since Harman's focus is not so much Austen herself as what people have made of her, she has written a reception study a bit like S. Schoenbaum's classic Shakespeare's Lives. Was the English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay the first person to compare Jane Austen and William Shakespeare? In 1843 he wrote:
Shakespeare has neither equal nor second. But among the writers who... have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen.
By 1847, G. H. Lewes (perhaps better known as Mr. George Eliot) elevated Jane to an equal level with William: she was "a prose Shakespeare." Lewes particularly admired her as one of "the greatest painters of human characters, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived." (Charlotte Brontë, the recipient of this opinion, wasn't buying it.) Tennyson thanked God for another similarity between Shakespeare and Austen: no surviving letters meant they couldn't be "ripped open like pigs."
Unbeknownst to Tennyson, some of Austen's letters do survive, and they join her early writings and even her marginalia in shaping Harman's case study.
In two brisk and stylish chapters Claire Harman traces the known facts of Austen's quiet life and the history of the composition and publication of four of the six novels she completed during her lifetime. Then, in the remaining five chapters, she shows how in two centuries Jane took over the world.
Or, perhaps, in Harman's view, how two versions of Austen have taken over two worlds. The first Austen, in the Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant's words, is "calm and cold and keen," showing a "fine vein of feminine cynicism." She does not set out to flatter the sympathies of her audience. This is the Austen who is most often found in scholarly works -- she got her first dissertation, by a Harvard friend of Henry James, in 1883. Harman is suavely comfortable in anatomizing the variants and vagaries of this Austen, even when they are irresistibly tease-worthy (such as a whole book devoted to the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice).
The second Austen has somehow morphed to fit "the requirements of the mass market." This Austen inspires romantic tchotchkes, the wet shirts of Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy, and, I presume, the zombies and sea monsters of Quirk Publishing's Monkees-like venture into Austeniana. Harman sometimes seems to hold her nose at the cosy "dear Jane" fans. She's far more forgiving of the men in the trenches of WWI who found comfort in this view than of 21st-century online commenters or the denizens of fan zones, such as the compendious website The Republic of Pemberley. Throughout the book, she bristles indignantly whenever she thinks she sees "a woman of extraordinary talent and originality being patronized by nincompoops."
But even two Austens may not be enough to take over the world. Perhaps "part of the reason why she pleases us so much now is that she was, for years, pleasing only herself." Or perhaps "because she comes from our own [middleclass and middlebrow] ranks and rocks no boats." Perhaps because she's a good plotter, and an entertaining non-didactic moralist -- and she writes romances, which we all secretly like, even if we're supposedly too well-educated to admit to. Or perhaps...
Well, pay your money and take your chance here. But Harman's great strength is in providing a wonderful range of voices on Austen, pro and con, genteel and Marxist. Fans include Kipling, Siegfried Sassoon in the trenches, and, in jail, both the radical Félix Fénéon and the gay Oscar Wilde. I was enthralled by the cultural revelations in Harman's section devoted to the early Austen editor R. W. Chapman -- and to his wife, Katharine Metcalfe. Harman's thorough notes ensure that any appealing bits can lead on to more. On Metcalfe and more, I'm planning to read Kathryn Sutherland, one of the finest current Austen scholars and one to whom Harman is much indebted; on the fanfiction front, I'll search out Sybil G. Brinton's 1913 book, Old Friends and New Fancies, in which, apparently, all the unmarried characters from various books get tidied away. Austen's small world -- her "3 or 4 Families in a Country Village" -- turns out to be a pretty big tent, sizable enough to have a great party in.
Harman's book doesn't contain much about Austen that hasn't been covered elsewhere, but it presents the story of Austen's self-fashioning and later popularity in a convincing, enjoyable way. Harman describes Austen's reputation from her own lifetime to the current era of Jane Austen Inc., synthesizing a good deal of scholarship into a series of tidy chapters offering an accessible guide to the evolution of her subject's renown.
The New York Times
Diverting anecdotes pepper award-winning British biographer Harman's (Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson) sharp and scholarly analysis of Jane Austen's life and the posthumous exploitation of her as a “global brand” having “everything to do with recognition and little to do with reading.” Tracing the rise and fall and rise of Austen's reputation against a larger historical backdrop, Harman chronicles the WWI-era worshipping “Janeites”; assessments of Austen that minimized her as an “accidental artist”; and modern post-feminist criticism that, in exploring her politics, sexual and otherwise, has placed Austen “in several mutually exclusive spheres at once.” Harman notes that film versions have taken liberties with and overshadowed Austen's books, concluding that “[o]ne of the horrible ironies of Austen's currency in contemporary popular culture is that she is referenced so freely … in discussions of 'empowerment,' 'girl power,' and all the other travesties of womanly self-fashioning that stand in for feminism” today. Yet “it is impossible to imagine a time when she or her works could have delighted us long enough.” Harman herself delights with this comprehensive catalogue of Austen-mania. Illus. (Mar.)
This most recent addition to Austen biography takes an interesting tack, covering not only the life of the author but the life of her work. Harman—affiliated with Manchester, Oxford, and Columbia universities and having had a distinguished history of critically acclaimed writings on literary figures (including Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney, and Robert Louis Stevenson)—presents Austen in all her contradictory glory: at once the dutifully domestic daughter who also pursued the "oddish" feminist career of "authoress" and the author of modest success during her lifetime who fuels a multimillion-dollar "Austenmania" industry generations after her death. Fast paced and engaging, Jane's Fame illuminates Austen's writing and publishing history and traces the rise and fall (and rise again) of her popularity over the years. From being damned with faint praise from male critics to helping inspire the recent chick-lit craze, Austen's books have moved into Bollywood and beyond, becoming a worldwide phenomenon. VERDICT Continuing interest in Austen's works, ignited by films and other derivative works, will create a popular audience for this accessible volume, which should also please the scholarly crowd.—Alison M. Lewis, formerly with Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia
An elegant exploration into the curious journey of literary celebrity, as exhibited by Jane Austen. Austen's rise within the literary canon is reflected in modern culture by the many film versions and derivations of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and others, and in the ubiquitous inclusion of her works in academic curricula. Royal Society of Literature fellow Harman (Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, 2006, etc.) delineates the growth of Austen's fame as both a study of the process of getting published and acclaim as a writer, as well as the actual features of Austen's work that make it both popular and divisive. The author declares Austen to be as difficult a biographical subject as Shakespeare, in that both left behind few details of their personal lives, making their mythologies all the more of a touchstone for adulation. Harman efficiently sketches the confined circumstances within which Austen, a financially dependent spinster, wrote and revised her novels over many years before they were published. The author ably captures the imperturbable belief that Austen must have had in her talent-she continued to write new novels, even though the first one, Sense and Sensibility, was not published until a few years before her death. Although Austen had a few admirers, the initial circulation of her work was limited. It was not until a biography written by her nephew, James Austen-Leigh, was published in 1870 that interest was revived in her work on a larger scale. Harman points out the key feature of Austen's writing that finally resulted in her canonization within English literature-her ironic artistry as a keen observation tool of the truth of humannature. Detractors, ranging from Charlotte Bronte to Mark Twain, have decried the small-scale nature of her work, the focus on ordinary life and the lack of poetry. For Harman, it is this very accessibility that has resulted in her rise to global fame. A must for Austen bibliophiles. Agent: Geri Thoma/Elaine Markson Literary Agency
From the Publisher
“An informed and elegant chronicle of the rise of ‘Divine Jane.'” NPR's Fresh Air
“Harman presents the story of Austen's self-fashioning and later popularity in a convincing, enjoyable way. She describes Austen's reputation from her own lifetime to the current era of Jane Austen, Inc., synthesizing a good deal of scholarship into a series of tidy chapters offering an accessible guide to the evolution of her subject's renown.” The New York Times Book Review
“Harman's Austen is neither sweet nor retiring, but a fire poker--a metaphor evoked by her bearing and manner, according to a contemporary visiting her household. Think tall, strong, and ‘formidable,' not small and sweet.” Elizabeth Toohey, The Christian Science Monitor
“There is much to divert and please in Claire Harman's well-blended biography and cultural commentary. . . . Harman, an award-winning biographer, turns her sharp scholarly eye, acutely sensible prose and considerable wit on the life of the ‘divine Jane' in this gem of a book, tracing Austen's early years and literary pursuits through to the present-day cult of Austenmania.... This biography-history fills in many blanks, brimming with entertaining anecdotes and quotes, robust scholarship and ironic humor.” Alison Hood, BookPage
“Chock full of quotes, primary and secondary resources, and letters from every possible angle, Jane's Fame is a treat for any Janeite. I need not balk when I say that it truly is the most engaging biography of anyone I've ever read. Ever.” AustenProse.com
“A must for Austen bibliophiles.” Kirkus Reviews
“[A] sharp and scholarly analysis of Jane Austen's life and the posthumous exploitation of her . . . . Harman herself delights with this comprehensive catalogue of Austen-mania.” PW (starred review)
“Harman conjures a blooming portrait of the brilliant, modest nineteenth-century author who wrote her masterpieces on small, easily concealed sheafs of paper in the busy family sitting room.” Elle
“Anyone who thinks that an author shouldn't have a rest from time to time should read Claire Harman's Jane's Fame, about the evolution of Jane Austen's career from about 1802, when, at the age of 27, she sold her first manuscript (of Northanger Abbey, never published in her lifetime) for £10, to now. The common misconception about Austen, according to Harman, is that she was reclusive and indifferent to her own concerns, including the reception of her books, but Harman makes a convincing case that she was neither as indifferent nor as obscure as we have been led to believe.” Jane Smiley, Globe and Mail
“Wonderful… Not only scholarly, but indecently entertaining.... Her prose rings with good sense, affection and humour.” Daily Mail
“Rich, incisive.” Sunday Times
“An exhilarating look at the rise of Divine Jane's worldwide influence. Harman charts its course with wit and style, as well as scholarly precision, making this a book that no Austen addict will want to resist.” Literary Review
“Fascinating and sophisticated... a sparkling addition to the canon.” Evening Standard
“Splendid… Harman is the first to treat this fascinating subject in an accessible, lively manner unshackled by academic jargon.” Sunday Telegraph
“Deft, elegant… a happy blend of critical insight and narrative bounce.” Kathryn Hughes, Guardian (UK)
“Pleasingly unstuffy.” Times
“Beautifully researched, fascinating.” The Scotsman
“A fascinating compendium of absolutely everything relating to Austen.... Extraordinary.” Independent on Sunday
“Harman unpicks the cultural and sexual fantasies at the heart of Jane fandom with great skill.… The material [she] has deftly put together makes two things strikingly apparent: no reading of Jane, however seemingly wayward, is a misreading; and Austen's major effect is to inspire good writing.” Daily Telegraph
“Harman's narrative is brisk and incisive, and her emphases distinctive and provocative. She invites us to conceive of Austen both as a dedicated writer and also a ‘hard-nosed' one…We never tire of reading or writing about Austen, and all the ever-ramifying epiphenomena she generates do deliver real pleasure. Jane's Fame both chronicles and exemplifies this tirelessness, and readers will take pleasure in it accordingly.” Times Literary Supplement