Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World

by A Latter-day Bluestocking

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World is Claire Harman’s straightforward and satisfying contemplation of Jane Austen’s larger than life appeal nearly 200 years after her death. Ms. Harman does not delve into the oft-repeated litany of biographical references but rather focuses on Jane Austen as writer. She focuses on the woman who wrote of “three or four families in a Country Village” and how she became a figure of such immense impact in the 21st century.

By a Lady

Ms. Harman contends that “part of the reason [Jane Austen] pleases us so much now is that she was, for years, pleasing only herself.” Jane’s early writings were for her and her family’s amusement; private musings that were carefully kept and returned to. But this is not to say she wasn’t ambitious and motivated for more than her family’s praise. She was disappointed when in 1797 the publisher Thomas Cadell declined an early version of Pride and Prejudice. And further rejections of her work did mortify her.

But she maintained her determination and the rejections allowed her to re-write, describing to her sister, Cassandra, the editing of Pride and Prejudice “I have lop’t and crop’t so successfully, however, that I imagine it must be rather shorter than Sense and Sensibility altogether.” The delay in publication allowed her to be bolder and more experimental and the end result are the novels that are so popular to this day.

But finally she did publish, albeit anonymously, and in letters she expressed a sense of accomplishment and pride. Not only was she in print but she was earning money. But “her children” Sense and Sensibility followed by Pride and Prejudice were gaining quite a following and her brother Henry could not help but divulge her name to those who remarked on the books. The publication of her next books, Mansfield Park and Emma were looked forward to with anticipation. Despite this she only had moderate success in her lifetime and gained very little personal fame or fortune.

Mouldering in the Grave

After her death, the Austen family preferred to focus on Jane Austen’s sisterly fidelity and domestic pursuits. Although her death notice acknowledges her writing and mentions all four published novels, her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral fails to mention her writing. A glaring wrong and one that led to bewilderment to the hapless verger when inquired of by Austenite pilgrims in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1818 the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey as a set accompanied by Henry Austen’s Biographical Note sold well. Sales declined and the remaining copies were pulped in 1820. She remained out of print for 12 years. Then in 1832 all six novels were published in a handsome illustrated edition. Jane has never since been out of print.

Divine Jane to Jane Austen ™

Her fame steadily grew. As the members of the Austen family who intimately knew her died off, letters and manuscripts became available and were highly sought, especially by Americans. Her popularity grew more so after the publication of the biography by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870.

In the early 20th century Jane Austen’s books were read and admired as a chronicle of what life was like in a less turbulent time. Her books were soothing and were recommended as appropriate reading material for shell-shocked soldiers from the trenches of WWI. Despite having been written during the Napoleonic Wars, Jane’s books never broach the subject.

Her fame has grown exponentially. Now nearly 200 years later, one can peruse the book shelves of any bookstore to find a variety of Jane Austen books; biographies, the novels in various editions, scholarly analyses, and graphic novels. She has even inspired a whole industry of sequels, spin-offs, soft-porn literature, and even film. She is translated into every conceivable language. Her appeal seems endless and with internet sites devoted to her Jane-ites can have all Jane, all the time.

Ms. Harman has written a biography sure to satisfy the cravings of Jane Austen’s devoted fan base. She writes truthfully that “the further Jane Austen recedes from our time the closer she feels to us”. This seems a truth that can be universally acknowledged judging by current state of mass intimacy the world has with Jane Austen.

Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009)

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