This book was on my Austen in August reading list.
Jane’s Fame, despite its deliberately frivolous title, is an interesting book for Austen lovers and haters alike. Claire Harman charts the emergence of the ‘Austen myth’, dealing with the way that she has been co-opted, desired, and possessed by readers and critics alike. Throughout, Harman looks at the way Austen has been marketed, written about, and criticised.
The first chapter of the book deals with the details of Austen’s life; Harman stresses Austen’s dedication to her chosen craft, suggesting that the ‘unproductive Bath years’, where it is commonly assumed that Austen wrote no new material, were in fact devoted to a painstaking and continuous process of editing. It’s a pretty logical assumption to make, because one of the defining characteristics of Austen’s prose, particularly of the first three novels, is how highly ‘polished’ they are; this was clearly the result of several years’ work. Moreover, Harman stresses Austen’s love of reading and her continued engagement with the best writers of the age, male and female:
Jane Austen became a great writer partly because she was a great reader, and had a highly developed consumer’s understanding of her favourite form.
The rest of the book charts the fluctuations in Austen’s reputation over the next two hundred years, and the establishment of the cult of ‘divine Jane’. Harman does a good job of describing the factors that led to the writing of J.E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen, and why Austen’s remaining relatives felt the need to sanitise Austen’s character. Harman also points out how religious imagery became attached to Austen, so much so that it became (and is still seen as) a kind of ‘cult’, complete with a saint, a heavily edited history, and relics to be worshipped.
Interestingly, Austen’s earliest adorers appeared to be primarily men. Of course, this may well be because men had more opportunities to publish their opinions in journals, books, and newspapers, while women could only gush in the drawing-room about their favourite books.
While nowadays Austen is criticised for dealing exclusively with middle and upper-class characters, ignoring the lower and working classes completely, it’s worth noting that in her own time Austen was criticised for writing about people who were too ‘lowly’; the majority of books at that time seemed to feature aristocrats or the upper classes (anyone who was below about a baronet or a knight was essentially not worth talking about, in other words). Only one of Austen’s heroines comes from such a family (Anne Elliot, whose father is a baronet), and even Mr Darcy, one of Austen’s wealthiest and most well-born characters, does not have a title (he is Mr Darcy, not Sir or Lord). Blamed for writing about the ‘lowly’, blamed for writing about the ‘bourgeois’; there’s just no pleasing audiences, it seems.
Harman also illustrates well the way in which Austen became associated with a certain kind of ‘Englishness’ and the image of ‘good old England’ during the Industrial period and into the twentieth century (hence her use, in part, as regular reading for the soldiers in the trenches). This image of a stable, gentrified England was clearly a great comfort to inhabitants of war-torn Blighty in the first half of the twentieth century.
It seems to me, therefore, that the second surge in Austen’s popularly, in the late 1990s, had a lot to do with postmodern anxieties about an unstable world on the brink of a new millennium. Hardly surprising, then, that despite the many objections to Austen (most of which come from those who have not actually read her) the ‘cult of Austen’ continues to grow in strength to this day. For me, this was one of the most interesting revelations to emerge from Harman’s book. Contrary to the idea that Austen has always been popular, her work slipped in and out of the public eye, and world events, ideology, and nostalgia played a large part in when and how she was received at various times.
Harman does a very good job of charting Austen’s growing fame over the course of the past two centuries. The text is generously littered with quotations from various sources which illustrate the changing nature of Austen appreciation. Harman’s book is far from a grovelling offering to the Shrine of Austen. It is an in-depth look at the growth of Austen’s fame. As such it is a historical account, rather than a book of literary criticism (even though elements of literary criticism do appear). Though clearly written for a popular audience, it charts the development of Austen mania with clarity and intelligence. It doesn’t tell you why you should like Austen; it only attempts to explain why others do.
Rating: 4 Stars