“The books went out of print, and Jane’s generation of Austens aged and died secure in their belief that the public’s curiosity about their sister had been satisfied. But almost two hundred years and tens of thousands of books on Austen later, her fame and readership worldwide continues to grow. Her six completed novels are among the best-known, best-loved, most-read works in the English language. She is now a truly global phenomenon, known as much through film and television adaptations of her stories as through the books themselves, revered by non-readers and scholars alike.”
Oh, sorry. Does that sound like every other Jane Austen biography you’ve ever read? Let’s try another quote because, really Jane’s Fame is not like the other Jane Austen biographies. Behold:
“Her influence reaches from the decoration of tea towels to a defense of extreme pornography, and her fans have included Queen Victoria, E.M. Forster, B.B. King (“Jane Austen! I love Jane Austen!”), and the editor of the men’s magazine Nuts. Who else is cited with equal approval by feminists and misogynists, can be liked to nineteenth century anarchism, twenty-first-century terrorism, and forms part of the inspiration behind works as diverse as Eugene Onegin and Bridget Jones’s Diary?”
If the theme of this book could be anything (expect for, of course, Austenmania), it would be assumption-crushing-mania. Was Jane Austen really the most humble person ever known? Did she really not care about the money her books made? And was she really not mortified by the seemingly endless stream of publisher rejections? Your logic would tell you that, no, she probably wasn’t any of those things. But what does your heart tell you? How do you want to see her? Is it weird that I’m asking you that?
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. And though Jane’s Fame contains a lot of statements like that first quote, most of it is populated with information you’ve probably never been exposed to. Using correspondence between family and friends, publishers, critics, and neighbors, and wives of sons of sisters-in-law, Claire Harman constructs a dizzying portrait of our beloved Jane. She goes further to describe just how much Jane has affected us, infiltrating our minds, hearts, and pop culture to the point of, ahem…mania, and continues on to explore those strange assumptions we’ve made about her.
The book sets in motion a thorough unraveling of everything Austen we thought we knew, presenting the life and times of our most revered author amongst a myriad of head-scratching possibilities. The dichotomy is interesting: Was she a “fire-poker” or a saint? Was she a “husband-hunting butterfly” or the epitome of quiet, thoughtful femininity? Did she love children or struggle to connect with them? Claire Harman attempts to answer these questions but, in the end, she leaves it up to you. She instead brings to light to oddities that exists in our asking them, since we all seem to think we own Jane somehow.
Harman’s depiction is strong (especially in the beginning), but also seems to bear the impression of an Austen purist and has more than a few acidic words for any attempted manipulations of the original works. Her quotations can get a little out of hand sometimes, twirling the reader about in a “Wait…who’s talking?” kind of way, and the book has come under the gun for suspected plagiarism and un-attributed references.
Yeah, the book has a few faults, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. I think you’ll love Jane’s Fame since you are, in all probability, as much a member of the We Worship Jane Austen cult as I am. Who can blame you? She lives in our hearts and in our minds. She’s special to all of us in different ways. How many authors have the same claim to fame as Jane?
5 out of 5 Stars
Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman
Trade paperback (320) pages
Cover image courtesy of Picador © 2011; text Shelley DeWees © 2011, Austenprose.com