From the desk of Regency Romantic:
The moment I opened Jane’s Fame, the catchy titles of certain chapters – Praise and Pewter, Canon and Canonisation, Jane AustenTM hooked me and I knew I was in for a ride. I was not disappointed. Claire Harman’s new biography of Jane Austen is an engaging and brave account of the reluctant and evolving love story between Austen and her public as Harman holds our hands through the ebb and flow of Jane’s fame for the past 200 years.
Harman astutely points out two significant turning points for Jane’s mass popularity: first, the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870 and second, Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt in the iconic BBC film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995. Separated by more than a century, Harman draws parallels and contrasts between the two centuries and sifts through the myths and pitfalls that have been brought about by these two events.
Austen-Leigh’s Memoir in 1870 drew a saccharine image of Austen as a brilliant writer who wrote for her own amusement, confined to a little corner, while she happily played the different roles of daughter, sister, and aunt. Harman overturns this notion with a choice quotation from Austen herself, underscoring her own ambition and desire for financial success:
I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it. People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.
Harman goes on to track Austen’s perseverance as an unpublished writer for almost 20 years – how she would revise and update her works, which added to their ‘timeless’ and ‘unpinned’ quality, and how Austen’s ambition further revealed itself through her astute dealings with different publishers. Austen’s lukewarm reception by and relative anonymity with the reading public during the initial publications of her six completed novels (first in the 1810s, then in the 1830s to 1860s) brought about outright plagiarisms of an obscure Jane. This brings to mind an ironic contrast to modern-day sequels and mash-ups that cannot be more eager to attribute Austen as co-author, riding on her commercial popularity.
The mystery surrounding the unknown author in the mid-19th century brought about unwanted and unfounded speculations, which forced the hand of Austen’s family and brought about the publication of A Memoir. Rather than clarify the mystery, more questions surfaced. Most notably, a definitive image and portrait of Austen was never found and eludes us to this day. A Pandora’s box had been opened and the insatiable public could not get enough.
The cult of the Divine Jane emerges and Harman relentlessly draws the rising tide of various contradictions: Austen’s work as a ‘little bit of ivory’ vs. the worldliness of her stories; the initial all-male elite club of Austen’s early critical fans vs. Austen as the figurehead for feminist movements; Austen as anti-sentimentalist compared to her contemporaries vs. Austen as the mother of romance and chick lits; Austen works considered as being quintessentially English, but whose value and worth were first noticed by American critics, collectors, and pilgrims. Austen is, indeed, everything, for everyone.
Another parallel that Harman draws is the transforming allure of Austen’s works once they have been illustrated. She likens the success of Hugh Thomson’s elaborate and exaggerated illustrations for Pride and Prejudice in 1894, which gave a huge boost to Austen’s sales, to the unforgettable image of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt emerging from the lake, which has spurred several more adaptations of her other works, ad nauseam. Suddenly, Austen’s viewing public is a stronger presence than her reading public. Coinciding with this is the emergence of a whole industry around the brand name of Jane Austen. Consequently, these will continue to change how Austen’s novels and image will be read, whether positively or negatively. And with her rising popularity in the internet blogs and sites, the fame of Jane seems illimitable.
It is not only Harman’s parallelisms that make for compelling reading. She debunks popular myths with sound research but delivers it in a mirthful tone, worthy of her subject. Most enjoyably, quotable quotes by or relating to Austen that I have haphazardly read and gathered throughout the years as an Austen fan are cleverly weaved into the narrative, not only in their proper historical context but also their reverberations as Austen’s public reception cycles through changing times and tastes. Harman’s revelations are not earth-shattering, but the ground underneath my ever-growing appreciation for Austen has shifted for the better.
Harman posits that the true connection between Austen and Shakespeare ‘lies in their popularity, accessibility, and impact’. I will add ‘mystery’ to that. Like a comet that burns brightly in the heavens for a brief moment, we can only bask in her brilliance but never grasp her core. And as the competition to find the ‘definitive image’ of Jane continues, we can only throw our gaze to the passing shooting star and hope that our fascination for this enigma called Jane Austen will never wane and the love story will never end.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman
Henry, Holt & Co, New York (2010)
Hardcover (304) pages
(Note: Austenprose is specially mentioned twice, in the Preface and on p.276! Huzzah!)
Cover image courtesy of Henry, Holt & Co © 2010; text Joann Go © 2010, Austenprose.com