`What is all this about Jane Austen?'
`What is there in her? What is it all about?' (Letter from Joseph Conrad to H.G. Wells in 1901)
Jane Austen (16 December 1775 - 18 July 1817) is one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her novels are amongst the best known in the English language, and have been adapted for film and television. Today, close to 200 years after her death, Jane Austen is more popular than ever. But why is this? During her lifetime she had little fame and her novels were not particularly popular. Sales were modest, and at least some unsold copies were discarded or pulped soon after her death.
Of course, for the many fans of Jane Austen, her current popularity is no surprise. It is, after all, clearly deserved. But those of us who are not totally part of the Jane Austen cult, it is interesting to learn more about the life, times and influences on Jane Austen, as well as the growth of the Austen industry. In this book, Claire Harman combines elements of classic biography with an analysis of the events that have influenced Jane Austen's posthumous popularity.
Picture Jane Austen: an unpublished author for almost 20 years. During this time she revised and updated her works, a process of continuous improvement which has rendered the published product almost timeless despite the period settings. She was undoubtedly ambitious, yet patient enough to negotiate with publishers.
Two significant events are identified as pivotal in Jane's posthumous popularity: the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh's `A Memoir of Jane Austen' in 1870 and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in a wet shirt in the BBC adaptation of `Pride and Prejudice' in 1995. These are two very different events, speaking to the sensibilities of two quite different eras separated by 125 years.
`What would Austen have made of all of this?' I imagine that she'd be delighted.