The reading public is not all clamoring for the next popular thriller. There are reasons to be confident that people are at least sometimes reading truly great literature. If you need evidence, look at the continuing popularity of the novels of Jane Austen. They have not always been popular, and were wrenched from obscurity decades after her death, but it does not seem as if they will ever need such a rescue again. In _Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World_ (Canongate), biographer Claire Harmon has given something of a posthumous biography, although she does provide some useful insights about Austen's life and attitude toward her work. The important chronicle here, though, is how Austen, well appreciated as an author by her family circle, had significant but minor success with publication in her lifetime, was forgotten, became a literary staple, and then became a phenomenon. Harmon expects that readers will know something of Austen's works (not a bad assumption to make), but her book even when concentrating on what academics have made of the novels is unstuffy and brightly written.
Austen died at age only 41in 1817. In the chapters devoted to Austen's life, Harmon tries (as have so many) to understand how this rural spinster could have produced such worthy novels. It was family influence that helped. Her family read. They talked about books, and they made fun of the bad ones and valued the good. "Jane Austen became a great writer," says Harmon, "partly because she was a great reader, and had a highly developed _consumer's_ understanding of her favourite form." Her family, though they loved her writing, underestimated the value of her novels, and certainly would have been surprised that generations later would find Austen a world-class author. The famous gravestone the family set down within Winchester Cathedral is full of praise, but does not at all mention that the lady wrote novels. After she was set beneath it, the family lost or discarded most of her papers and letters, and the early editions of her books were remaindered or pulped. Harman proposes that the turnaround began with a memoir from her nephew James in 1869. Aunt Jane was quiet, she was modest, she was a loving and lovable family member, went this portrait. That she was a careful and determined professional author was not emphasized, but she seemed simply a nice, ordinary, English gentlewoman. Readers rather liked this depiction; after all, many of them were nice, ordinary English gentlewomen, too, and so began a strain of affection for Austen that has not been equaled for any other author, and has continued to our day. Also like no other author does Austen repay the attention of the ordinary reader as well as the academic. Although her novels take place among the members of a few families in a village, larger themes of religion, nationalism, warfare, and slavery can all be cited, as well as the constant interest within women's studies.
The Jane Austen phenomenon is bigger today than twenty years ago mostly because of movies. More people come to her novels because of film and television, and of course some never get from the films to the original books. Harman is of course correct to consider this a real loss, but although Austen's reputation needed no boost, her visibility has certainly been increased. There are Jane Austen societies on either side of the Atlantic, with thousands of members who go to conventions and talk about the latest slant on the novels and participate in quizzes on trivia within the books (one scholar wrote about how badly fellow scholars do on such competitions: "We rarely recollect the colour of this character's dress or that servant's name"). In 1913 came the first sequel to the novels, a genre that continues to grow, and has branched out into tongue-in-cheek porn and even Austen-meets-Zombies or Austen-as-sleuth spinoffs. You can, if you wish, advertise your Janeite enthusiasm by an "I [heart] Mr. Darcy" bumpersticker. Miss Austen would be astonished. I would love to talk with her about all this; I have a feeling that she would be amused by all the spinoff novelties. Even zombie sequels, I would remind her, are a reflection of a sincere regard for her unmatchable originals. Harman's delightful book about increasing appreciation though the decades proves it.