Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars From obscurity to globality, 22 May 2011
This review is from: Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Paperback)
In 1815, Jane Austen published Emma, dedicated by permission (or rather command) to the Prince Regent, who was Austen's highest profile fan, keeping a set of her novels in all his residences. What is less well known is that during Queen Victoria's reign, the Prince's beautifully bound presentation copy of Emma was relegated to the servants' library. And apparently it wasn't too popular there, which is why it remains in excellent condition today.

Despite attracting patronage from aristocracy and royalty, Jane Austen was never among the bestsellers of her day. She chose not to write in popular genres such as Gothic and historical fiction, and while authors such as Ann Radcliffe could sell their work for thousands of pounds, her earnings were in the hundreds. In the 1820s, with her works out of print, it seemed she was destined to fade into literary history. So how did the world learn to appreciate her?

Claire Harman opens this entertaining meta-biography with a preface establishing Austen's current place in popular culture. She then tracks Austen's reputation chronologically through her lifetime and on to the present day. What I found most fascinating: the influence of Austen on the long-forgotten "silver fork" novels of the 1820s; the important role nostalgia for a pre-industrial past played in reviving interest in her work; how the unflattering sketch of her by her sister Cassandra had to be "Photoshopped" to make it appeal to Victorian readers; the popularity of her books in First World War trenches and why men think the heroes and the romance in her books are unrealistic. There's thorough coverage of the 1990s spate of dramatisations and the seemingly endless stream of prequels, sequels and spin-offs. Harman quotes Sourcebooks editor Deb Werksman as saying that Austen's relatively small body of work left her public forever wanting more: "`Anything that will evoke the work of Jane Austen becomes very appealing.'"

I did have some reservations about Jane's Fame: its recitation of the myriad Austen references in popular culture sometimes reads more like a list than an analysis. As Harman suggests, the more pervasive such references become, the less meaning they retain. Also, not all of the images Harman discusses are illustrated (or easily findable online) - although these gaps may be down to the rights-holders rather than the author. That said, this is an essential read for any `Janeite.'
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