This is a witty & informative account of Jane Austen's reputation since her death in 1817. Although the recent TV & movie adaptations have made Austen one of the most famous authors in the world, her books were out of print for several years after her death. Her reputation was only revived with the publication of the first biography written by her nephew in the 1870s. That was when the cult of dear Aunt Jane, the refined, elegant spinster, began. Austen's reputation in the 20th century was enhanced by the scholarly editions of the novels published by R W Chapman which was the beginning of the academic critics' interest in her work. The explosion of popular interest which began with the BBC's Pride & Prejudice in 1995 has led to hundreds of websites, blogs, movies, sequels & prequels of the novels. Harman explores everything from chick lit & the internet to serious academic works in this exploration of how Jane Austen conquered the world.
I first read Jane Austen's novels when I was teenager and it is only recently I have returned to them with renewed pleasure. This book charts the progress of Jane Austen's reputation from moderate sales of the first 4 novels published - `Sense and Sensibility', Pride and Prejudice', `Emma' and `Mansfield Park'. `Northanger Abbey' and `Persuasion' were both published after her death in 1817. Some appreciated her writing then including the Prince Regent to whom `Emma' was dedicated, others thought it ephemeral and of no importance. All of the books were remaindered at some point in their early lives.
It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that her reputation improved and her books were reprinted and sold well. It was at that point that the critics started to take notice of the six novels and they were divided into two opposing camps. Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story about Jane Austen's work being read in the trenches during World War I and providing common ground between all ranks. Winston Churchill took refuge from the stresses of World War II in the novels. Others hated the books and saw them as dealing with a society that no longer existed and concentrating mainly on people of the middle and lower orders.
This book discusses some of the many film and television adaptations both in the UK and in the USA starting with Geer Garson in a much altered version of `Pride and Prejudice'. It also touches briefly upon the many books which have been written in the last 50 years about Jane Austen and about her work and also about the many many sequels and prequels which have grown out of the novels themselves. Blogs and web sites are also mentioned. I felt this chapter could have been expanded as there are so many novels which owe their origins to Jane Austen's 6 novels.
Overall this is an interesting and lively book which will appeal to anyone who has read the novel themselves and wants to know more about Jane Austen herself and her reputation. It provides notes to each chapter, a bibliography, and index and photographic illustrations. It is written in a lively style and with an obvious love for Jane Austen's work.
on 19 May 2009
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.
The full title of this book is Jane's Fame - How Jane Austen conquered the World and it is hard for modern readers to realise there was a time when Jane Austen was out of print and nobody was particularly interested in her after her death, though of course she has always had her supporters and admirers, Sir Walter Scott being one and Tennyson another ('Don't talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth. Show me where Louisa Musgrove fell!') Enter any bookshop in the land and there are shelves full of various editions of Jane's books, some with tie in TV covers (I loathe them), some with pastel chick lit type covers (I loathe them) and some super cool modern covers (I loathe them), the collected works in omnibus editions, DVDs, talking books and on it goes. Hard to realise a time when this was not the case.
Claire Harman's book tracks the growth of the Fame of Jane. The first part of this biography is fairly familiar ground about her family and her life and for those of us who are Jane lovers there is nothing new to discover, the interesting bit starts as we learn how the current Jane Industry grew slowly after her death and reached the global phenomenon it is now.
Admirers writing to members of the family would often be sent a piece of her writing, an autograph, a lock of her hair as requested, there was no sense of keeping all this in one place. Indeed, in her will Jane parceled out her various manuscripts and letters to disparate members of the family obviously attaching no future importance or interest to her work. When the Jane Austen society was eventually founded and Chawton restored and became the Mecca for all Jane pilgrims, the members had their work cut out to track everything down and restore it to her home for all visitors and fans to see.
I found Claire Harman's book fascinating and full of unknown, (well to me anyway) facts. I gather that during Jane's lifetime there were pirated editions of Emma in America and French translations of Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, none of which she was likely to have heard about. One translator, Isabelle de Montolieu was a popular novelist in her own right and it was her name, rather than Austen's (in much smaller type of the title page) that was meant to attract readers. I rather like the sound of La Nouvelle Emma, La Famille Eliot and Raison et Sensibilitie, they have a certain air about them don't you think? It seems that Jane was also read in Russia and it has been suggested that Puskhkin might have read Pride and Prejudice as the similarities between this work and his Eugene Onegin have convinced critics that he must have read it. This gave me pause to ponder. OK Eugene Onegin is a regular Darcy, haughty and proud who rejects Tatyana because of the 'inferiority of her connections' but in the poem and the opera it is she who makes the running and is rejected, not the other way round as in P&P, and at the end of the book, when he realises he truly loves her, she has married another and sends him away. There is no real similarity in the story at all only in the character of Eugene Onegin himself. His friend Lensky, a poet, is a sub fusc Bingley but he ends up killing him in a duel. So I am slightly puzzled by this assertion. All interesting stuff though.
This post, if I am not careful, is going to turn into a DId you Know That which is what makes this book such fun to read. Did you Know That James Fennimore (Last of the Mohicans) Cooper wrote a novel called Precaution which was published in America only two years after Persuasion. Apparently he was challenged to writing such a novel by his wife when he had been reading an English novel and said it was so vapid he could do better himself. The similarities between the two books are most marked and, according to Cooper who many years later was very embarrassed by it, explained that he had never intended Precaution for publication and it had 'many defects in plot style and arrangement'. This is going on my list of books to Keep an Eye out For as it sounds a bit of a hoot.
Claire Harman explores the adaptations and the films and of course, reference is made to the BBC Pride and Prejudice of ten years ago (gosh seems like yesterday) and the Wet Shirt moment which has become so much an accepted part of Pride and Prejudice that readers coming to the book for the first time after watching the Andrew Davies dramatisation, were sorely disappointed to find that it was not in the actual book. Such is the power of television.
Wonderful though it is that Jane is now famous world wide, one sometimes feels that her six novels and other unfinished and junior works have been milked for all they are worth and that we are in danger of devaluing the currency that is Austen. There have been prequels and sequels and while I am not turning my nose up at these, I have read many of them with enjoyment (some are dire - I think those by Emma Tennant are poor while some are, quite frankly, on the edge of the pornographic. I don't really need to know what Darcy and Lizzie got up to in bed or that Jane and Bingley had a copy of the Kama Sutra - I kid you not), and the best among them are done with love and add to the story (those by Jane Aiken falling into this category), surely enough should be enough?
Claire Harman has written an immensely readable and fascinating book and one wonders what Jane herself would have made of all of this. I am sure she would have had something acerbic and witty to say about the folly of it all. Let's face it "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other"....
on 21 June 2010
`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.
When the Archbishop of Dublin made this statement in a long article he wrote in 1821, just four years after the death of Jane Austen (1775 - 1816), he was recognizing the genius of a writer whose identity was unknown during her lifetime. Now, two hundred years later, with "Jane-mania" reaching epic proportions, Claire Harman writes a scholarly and readable analysis of the events over the past two centuries which have led to Jane Austen's increasing popularity, ultimately explaining "How Jane Austen Conquered the World."
Writing for the public was still a man's activity in the early 1800s, and Jane Austen spent most of her life writing privately, for family and friends. For twenty years, she wrote and, more importantly, rewrote her six famous novels, before Sense and Sensibility was finally published anonymously in 1811, when Jane was thirty-five. Pride and Prejudice followed in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815. Two more novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published posthumously, in 1817. Her books did not sell a large number of copies, though she was praised by the literati, including dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Sir Walter Scott, who, in 1815, wrote a four thousand-word praise of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.
After her death and public acknowledgment of her authorship, her work remained in print, and by 1840, Jane Austen was being compared to Shakespeare by Thomas Babington Macaulay. As the nineteenth century continued, Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and others all praised her work. (Charlotte Bronte was a well-publicized dissenter.) In 1869, Jane Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a memoir about Jane which went into extra printings, and by the 1890s, the "Janeites" were almost a cult. In the 20th century, Henry James was regarded as Austen's "literary son and heir." The Bloomsbury group loved Austen, and Virginia Woolf became a "penetrating and sympathetic critic" of her work.
The biggest boost to Jane Austen's popularity came with the movies of the 1940s. Her books, regarded as romantic, have continued to gain popularity, and author Claire Harman believes that the current popularity of "chick lit" owes much to the fact that these books are often based on Jane Austen's plot outlines, with their "erotic potential." All of Austen's books have now spawned their own TV mini-series, gaining instant fans for Austen across the globe. Jane's fans will love this thorough, scholarly study, filled with anecdotes and thoughtful, new insights into Jane Austen's legacy. Harman's analysis of the trends which have made Jane Austen popular for almost two hundred years is sensitive to changing tastes while also acknowledging the universal characteristics which make Jane Austen so beloved by her fans today. Mary Whipple
Claire Harman, author of the pseudo-biography of Jane Austen, writes a very observant book. I call this a "pseudo-biography", simply because Jane Austen lived only 41 years and left very little in actual biographical material. Some letters to relatives and original copies of her work, have had to suffice to the many biographers through the years. Harman, therefore, after recounting the basics of Jane Austen's life and her family life, concentrates the rest of her book on how Jane Austen and her writing has been perceived in the almost two hundred years since her death.
"Janeites" appeared within 20 or so years after her death. Her work fell out of favor by publishers in the 15 or so years after her death in 1816, but interest was renewed after family members had her work reprinted in the 1830s. While she had achieved a limited popularity for her writing during her lifetime - her name was never printed on her books, rather "A Lady" denoted the author - her fame took off in the 1830's. Her nephew, the son of her favorite brother, wrote a biography of her in 1869, which helped to spur further interest in the long-dead author. Her work, the six novels she wrote, soon gained an appeal to readers in England, and then European and American society. Her work was popular by soldiers in the trenches in France in WW1.
It has remained popular and a group of readers - mostly women, but a few men - called "Janeites", who have, in a sense, caused Jane Austen's work to go beyond published works to movies and TV series. The first "Pride and Prejudice" movie, filmed during the early years of WW2, had the temerity to actually CHANGE a very significant plot line - Lady Catherine deBurgh's interference in Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship. I am still in shock, forty years after seeing this, this..."desecration" in my high school English class! Thank god subsequent film versions of the book have remained true to the author's plot lines. (Not including, for instance, the adding of a fictional scene of Darcy leaping into a pond - be still my heart - in the 1995 A&E/BBC mini-series.) All of Jane Austen's works have been filmed; some, like P&P, many times.
Harman does a very good job explaining the "Jane explosion" on to the world. Her book's a very good addition to the library of any "Janeite".
on 22 May 2011
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.'
This is a delightful book and very well written. I must admit that I have never read any of Jane Austen's novels but have watched several television and film dramatisations of her work - not that this is the same thing at all. However, I have an interest in the arts and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. The book offers a critique of the 'Jane' phenomenon rather than a biography (this is summarised in the first few chapters). Claire Harman's prose has a light touch. She is an engaging and, at times, humourous writer. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in gaining an understanding of why and how Jane Austen has achieved a level of fame (arguably iconic) that she never managed in her own lifetime.
on 21 January 2011
Probably unusually, I read this book without having read any of Jane Austen's books although I have Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma and Sense and Sensibility in my bookcase. Like most people, I have seen all the recent screen adaptations, thoroughly enjoyed them, and have been meaning to read the novels: one day.
It seemed an excellent idea to read a book on 'How Jane Austen Conquered the World' to get a handle on the literature before settling down with the actual novels. I wasn't disappointed.
The book is wide-ranging in its coverage, moving from what is known of Jane's life and family and her, and her family's, literary ambitions, her publishers, and on through time examining changing literary criticism, stage plays and current film productions. If anything, the book is too detailed for the casual interested reader - at times one feels overwhelmed with the seeming flood of information, as if Claire Harman is determined to pack in every last piece of research. And researched it is! The 'Select Bibliography' runs to 11 pages, some 180 entries, and the 'Notes' to 22 pages, the index to 18 pages. Accordingly, I would put it in the category of 'Must Read' for any undergraduate studying English Literature; I doubt anything of any substance has been omitted.
For the less studious, it is hard going at times. This is accentuated as there are just seven chapters to cover every aspect of the subject. Within each chapter, different threads are simply separated by double paragraphing and ***. It sometimes seems as if the component parts of each chapter have been a little cobbled together and, when there is an obvious lack of continuity, three stars are used to separate. You feel after each separation as if you are launching into something new without knowing where it's going. It would have helped enormously to have had some chapter subheadings.
It therefore falls slightly between two stools; solid chapters to appeal to the more casual 'reader' with detail making them rather indigestible; and the detail and rigour of research to appeal to the 'academic' but this being buried in lengths of almost unbroken prose.
But the book is worth criticising. It is a wonderful piece of research and writing and one marvels at the sheer endeavour needed to produce it! I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in Jane Austen; but be prepared to take your time. It is not a book to be rushed.