Yeah, my dad bought me two books about Jane Austen a few birthdays ago, and I figured I should read them back-to-back so I could compare them. The other was A Brief Guide to Jane Austen. This one, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World is much less a biography or analysis of her individual novels and much more an examination of how Austen went from moderately successful author in her time to forgotten to skyrocketing fame within two hundred years. Claire Harman clearly lays out not just what it is about Austen’s works that make them so good and memorable but also the way history led to the optimal circumstances for Jane to take the world by storm.
I really like how this is laid out. There are the requisite biographical details, but the majority of the book concerns what happens to Austen’s reputation after her death. Harman delves into as much evidence as she can find, mostly from surviving letters of family, as well as any public notices or records from that time. This journey is pretty much chronological (with a fair amount of foreshadowing). Rather than attempt literary analysis as Jennings does in his Brief Guide, Harman is more concerned with how Austen’s novels were received historically.
This is something we don’t often stop and consider about our beloved authors. We kind of take it as given that these authors and their works were always highly regarded ever since publication. How often do you stop and wonder how Shakespeare was portrayed, talked about, and performed in the nineteenth century? Similarly, Austen’s rise in popularity is more complex than her present status might imply.
Harman provides a glimpse into the intimate writings of Austen’s surviving sister, Cassandra, who acts as a kind of executor and protector of Austen’s memory for the rest of her life. It isn’t until Cassandra and Austen’s brother, Henry, die that the more extended members of the Austen family start wondering if they should be more public in managing Austen’s memory. Much of what they do is reactionary—other people speculating about Austen’s life, sometimes in improper ways that rub against the increasingly moralistic Victorian attitudes of the day. So that’s how you get the things like James Edward Austen-Leigh’s somewhat exaggerated character sketch of his aunt.
From there, Harman shows us how subsequent generations write about Austen as those who knew her personally start to die. By the end of the nineteenth century, Austen’s fame is secured, but she has yet to reach the critical mass of cult followers. Harman chronicles the intense critical debates between those who see Austen as a fluffy romanticist and those who view her as a serious novelist deserving literary analysis and critique.
It’s in the early twentieth century that Austen-mania really takes off. Harman triangulates a few causes. She points out that English soldiers in the Great War found the bucolic sort of novels that Austen wrote quite reassuring in the trenches. Following the war, the advent of mass media in television and radio and some adaptations of Austen’s works helped her reach even wider audiences. The book concludes with the Austen renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s, thanks to the numerous British adaptations of Austen’s work creating a kind of shared zeitgeist perception of Austen’s Regency England.
Jane’s Fame is full of interesting facts, perspectives, and analysis. Sometimes Harman draws conclusions a little too easily for my tastes, making claims that her source material doesn’t always seem to back up. She seems out to dispel “myths” about Austen’s life, even though the counter-evidence she presents isn’t necessarily always more reliable or closed to interpretation. My point, simply put, is that no amount of scholarship is ever going to produce a definitive version of Austen’s story—too much has been lost, too much was never recorded. We will probably never know very well what she looked like. This can be frustrating, from a fan’s point of view. From a literary critic’s, I suppose it’s a fascinating puzzle.
To compare this to A Brief Guide to Jane Austen, I think this one has a more obvious audience. It’s longer, yes, but it doesn’t harp so much on the plot of Austen’s novels as it does their context. Anyone who has read Austen will be able to follow and perhaps enjoy this book—though it is definitely quite literary and academic in its style. In the case of both books, they aren’t necessarily something I would pick up myself—I’m just not that intrigued by Austen’s life—but they were good gifts, and I learned a lot from them. That’s about what you want from your rando non-fiction picks!