I fell in love with Jane Austen sometime around 1996. I think the first time I read one of her books was when it was assigned my sophomore year of high school, and I’m pretty sure it was Pride and Prejudice but it may have been Sense and Sensibility. I’m just not sure anymore. In the intervening years I have consumed all six of her major novels, getting the final one read last year, and have partaken in many, but certainly not all, of the various movies and miniseries that have been produced in the same time period. And this is how I came to my own personal love of Austen. In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World Claire Harman explains through a detailed study how the works of Jane Austen, relatively little noticed at the time of their publication, have become such powerhouses in the world market and how legions of readers have fallen in love with them across two centuries.
The first two chapters focus in on Austen during her lifetime, and what we are able to know of her from her professional writings and her personal ones which were published after her death. It was fun to revisit some of the personal history I had picked up along the way, and some things which were new. The time period I knew the least about her growing fame and that was unfamiliar to me was that surrounding the two world wars and specifically her pervasiveness in the trenches of WWI. These are highlighted in the third and fourth chapters which highlight the impact of Austen’s great grand nieces and nephews in the later part of the 1800s and how their decisions lead to a new round of popularity for Austen which carried into the war period. The final chapters focus on the modern popularity of all things Austen.
The majority of Harman’s work is focused on why Austen’s work has not only remained but grown more popular over time. She tracks the critical appraisal of Austen’s work and explores what was being said about the works. One of the earliest critiques of Austen’s work is its narrowness that it only speaks of “three or four families in a country village.” Harman argues that this is actually what makes it accessible the world over. The plots of money and marriage are as relatable to someone living in Asia in 2014 and they were to Austen’s original British audience in 1814. Harman goes on to say that “the most empathetic readers of Austen may well be in modern-day Africa, where the Church of England is at its most traditional, and where family structures still resemble those familiar to the author” (199).
The flexibility of the text in the hands of its readers lends itself to continued attention and conversation. By a certain point in the twentieth century Austen’s work was being used by all sides of any given argument, used to support the patriarchy as well as supporting feminism. Oh, and Marxism. And Feminist Marxism. For example the critical understandings of Mansfield Park moved from the topics of transgressing boundaries and metaphors for improvement (the aborted production of Lover’s Vows and the trip to Sotherton respectively) and into colonial studies and exploitation of slaves in more recent works and studies.
Spin off publications, another popular Austen experience (Death at Pemberly, anyone?) start as early as 1913 with Sybil G. Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies which has major characters from each of the six novels by Austen interacting with one another. It’s another avenue of Austen popularity. But most of the popularity comes directly from the unique writing habits of Austen. Austen worked on her novels for nearly two decades, refining them over many drafts, and then publishing those means that she appears to have worked to keep them without defining timeliness. While she is writing during years of war and social upheaval, they are generally out of view. And descriptions are vague enough to have the reader put in their own idea of what a house “suitable to the fortune of the proprietor” is as Pemberly is described.
The most modern round of popularity started in the mid-1990s. The surge was associated with the famous BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series and that wet shirt. There were five Austen productions in 18 months between 1995-1996, including my favorite, Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson. The problem with movie adaptations, that Harman points out dates back to the 1930s, is that they are the least likely to have a strict interpretation. For example, another favorite of mine, for various reasons, 1999’s Mansfield Park abandons Austen’s characterization of its heroine Fanny Price and replaces it with a version of the historical Austen, a spirited would-be writer.
I know I’ve summarized the book at seeming length, but there is so much that I haven’t touched upon. If this review is of interest to you, then so will the book.
This review, and all my other Cannonball reviews for the past few years can be found here.