This is my second year of Austen in August – I really appreciate the opportunity to take the time to think about why Austen is quite so great, but one of the reasons why she is so popular is because it does seem rather unexpected that a parson’s daughter who traveled little during her lifetime and whose years were short should have reached such a level of celebrity. Jane Austen is an icon – famous even to those who have never read a line of her work. I have always had a curiousity at how people can be rewritten after their death, of how their lives can become public property to be refashioned to suit the prevailing public mood. A few months ago, I read Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth, which made a similar analysis of how the Brontë Sisters have been perceived down the decades and now here, Claire Harman sets out to discover just how the cult of Jane Austen has grown up and just where Jane’s fame began.
It is an interesting form of biography that kills off its main subject within the first few chapters, but while the majority of Harman’s book focuses on Austen’s posthumous reputation, Harman does take care to consider the living woman also. Still, as Harman points out, there can be few figures who can be simultaneously quite so famous and yet also quite so opaque. Only a fraction of her letters survive, those who were close to her were robust in defending her privacy. There is no portrait which was ever truly agreed to be a fair likeness – when asked, her family even appeared to disagree on the colour of her hair. They all agreed though that Aunt Jane led a quiet and blameless life though and that she had always sought to avoid the limelight.
Harman takes a different approach however. She considers how Jane Austen refused Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal while still a young woman and ponders how this may have marked the moment when she gave up on the idea of being a wife and instead chose to be a writer. Harman charts Austen’s long battles to be published and notes her delight in the money she receives for her labours – this is not the naive figure who we are assured only ever sought anonymity, but rather an ambitious author who worked hard and wanted her just reward. Indeed, as Harman points out throughout her book, there are various opinions which sneak into her work almost unnoticed but which were quietly revolutionary. Via Anne Elliot, she defended women against charges of inconstancy, through Jane Fairfax, Austen labelled the governess trade (the only respectable way via which a woman might earn a living) as next best to slavery and in Mansfield Park, she seems to pass judgment on those whose fortune is built on slavery. Perhaps she was not as meek as her family believed.
Indeed, Harman puts Jane into context within her family, how even after her death, Jane was not seen by her mother as the writer of the family, that being supposedly her elder brother James, a man who was forever frustrated by his poetry’s lack of success. Her family tended to emphasise her domestic rather than professional qualities, complimenting her needlework and piano abilities, activities far more suitable for a Regency female, over what flowed from her pen. Indeed, Aunt Jane’s writing seems to have come as something of a surprise and Harman notes that Henry Austen appears to have considered that his Biographical Notice would shut a lid on all of the fuss. When Austen’s nephew wrote his own biography several decades later, it was through the rose-tinted lens of someone whose memories were at best hazy and tainted by nostalgia. It was this whitewashing that led to the iconic portrait of Austen, which Harman clearly has nothing but contempt for, pouring scorn on its bovine expression and inexplicable wedding ring. This is not the face of the woman who could make callers feel uncomfortable with her stare – so why did it become the image that we picture when we hear her name?
Harman charts Austen’s success and celebrity fans and critics down the centuries, from Mark Twain’s infamous loathing to Rudyard Kipling’s fantastic World War One pastiche “The Janeites”. Nobody ever seemed to be indifferent to her, with certain factions denigrating her work as cold and unemotional, but with ever increasing hordes falling at her feet. There is the infamous anecdote of the cleric at Winchester Cathedral who asked why people kept asking for directions to Jane Austen’s tomb and if there was something particular about her, but past the Victorian era, there were few who were able to claim such ignorance. What Harman points out though is that Austen managed to be all things to all people – for anti-feminists, Austen was an example of a good sort of woman who was content to remain at home and sweetly talented, praised for sewing and singing. Austen was antiquated even to her nieces and nephews, who winced that people should find out that their aunt had grown her own potatoes. To the feminists, Jane was proof that there were other options in life than wifedom. To either side, she was becoming Divine Jane.
The most fascinating part of Jane’s Fame was how she really did seem to get everywhere. Austen’s novels were prescribed reading to shell-shocked soldiers convalescing in World War One. Her literary ‘son’ was apparently Henry James. Tennyson complained that he was not interested in the scenery of Lyme Regis, he only wanted to see ‘the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell.’ Austen was lauded for her ‘simplicity’, but then textual analysis arrived and she was found to have been extremely complex. Yet, so much of her ‘quotable quotes’ are found to have been misunderstood, with her ‘little bits of ivory’ comment being unpacked by Harman with care to show someone who was comforting a nephew, not casting aspersions on her own work.
And yet, Jane continues to evolve – the 1990s is identified as one of the pivotal moments perhaps not in her life but certainly in her celebrity. Not only were all of her books (aside from Northanger Abbey) adapted for the big and small screen, but there was also the Wet Shirt moment. Harman discusses all extant adaptations of the novels (with particular derision for the Lawrence Oliver version of Pride and Prejudice, a view I heartily applauded – I remember staring when a family friend described it as the best film ever made) but notes that Colin Firth’s portrayal was something of an iconic moment, not just as a television experience but also for Austenography as a whole.
Harman highlights one factor in particular though which had never occurred to me – Austen’s works are deliberately timeless. Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility as a young woman but it was not published until around fifteen years later – by then the debate around sensibility had faded, meaning that certain reviews complained about the novel being dated. Harman points out that Austen seems to have learnt from this experience, meaning that her books are always generically Regency but are never tied down to a particular time period. Certain critics decry how inward-looking her plots can seem with the Napoleonic wars happening somewhere off stage left, but this does seem to have been a conscious choice. It is the Regency aesthetic which we associate with her stories, not any particular world event – the ladies and gentlemen of her stories are unstuck in time, leaving us free to enjoy their verbal parrying back and forth.
This was an eminently readable investigation of the rise and rise of Austen – but while I came to the book expecting to be interested by the subject matter, I was really impressed by the with and eloquence with which Harman writes. I had to laugh at her obvious scorn for Becoming Jane, a film which I am sneakily fond of but for which she has nothing but vitriol, appalled by its need to romanticise its heroine and by this notion of Jane needing to ‘find her voice’ through a broken heart. Jane’s Fame shows what a special thing it is to be an Austen fan and also that peculiar feeling of ownership that we tend to have over this woman who remains as enigmatic as ever, this has been one of the few constant factors in her readers, despite a constantly evolving fan base. While we may never understand truly the mysterious woman behind them, Austen’s novels look set to hold our imagination for centuries to come.
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Published by Canongate Books on 2009
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