It is not often that a much-hyped book or film lives up to its reputation, as with The King’s Speech and Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen conquered the world , the book by Claire Harman and the subject of this review. I’ll admit to being a wee bit partial to any book that mentions my blogs – Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today – but this is not the sole reasons for my gushing over Ms. Harman’s lucid and accessible account of the slow rise of Jane’s Austen’s literary fame in the 19th century to her near rock-star status as a popular cultural icon today.
Jane’s Fame was published in 2009 amidst much controversy. Accusations of heavy borrowing and plagiarism flew from the mouth and pen of Ms. Harman’s former friend, Kathryn Sutherland, who had published Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, from Aeschylus to Bollywood in 2005. Ms. Harman countered the accusations with equally strong words, saying she had followed the standard practice of sourcing all quotes and citing the earliest sources for her information. With this controversy in mind, I read Jane’s Fame with the same morbid curiosity that Two and a Half Men fans are reading articles about Charlie Sheen’s downward spiraling career today. I am delighted to announce that I think Jane’s Fame stands on its own, paying due homage to Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, but making what could have been a dry tale into an exciting read for the modern audience.
Laurie Kaplan, who reviewed Sutherland’s book for the Jane Austen Society of Northern America, wrote:
Through an examination of biographies, portraits, manuscripts, films, and editions of the novels, Sutherland tracks the creation of Jane Austen as “a special cultural commodity.” From James Edward Austen- Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen (1870), which presents a “family-managed” biography of his relation, to the films, which sometimes bear only a passing relation to the novels, biographers, editors, and directors have “marketed” their own versions of “Jane Austen” to the public.”
I agree with this assessment of Sutherland’s book. Several years back I had read portions of Jane Austen’s Textual Lives and from it learned much about Jane’s slow rise in literary reputation and in the estimation of her peers. However, in my opinion Dr. Kathryn Sutherland’s revelations were not entirely new. Any Janeite who has read a number of Jane Austen biographies would have known that Jane’s literary reputation stagnated in the years after her death. The facts were scattered in a number of sources and Dr. Sutherland was astute enough to pull them together. She chronicled Jane’s rise in academic order, and had her efforts rewarded with the publication of her book by Oxford University Press. While her richly footnoted tome is perfectly suited for the shelves of a university library, her professorial writing style would in no way appeal to Mr & Mrs John Q Public.
Enter Ms. Harman.
One cardinal rule of copyright laws is that facts and historical events belong to the public domain. One cannot patent the dates of a person’s life or historic events. Ms. Harman, with her easy and accessible writing style and her academic knowledge, pounced on the Jane Austen bandwagon and came up with a runaway hit. In fact, Ms. Harman makes the rise of Jane’s fame seem exciting. Here is an excerpt of her description of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s attempt to take a look at Fanny Knatchbull’s letters from her Aunt Jane:
In 1869 Fanny’s sister Elizabeth Rice warned him not to wait for a sight of the letters, as there was virtually no chance of it. Lady Knatchbull, she said, was prone to giddiness and confusion, an impression of advancing senility confirmed by fanny’s daughter Louisa, who protested that her mother would have been only too delighted to assist James Edward ten years earlier, but it was too late now.”
It is universally acknowledged that Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoirs of his aunt in 1869 (and quickly again in 1871) piqued the Victorian public’s curiosity, and that his biography prompted the buying public to purchase Jane’s novels in droves. In the first half of the 20th century, academics and the public alike discovered the rich literary minefield that Jane’s novels represented. Film adaptations only served to boost her reputation, and by 1995, when A&E presented a 6-part series of Pride and Prejudice and the Internet began to be embraced by non-geek users, the stage had been set for world-wide Austen adoration.
My major complaint about Jane’s Fame is that I suspect this book was written to meet a publisher’s deadline. The first 2/3 of its pages are rich with facts and anecdotes, with fully developed topics that satisfied my curiosity about Jane’s rise in popularity. But then the book’s pace speeds up and the last few chapters seemed rushed and thin. The most recent years of Jane’s popularity are barely covered, as if the author (and publisher) lost focus. Be that as it may, I read Jane’s Fame in two or three sittings and recommended it to my Janeite book club. They LOVED it. I am confident that you will too.
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