Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World
Henry Holt and Co.
While I was tidying up the list of books I read in 2011 I noticed that I began the year with a short biography of Jane Austen, read the wonderful A Jane Austen Education in the summer, and finished the year with Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Add to that a re-reading of Persuasion (my favourite) and much munching of popcorn in front of various film adaptations and the enjoyable Lost in Austen spinoff. This all happened without even trying, which just goes to show how ubiquitous Jane Austen has become. Jane’s Fame traces the development of Jane Austen’s popularity, which was by no means a sure thing in the beginning. She was nearly forgotten after her death in 1817, but a biography published by her nephew in 1869 revived interest in her, which prompted the reprinting of her books, and her renown steadily grew from there to today’s all-Austen-all-the-time proportions.
I found it interesting that for a long time the most ardent Janeites were male scholars. No doubt it only seems that way because they had the floor, but in any case her books were certainly not considered to be particularly for women until recently. She was also much-loved by soldiers in World War I, who read and discussed her books in the trenches to escape the hell they were going through. Austen was also prescribed to wounded and shell-shocked soldiers for comfort and solace in their convalescence or their last days.
Claire Harman points out that one of the reasons Austen is so easily appropriated by generation after generation of readers is that her books lack details of time and place that would make it seem dated or foreign to future readers. Apparently she did this quite deliberately and mentions it in her letters. Though some criticized her books for failing to mention the great events of the time, such as the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, in retrospect she made the right choice if she wanted her works to be enduringly accessible. Two centuries later, references to contemporary issues and obsolete facts of life would only get in the way of the stories. Today’s writers might do well to question the conventional wisdom about describing the setting of a novel in vivid detail. People are people, whether they communicate by text message or penny post.
Jane’s Fame is quite a thorough examination of the reception of Austen’s books, and even describes the huge success of the recent film adaptations (including a discussion of the wet shirt), and mentions the most popular Austen blogs and web communities. Nothing is left out, as far as I can tell, though it is understandably UK-centric. If you want to know what people have thought about Jane Austen and her books over the last 200 years, this book will tell you. The tone is scholarly but with enough Austen-like wry humour to make it enjoyable.
After reading this book I realize that I have been remiss in not reading Austen’s unfinished novels, now called Sanditon and The Watsons, as well as the story Lady Susan. I even have a Penguin edition of them sitting on my bookshelf so I have no excuse. I believe that will be my first new book of 2012!