Yes, I know I have lots of other books to read, but I couldn’t avoid buying and devouring Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman (who also wrote the Sylvia Townsend Warner book I just bought – the woman has taste.) Anybody remotely interested in Jane Austen will already have heard the premise of this book – about Austen’s evolving reputation and fame through the years, with especial focus on the peaks of the First World War and the post-Colin-Firth-in-a-lake interest. Harman starts off with a biography, focusing on the response given by Austen’s family and acquaintances to her writing, and the road to being published, involving the infamous publishers who paid her for the book which would become Northanger Abbey, advertised it for publication, and never actually released it. Tut tut. The book then documents her literary reputation after her death, and how this was created by her family – basically a portrait of a woman who cared not for fame, never let writing get in the way of domesticity, and who hadn’t a mean word to say about anyone. Which, of course, isn’t the witty, slightly sarky and very talented Jane we all know and love.
On the book goes, through the Janeites of the trenches to the 21st Century fascination with her, and even a mention of Stuck-in-a-Book favourite Lost in Austen (though she says it is an adaptation of a book Lost in Austen, which I don’t think is true… the book is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure, published in England with the title Being Elizabeth Bennett). Harman’s style isn’t particularly academic, which is nice when she throws a personal twist to certain aspects of Austen’s posthumous career – of the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film and it’s elaborate and anachronistic costumes: ‘when Darcy and Elizabeth sit together on a bench, it is not pride nor prejudice which seems to keep them apart, so much as their clothes.’
The idea of the book is great. There’s a wealth of fascinating material – where different possessions of Jane’s went, who bought them, who was responsible for Chawton being bought back or her books being reissued etc. etc. I was especially interested in her evolving reputation in the nineteenth century, and the amazingly prescient 1818 anonymous review in Blackwoods Magazine which predicted that Austen’s ‘familiar cabinet pictures’ would outstrip in interest even ‘the greatest historical pieces of our more eminent modern masters’. How right he or she was. The section on the search for a portrait of Jane Austen is also very interesting.
Yes, the idea was great… but somehow the book overall lacked *something* for me. I think it was the lengthy and pervasive strand of biography – which is all well and good if you haven’t already read a biography of Jane Austen, but I (like many of us) have read Claire Tomalin’s excellent and comprehensive biography, and I felt like Harman’s biographical details were clogging up the book. Perhaps she’d leave Austen newbies stranded without these bits, but I’d rather she’d gone whole hog on the reputation angle, and taken some bits of Austen’s life as read. And, despite a wealth of really great material, there was – how shall I put it – something a little lacklustre about the book as a whole. Can’t put my finger on it, but the style was occasionally dry and footnote-y, without being really scholarly. Again, kind of falls between two stools.
That sounds very negative, and I did very much enjoy reading Jane’s Fame. It’s just that, with such a fascinating potential, investigating why Jane Austen is idolised and ‘befriended’ in a way that no other author, not even Shakespeare, is… I’d still recommend this book to any Austen fan, or even anyone slightly interested in Austen, but I know that a better book could have been written. And now it won’t be able to be for at least a decade.
One other thing – Harman suggests that Jane Austen is the *only* author who can be identified just be their first name. I’m sure that’s not true… and was hoping you’d help me think of some others. In fact, just put their first names in the comments, that would be a good test… I offer Virginia as an example. And, in the right circles, Vita. Hmm. I’ll keep thinking…