A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Ever since my teens, when I was introduced to the novels of Jane Austen by my mother, I’ve counted myself as a Janeite. I studied Pride and Prejudice for O Level and Persuasion for A Level. I loved them both. They were my way into literature. Her novels have been a very deeply embedded part of my life ever since – read, and re-read, all versions sought out and savoured. The love of Jane Austen is the entree to a network of shared experience and affection, a link to fellow Janeites that does not require explanation, a focus of instant recognition and sympathy. So I’ve been looking forward to reading this exceedingly well-received book on Jane Austen’s reputation, from her lifetime to the present day. And yet, it has been around for a little while now, and I’ve had to work myself up to reading it too.
It is indeed a wonderful book, in many ways – it’s original, for one thing – I can’t recall a study like this aimed at the general reader, that covers so much ground. It is scholarly, and a great resource, gathering together compendious information about the biographical, bibliographical and critical history of Jane Austen the author, and her works. Finally, it is written with great style – full of energy, joy, fun, and strong opinions.
This is a chronological study, essentially the Seven Ages of Jane’s Fame, each chapter leaving her reputation and popularity at a crucial stage of transition. The first chapter is a rapid flight through the very familiar biography, but skillfully extracting the events, relationships and insights that relate directly to her as a writer, leaving us with a strong and coherent set of reasons why she left only 6 published novels, and an account of the miracle that she managed to publish any at all. Harman examines the myths around her writing and the attitude to it of her family and friends, dispelling some, and putting others into context.
She goes on to explore the descent into neglect of her works after her death, and the efforts of a few readers to keep a flame for her, including influential voices like George Henry Lewes and Harriet Martineau. Then comes the landmark of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir in 1870, which conscripted her to the Victorian era, and sparked an enormous revival of interest in her and her novels. In the early 20th century, she was appropriated by male readers – the term ‘Janeite’ was coined by the critic George Saintsbury, and picked up later by Kipling, in his very strange but compelling short story ‘The Janeites’, which describes a cult of Jane Austen in the First World War trenches in a weird mix of freemasonry and wartime heroism, tragedy and survival.
Then, in ‘Canon and Canonisation’, Harman charts the beginnings of the 20th century critical industry around Jane Austen, and her appropriation by her elite male votaries into the academic curriculum, followed by a supremely skillful overview of the results of overlapping and contending schools of critical discourse. Then finally, in ‘Jane Austen (TM)’ she describes a – to me, which caught me by surprise – gloom-inducing Gresham’s law of proliferating film and TV adaptations, blogs, Youtube fan videos, merchandise, sequels, prequels and spin-offs.
Claire Harman’s take on all this is fresh, and above all balanced. She takes landmarks in Jane’s fame, and looks at them from all angles. One such is J E Austen-Leigh’s pivotal memoir. It has played a vital role in her survival and her assumption of a place in world literature. It arrested the gradual loss of memories and records of her life. It revived interest in her writing to an extent that has continued from strength to strength. But it plucked her from her own age and environment and planted her in the author’s, suppressing traits of independence and intellect and emphasising her feminine and domestic virtues, and she makes this very clear.
Likewise, in the 20th century, Harman celebrates the work of R W Chapman for the definitive Clarendon Edition of Jane Austen’s works started in the 1920s – before gleefully putting the boot (I can think of no more refined way of putting it) into his critical method, shortcomings of textual collation, and suppression of the contribution of his wife to this landmark of scholarship. This, as are many other passages, is all so exhilarating. One of the pleasures of the book is her encyclopedia of anecdotes of famous fans. My favourite is Félix Fénéon, French civil servant turned anarchist, turned Austen translator into French, who improved the shining hour while in prison awaiting trial for an anarchist outrage by translating Northanger Abbey – into beautifully elegant French prose, if the extract is a typical example:
Las! Si l’héroine d’un roman n’est pas patronnée par l’héroine d’un autre roman, de qui pourra-t-elle attendre protection et égards?
I was delighted to be reminded of Kipling’s ‘The Janeites’, and the 1940 film and Greer Garson’s crinoline, and The Republic Of Pemberley (a bit too ironic for me, always). And, let’s face it, I’m as avid a consumer as the next Janeite of the film and TV adaptations of her works. It is a remarkable overview of a unique literary phenomenon, and one that is so close to my own heart.
How did it affect me? Not at all as I expected (though I wonder if the fact that I did not seize it immediately it was published shows that perhaps at some deep level I was reluctant to expose myself to it). Reading this book actually made me feel rather uncomfortable. Jane Austen and her work are so closely entwined in my soul and my psyche that I recoiled somewhat from Claire Harman’s clear-eyed analysis. I felt as though I was being anatomised, or else observed like a member of a lost Amazonian tribe by an intrepid anthropologist. I was not sure that I wanted to be told – twice, as it happened – that Katherine Mansfield had already expressed what I instinctively felt about myself:
[..] the true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of their author.
Harman is terrifying when writing about fans in the mass, though. While recognising the great pleasure that Jane Austen gives to millions of readers and viewers, she is forensic in exploring the minutely detailed knowledge of the alternate body of work, the adaptations for film and TV, including the near total identification with the characters in terms of who is playing them (particularly Colin Firth’s Darcy). She cuts only a little slack to the regiment of serial watchers and re-watchers, bloggers, vidders and fanfic writers – or maybe as a foot-soldier in that monstrous regiment, I’m being over-sensitive.
She seems rather slyly to undermine the Jane Austen Society when describing their deep emotional involvement in the acquisition of Chawton Cottage, and the appearance of saintly benefactors, and miracles in the form of Janeite relics. She has certainly undermined my peace in advance of my next visit to Chawton Cottage – I shall be much more on the alert to the agenda of those who saved it, and filled it with particular treasures. However – I think I can say with Mr Bennet: “I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.” It is far too good a book not to keep in a Janeite’s library.
Strangely, if the subject of this fascinating, masterly study had been (for instance) Charlotte Bronte, whose works I admire, but who is not part of who I am, I know I’d have devoured every word with passion and delight. Every great author deserves this treatment. So, I commend this book whole-heartedly – to anyone who is not a lifelong Janeite. Indeed, such is my admiration for Claire Harman’s achievement that I would press it on my non-Janeite friends. Moira – you’d love it!
Claire Harman: Jane’s Fame. How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Canongate, 2010 (paperback ed.)
ISBN13: 9781847672940 342pp
Hilary is delighted to learn that Claire Harman is also the biographer of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Being a great fan, but not a Sylvia-ite, she can’t wait to read it!