Thursday, April 08, 2010

Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World

I have been no great admirer of Jane Austen, having long considered her the mother of the romance and chick-lit genres, but still an author whose reputation demands that her work be sampled. I have, in fact, read only four of her six novels. My opinion of her work falls between that of Mark Twain who said, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone” and that of the most ardent Janeites who read little other than Jane Austen novels. I have, however, often wondered how Miss Austen became the literary icon she is today. In Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman explains exactly how that happened.

As Harman points out, despite the great fame she enjoys today, very little is known about the “real” Jane Austen. No proper image of her was left behind and, with the help of her sister Cassandra, the bulk of her private correspondence and papers was destroyed after Jane’s death. Jane Austen died in 1817, at age 41, living to see the publication of just four of her six novels and only some local success as an author. Even this came to her only after almost twenty years of work as an unpublished author – and for most of the 1820s, the decade immediately following her death, none of her books would be in print. Jane Austen would, in fact, be almost forgotten by the reading public for most of the next forty years.

All that would finally change when Jane’s nephew, one James Edward Austen-Leigh, published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870, beginning a steady rise in his aunt’s reputation. The book, written fifty-three years after Jane’s death, is based upon the reluctant memoirist’s impressions about his aunt and it offers, at best, a misleading view of her life and her attitudes toward her writing. By World War I, a British soldier seeking mental escape from the horrors of war was likely to lose himself inside the pages of a Jane Austen novel, buried in the calmer, saner England he would find there. But the best for Jane Austen’s reputation was yet to come.

In 1995, the BBC had a huge success with its production of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and a new industry was born – a steady flow of adaptations of Jane Austen novels for the cinema and television. Pride and Prejudice would be followed by other BBC adaptations and big-screen versions of several other Austen works, including Emma and the highly regarded Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson. Suddenly, Jane Austen was mainstream – and the rest is history.

Jane’s Fame is a well written explanation of how such an unlikely rise to fame for Jane Austen could happen despite her near disappearance from the literary landscape in the several decades following her early death. She is now a cultural icon (one of those people instantly recognized by just her first name) even to those who might never read one of her six novels, but serious fans of the woman who wrote about “three or four families in a Country Village” will almost certainly want to add Jane’s Fame to their Austen collection.

13 comments:

  1. Interesting post, thanks!! I never knew that she wasn't 'mainstream' until, well, Colin Firth!!

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  2. Oh, I forgot to mention the famous wet shirt scene, Elise. That does seem to have brought Jane to the attention of a lot of folks who had made their way through life for the most part barely knowing her name - and nothing about her.

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  3. I had to read "Sense and Sensibility" for one of my college English classes in the early 80s, so English profs definitely knew who she was. She was not my favorite. I still don't quite get the appeal. Give me Dickens any day.

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  4. I took a whole Jane Austen class back in the mid-80s and burned out on her for a while.

    However, I do like to muse about Colin Firth's wet shirt and also Colin Firth in the bathtub.

    The Mark Twain quote is so funny, but the real humor is the EVERY part. If he doesn't like her, why does he reread her? One of my theories is that he was the only guy in a houseful of women and books were a way of bonding with his daughters.

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  5. I, too, immediately wondered why Mr. Twian was re-reading an author for which he had such disdain. Twain also said: "Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”

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  6. I wish you wouldn't have Twain's comment on your profile. :( ;)

    I love Austen - I think she's smart, witty, and insightful. And I think she's a good writer.

    I disagree with the author here - Austen was popular before Colin Firth's wet shirt. That movie just brought Austen into popular fiction, rather than popular literature, if that makes sense. It's all about pop culture now - those trashy spin-offs, ridiculously innacurate "bios" and complete rip-offs.

    Austen is one of my all-time favorites, right behind Shakespeare. (Yes, it is possible to like both of them... and Dickens... and Twain.)

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  7. Elise, I imagine she gained hundreds of thousands of new readers when that scene played out on the BBC. Funny thing is, the scene was added specifically for the movie and wasn't even in the book.

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  8. Factotum, have you read "Drood" by Dan Simmons? I just finished the audio book (30 hours long) and was fascinated by the relationship between Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

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  9. Interesting theory, Bybee. According to the book, his daughters were Jane Austen fans and I imagine that's exactly why he read her books more than once despite his feelings about their content.

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  10. Sherry, that's the quote from when Twain had been forced to read a lot of Austen on a cruise ship and was happy to find none of her books on the next cruise he took. Gotta love the man's wit...

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  11. Annie, if there was one dead author I could spend some time with, it would have to be Mark Twain. The man's sense of humor almost always cracks me up, even when I sympathize with his target. Jane Austen is more of a woman's writer, IMO, but I do recognize her talent and her place in history...just too much of a "romance" style to suit my tastes, especially when it comes to re-reading books.

    (I'll replace that quote when I find something that I enjoy more...got any suggestions?) :-)

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  12. I think she's a bit like Lord of the Rings. Both always had a very loyal fan base, and some cache among English professors and literary critics. But when the movies started coming out everyone loved them, couldn't get enough.

    I'm old enough to remember when a "I'd rather be reading Jane Austen" bumper sticker was about a cultish as a "Frodo Lives" one.

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  13. I missed those bumper stickers, CB. I think your right on the cultishness part of Austen...she's not someone I have any desire to re-read...once is enough for me, but she has a huge appeal to female readers.

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