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 Even this came to her only after almost twenty years of work as an unpublished author – and for most of the 1820s, the decade immediately following her death, none of her books would be in print.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.
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