Monday, December 16, 2019

Happy 244th Birthday, Jane Austen

In honor of Jane Austen's 244th birthday, I've decided to re-post a review I did back in April 2010 of a book called Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. It tells the remarkable story of how and why Jane Austen is famous all around the world today despite the huge odds that something like that could never happen to an obscure writer like her. 

If you are already a Jane Austen fan, you will love this book for certain - but even non-fans of the author known around the world simply as "Jane," will like this one. 

So, Happy Birthday, Jane:


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 Even this came to her only after almost twenty years of work as an unpublished author – and for most of the 1820s, the decade immediately following her death, none of her books would be in print.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

8 comments:

  1. I'm always impressed when an author's books last through the centuries. I'd like to be able to do something in my life that would last like that, you know?

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    1. Absolutely. I'm more of a fan of her novels today than I was in 2010 when I wrote this review, and now what amazes me is how lucky she was to have things fall into place so perfectly that she is still so well remembered and regarded today. Things had to go perfectly for that to have happened for her because she was long dead when things started going in that direction for her.

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  2. Austen's light satire always entertains me. Will have to check out Jane's Fame!

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    1. I started to enjoy Austen more once I started reminding myself that her work is satire and not meant to be taken all that seriously. That really helped me understand her a bit more, and with the reading I've done about her life and times, it all makes more sense now.

      Jane's Fame is really a remarkable book. It made me realize just how unlikely it was that Austen ever achieved any literary fame, much less becoming the absolute icon she is today.

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  3. I first encountered Jane Austen when I saw the 1940s (?) version of Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. I must've been 15. It's no exaggeration to say I fell head over heals for the story, rushed out and got a copy of the book and devoured it. I would not call myself a huge fan but I do like P&P, Emma and Sense and Sensibility. Northanger Abbey I'm a bit so so about and I've never managed to get through Mansfield Park even though I quite like the Hugh Grant movie. I think I'll look up Jane's Fame as it sounds interesting. I have a plan to try and visit Alton in Hampshire where she lived next year. Wish me luck! By the way, the Mark Twain quote made me hoot.

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    1. I hope you get to Alton because I'd love to hear all about it and see your pictures. I made a day trip from London out to Winchester in the late nineties primarily to visit the Austen sites there and found it to be all very low-key with the city not making all that big a deal about its connections to Austen.

      Jane's Fame is really well-researched and informative, Cath. What surprised me is just how easily Austen's name and books could have been lost to history. It took a lot of circumstances and coincidences coming together at just the right times for it to happen the way it finally did for her.

      Twain is always a hoot. It's just about impossible for me to tell when he's being serious and when he's being purposely outrageous. I suspect the latter in this case. :-)

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    2. I hope I get to Alton too. I didn't actually know where it was until we came back from Surrey via Winchester last year and I saw a sign to it. Bit further down the road on the opposite side was a sign to Gilbert White's house so it seemed a no brainer to have a break in the area sometime soon. We know Winchester because our youngest daughter did her degree there as a mature student of 23 back in the late nineties. No, you just wouldn't know there was any connection to JA, Bath on the other hand does make a big deal of it and I really must try and get to the JA museum there.

      I've just checked the library catalogue for Jane's Fame and they have it so I've put it on reserve.

      I love Twain, have read several of his travel books and have a couple on my tbr pile, the Equator one and the Missippi one, also Roughing it. I have a fancy to reread Huckleberry Finn next year too.

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    3. I think you'll find "Jane's Fame" pretty fascinating unless you already know a whole lot more about Austen's life than I knew when I picked it up in 2010. It was offered to me as a review copy back then for some reason. Can't remember just how.

      Twain has been a favorite of mine all my life. I've read most everything he's written now, I think, but for the second huge volume of his autobiography. The first volume pretty much exhausted me, and I haven't felt the urge to pick up that second one. His essays are a real hoot. One of my favorite collections of his essays is titled "On the Damned Human Race."

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