Not long after Jane Austen’s death in 1817, at age 41, her brother Henry wrote a “Biographical Notice” to coincide with the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. “Short and easy will be the task of the mere biographer,” he assured his sister’s readers. “A life of usefulness, literature, and religion was not by any means a life of event.”
Can any biographer in literary history have been less prescient? In the two centuries since Henry Austen made that assessment, curiosity about his sister’s life, along with enthusiasm for her work, have reached a frenzied level, and her very name has become “an infinitely exploited global brand,” as Claire Harman observes in her fascinating and beautifully written study of the shifts and changes in the novelist’s reputation, Jane’s Fame. Nowadays, Harman points out, “a glance along the ‘A’ shelf of any good bookshop will reveal a dizzying array of books on Jane Austen: study guides, biographies, source books, companions, books on Jane Austen and the theater, Jane Austen and food, and religion, and money, and the Romantic poets. . . . Jane Austen on film, in a social context, as a parson’s daughter, as a sailor’s sister, the historical Jane Austen, the postcolonial Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s style.”
Austen’s consummate marketability extends far beyond books. As Susannah Carson, a doctoral candidate at Yale and editor of the anthology A Truth Universally Acknowledged, remarks, Austen has also inspired “board games, tarot card decks, figurines, Web sites, discussion forums, book club meetings, Empire-waist fashions, and so on.” Along with Beatrix Potter and the House of Windsor, Austen is now one of the most reliable cash cows of the British heritage industry, with travel agencies offering tours of “Jane Austen Country” and television companies ever ready to produce the umpteenth version of this or that favorite Austen tale. Better still, her work delights not only the middlebrow book-group matron but the most highfalutin of literary theorists: Never before, perhaps, has so small an oeuvre (she wrote six novels) launched so many academic careers. By now Austen’s name bears “such a weight of signification as to mean almost nothing at all,” posits Harmon. “To many people, Pride and Prejudice, and even ‘Jane Austen,’ simply evoke the actor Colin Firth in a wet shirt.”
How did this enormous industry grow out of this least showy of authors, a provincial lady so modest about her work (according to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who produced the first full-length Austen biography) that she wrote in secret and would hide away the slips of paper when she heard anyone approaching? Harman begins her book by demolishing that vision of the author as a pure canard. There is ample evidence that “Jane Austen never exhibited self-consciousness or shame about her writing and never needed to. Unlike many women writers of her generation—or stories about them—she had no struggle for permission to write, no lack of access to books, paper, and ink, no frowning paterfamilias to face down or from whom to conceal her scribbling. Her ease and pleasure in writing as an occupation are evident from the very beginning, as is the full encouragement of her family.” Quite a few of her family members were published authors, including two of her brothers. All the siblings wrote, and they read each other’s work with interest. Their proud father actually acted as his daughter’s agent, sending around her early manuscripts to London publishers. Jane Austen considered herself a professional and was eager to earn money from her work.
She achieved considerable renown during her own lifetime and attracted a collection of fans that included Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sir Walter Scott, and the disreputable Prince Regent, who let the author know that he would be pleased to have a novel dedicated to him. (She obliged—she could hardly have done otherwise, much as she disapproved of the man—with Emma.) She also earned a total of more than £700, not a bad sum for a supposedly retiring lady author of that period. But by the 1820s, only a few years after her death, Austen’s books had gone “out of print, out of demand, and almost out of mind.” In 1832 the publisher Richard Bentley purchased her copyrights, and over the next few decades the books appeared in a trickle, a few hundred copies a year. They “were not essential reading for the high Victorians and certainly were not ‘beloved.’ She had become a half-forgotten niche writer.”
What changed? Harman says that Austenmania arrived in two major surges: one in the 1870s, after the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir, the other in the wake of the burst of Austen film adaptations of the mid-1990s, including the phenomenally successful 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries (in which Colin Firth, as Mr. Darcy, appeared in the famous wet shirt) and the wonderful Clueless, a reimagining of Emma in contemporary Beverly Hills. Jane Austen was included in the Dictionary of National Biography in 1885; William Dean Howells lauded “the divine Jane”; the late-
Victorian literary historian and critic George Saintsbury coined the term “Janeites” to describe her fanatic admirers. By 1905 Henry James, jealous as ever of the success of another writer—even a dead one—was grousing about “the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines; who have found their ‘dear,’ our dear, everybody’s dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose, so amenable to pretty reproduction in every variety of what is called tasteful, and in what seemingly proves to be saleable, form.” From a hundred years beyond James, one can only say he didn't know the half of it.
A Truth Universally Acknowledged: Thirty-Three Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen glancingly treats some of the same issues Harmon grapples with. It should be said right up front that the title is a misnomer. A few of the 33 are great writers (E. M. Forster, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, Kingsley Amis, C. S. Lewis, W. Somerset Maugham, A. S. Byatt); the rest whom Carson includes are just writers. Plenty of great authors who have written brilliantly about Austen are left out: W. H Auden, Edith Wharton, George Henry Lewes (the most percipient literary critic of the Victorian age), and Willa Cather, among others, but then perhaps the collection would have poached on the territory of B. C. Southam’s comprehensive two-volume Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage (1968, 1987).
The real treats in Carson’s collection often come from writers you can’t quite imagine as diehard Janeites. There is Martin Amis, for instance, who contributes a charming essay on Pride and Prejudice. “Why does the reader yearn with such helpless fervor for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy?” he wonders. “Why does the reader crow and flinch with almost equal concern over the ups and downs of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley?” Who would have suspected the formidable Amis of such a sentimental streak? Or that he had read this favorite novel five or six times?
Curiously enough, much of the best work in Carson’s book comes from academic critics. Ian Watt’s examination of Sense and Sensibility in the context of late-18th-century philosophy is a model of lit crit at its best; so is Lionel Trilling’s classic essay “Why We Read Jane Austen.” In a dazzling analysis of some of the formal attributes of Austen’s novels, Eva Brann points out that “no symbols, metaphors, mere patterns, or levels of abstraction are to be found in them. Certainly there are revelations, correspondences, significances. But nothing is ever there for mere form’s sake or to suggest or stand for something else—which is why the novels so repel literary criticism.”
C. S. Lewis had the gifts of both the creative artist and the scholar, and Carson has included his profound observations about Mansfield Park; he is the only commentator I have read (even including Kingsley Amis, who came close) who succeeds in making us understand just why Fanny Price makes such an unsatisfactory heroine, in spite of the Janeites’ insistence that she is to be admired.
Something must be put into the heroine to make us feel that the other characters are wrong, that she contains depths they never dreamed of. . . . But into Fanny, Jane Austen, to counterbalance her apparent insignificance, has put really nothing except rectitude of mind; neither passion, nor physical courage, nor wit, nor resource. Her very love is only calf love—a schoolgirl’s hero worship for a man who has been kind to her when they were both children, and who, incidentally, is the least attractive of all Jane Austen’s heroes. Anne [Elliot, in Persuasion] gains immediately by having for her lover almost the best. In real life, no doubt, we continue to respect interesting women despite the preposterous men they sometimes marry. But in fiction it is usually fatal.
To judge by the continued and even accelerated proliferation of Austen-related films, souvenirs, and books (of which both Harman’s and Carson’s volumes are manifestations), the surge of Austenmania that started in the 1990s is far from over. What new heights can Jane’s fame reach, now that she has already conquered the world? Perhaps the current craze for Jane Austen book clubs may draw enthusiasts away from the miniseries and movies and tea towels and get them back, finally, to reading the books. For no filmed version of an Austen novel is really satisfactory: Of all 19th-century novelists, she dwells the least on the physical surfaces that are the essence of the cinematic art.
* * *
Brooke Allen's most recent book is The Other Side of the Mirror: Travels in Ancient and Modern Syria, which is forthcoming. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Reviewed: "Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World" by Claire Harman, Henry Holt, 2010.
"A Truth Universally Acknowledged: Thirty-Three Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen" edited by Susannah Carson, Random House, 2010.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Thalita Carvalho