4 May, 2009Issue 9.2LiteratureWriters

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An Afterlife of Event

Jennifer Graham

jane's fameClaire Harman
Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World
Canongate, 2009
384 pages
£20.00
ISBN 978-1847672940

It is a shame that the masterful Jane Austen saw her name in print only once. The as-yet unpublished Austen was nineteen when she was listed as “Miss J. Austen, Steventon” on the subscribers’ list printed in the first volume of Frances Burney’s popular novel Camilla (1796). When her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was finally published fifteen years later, it was done so anonymously with the words “By A Lady”. When she died in 1817, Jane’s brother Henry wrote that the composition of a short biographical notice was an “easy task”, for his sister’s life was “not by any means a life of event”.

In the years following her death, copies of Austen’s novels were so hard to come by that other writers felt free to engage in plagiaristic appropriation of her work. By the late 1820s, Jane Austen was nearly unknown.

Such facts seem absurd to today’s readers who live in a world where Jane Austen is one of the most recognised and admired names in both literary history and popular taste. So vast is her reach and influence that we often cannot help but participate in “Austen-mania”. Her six major novels—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1817) and Persuasion (1817)—continue to be published and widely read. Many more get their Austen fix through film or television productions based (however loosely) on her novels, including Clueless (1995), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice (2004) and even the upcoming Pride and Predator, in which Austen’s characters must contend with the murderous extraterrestrial of Hollywood fame.

How did Jane Austen transform from “A Lady” into “the only writer who is instantly recognisable by her first name”? This is the question Claire Harman tackles in her new book, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Harman’s choice of title is telling: ultimately, her book is a biography of Jane Austen’s Nachleben rather than of Austen’s life itself.

The Jane Austen of Harman’s subtitle is not so much a person as a literary force, a cultural influence capable of “conquering” the world. Like Coca-Cola or Britney Spears, Harman claims, Austen has become “an infinitely exploitable global brand”, a “conceptual product” meant for consumption. Accordingly, the book reads more like a cultural study than an exploration of the author’s life. Harman paints a clearer picture of Austen’s consumers than of the famous author herself, exploring how and why Jane has been criticised and praised, idolised and mythologised.

The last words Austen ever wrote were a handful of verses dictated to her sister, two lines of which read, “When once we are buried you think we are gone / But behold me immortal!” Harman deems these lines prophetic. As the book demonstrates, Austen has succeeded in becoming “immortal”: she is “Divine Jane”, referenced in religiously reverent terms. Harman distinguishes this type of immortality from other writers whose works live on after their deaths, explaining that Austen is immortal not simply because her novels continue to exist and be published, but because readers worship the idea of Jane Austen.

Jane’s Fame explores what “Jane Austen” has come to mean over the past 200 years. Slowly emerging from obscurity, Austen gained “snob value” by the end of the 19th century; an appreciation for her novels implied intellectual prowess and good taste. Though Madame de Sta√´l called Pride and Prejudice “vulgaire” in 1813, by 1894 George Saintsbury declared that “a fondness” for Austen was “itself a patent of exemption from any possible charge of vulgarity”.

Others began to share Saintsbury’s opinion, and, Harman argues, Austen slowly came to represent “Englishness” itself. During World War I, her novels were brought into the trenches by soldiers and prescribed as an “aid to convalescence” when they returned home. When Winston Churchill fell ill in 1943 during strategic military planning, he read Pride and Prejudice to help himself recover. Readers turned to Austen because she represented an idyllic period in English history, when “manners and cultured explanations” governed and life could be peacefully captured, as Austen puts it, in “three or four families in a country village”.

For Harman, Austen’s legacy stems from our ability to interpret her work according to cultural needs and desires; as she argues, Austen “has truly become all things to all men”. Both traditionalists and feminists can locate their preferred interpretations in her novels: Elizabeth Bennet is the portrait of refinement, as well as a fiery proto-feminist.

Yet if Harman’s book teaches us anything, it’s that the pleasure found in all things Austen reaches far beyond her prose itself. Echoing Roland Barthes’s discussion of the symbolic value of red wine in the construction of French nationality, Harman claims that Austen’s modern accessibility is driven by mythology: “Bridget Jones’s Diary” need not have much in common with Pride and Prejudice to benefit from the weight of Barthesean signification carried by “Jane Austen”, or even “Mr. Darcy”. Harman urges us to understand Austen’s fame as its own evolving entity, accumulating meaning as time passes and reinterpretations proliferate. Today, the “Jane Austen” brand simultaneously represents nostalgia, gentility, social satire, romance and even sexuality (picture Colin Firth as Darcy, emerging from the lake at Pemberley in his wet shirt in the 1995 miniseries).

Work on Austen’s status as a cultural symbol might be viewed as less academic than criticism of the texts themselves, but Harman’s implicit—and compelling—claim is that we lose much through such a division. Austen’s prose is now only a small part of the phenomenon that is “Divine Jane”. The world has been so “conquered” by her fame that few readers can approach her work without prejudice. For Harman, this is precisely the point: the contrast between Austen’s initial obscurity and her current immortality reveals the merit of studying her commodification.

Yet, perhaps our individual prejudices have bestowed a new kind of anonymity on Jane. Though no longer “A Lady”, the real Jane Austen would most likely find it difficult to recognise the lady she has become. Now the beloved, personal “Jane”, Austen has become a reflection of her consumers rather than the woman—and writer—herself.

Jennifer Graham is is a visiting student at Worcester College, Oxford, studying the English novel.