Book review: 'Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World,' by Claire Harman

Jane Austen
Engraving of Jane Austen based on a portrait by her sister Cassandra. (AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, April 18, 2010

JANE'S FAME

How Jane Austen

Conquered the World

By Claire Harman

Henry Holt. 277 pp. $26

Benjamin Disraeli said he read "Pride and Prejudice" 17 times. William Dean Howells was the first to call its author "the divine Jane." An imprisoned French anarchist named Félix Fénéon translated "Northanger Abbey" into French and defended himself with Austenesque wit at his trial: When accused by the judge of surrounding himself with anarchists X and Y, Fénéon replied, "You can't surround yourself with two people. You need at least three." (He beat the charge.) B.B. King is a fan: "Jane Austen! I love Jane Austen!"

These and other partisans of Jane Austen (1775-1817) -- whose enormous reputation rests on a mere six novels, all centering on such momentous questions as who will marry whom, and will common sense defeat stupidity and self-indulgence? -- flit through the pages of Claire Harman's engaging history of the Austen phenomenon. Oh, Harman introduces some detractors, too; among them is Charlotte Brontë -- and no wonder, so different are her and her sisters' passion-swept sagas from Austen's low-key comedies. But another towering figure of romanticism, Sir Walter Scott, admired Austen for the very restraint of which Brontë disapproved. As he wrote in his journal:

"The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!"

Harman corrects misguided notions of Austen's life and career. She was no Emily Dickinson, hoarding her writings as if to share them would cause spoilage. Austen abided by the convention of the day that books by women might as well be published anonymously, but in truth, Harman says, she craved both money and fame. Her many years of writing for just herself and her family enabled her to figure out what was important to her and to play down what was not. Harman quotes Howells approvingly: "The wonder of Jane Austen is that at a time when even the best fiction was overloaded with incident . . . she imagined getting on with only so much incident as would suffice to let her characters express their natures movingly or amusingly." Harman adds, "Almost single-handedly, Austen moved the novel into the modern era -- and did much of it before she got a single word in print."

That getting into print came in a six-year burst, which brought the author a bit of recognition (word of her identity leaked out) and modest financial returns. After her untimely death (perhaps from cancer), her work had enough of a following to inspire what was called the "silver fork" genre, in which novelists such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton fed nostalgia for the Regency period by describing at length the clothes and utensils associated with its "quality." Ironically, some surviving Austens, who had struck it rich and risen in the world, sniffed at the middle-class milieu portrayed in Jane's books and made no effort to champion the genius in their midst.

Harman attributes the refurbishment of Austen's reputation not to a popular groundswell but to the labors of critics who kept insisting how good she was. Eventually, the public came around. By the end of the 19th century, Austen was not only established in the canon but embraced by readers who considered her as more than just another author. "The truth is," wrote Katherine Mansfield, "that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone -- reading between the lines -- has become the secret friend of their author." Then came the movies, the Web sites, the zombie-and-vampire versions and other indicia of what Leslie Stephen summed up (well over a century ago) as "Austenolatry."

Harman might have said more about that complicity between Austen and her readers. It has to do, I think, with a combination of two strains in her work: an ability to show us characters wrestling with dilemmas we might easily encounter in our own lives and a willingness to let us know which choice the author thinks is the right one. All of us constantly judge our fellow humans, and Austen has an unrivaled knack for lending importance to this commonplace activity.

Harman might also have done more to unpack Austen's limpid style. (My own favorite line of hers comes early in "Sense and Sensibility," when she writes of a minor character enjoying "that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself.") Another point that deserves consideration is that a 14-year-old can read Dickens and Twain and maybe even Dostoyevsky with enjoyment, but Austen is one of those authors who can -- and probably should -- be postponed until the reader is mature enough to make do with lesser amounts of what Howells called "incident."

All of which is to say that "Jane's Fame" is a good book that, like Austen's oeuvre itself, leaves the reader wishing for more.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company