By CLAIRE HARMAN
Reviewed by SOPHIE GEE
An account of Jane Austen as a canny agent of her own image.
Pride and Popularity
Jane Austen’s best-known phrase describing her own writing appears in a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, an aspiring novelist and student at Winchester College. When she heard he’d lost some draft chapters, she jokingly announced that she couldn’t be accused of purloining his pages: “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” The “little bit of Ivory,” frequently quoted to describe Austen’s virtuosic miniaturism, started out as a self-deprecating remark to a much younger, less talented relative who would later become her biographer.
In her account of Austen’s rise to international celebrity, Claire Harman (the author of biographies of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson) wonders whether Austen’s comment reflected anxiety about the “sustainability of her gift and the degree of ‘labour’ it required,” or whether it was simply a way of reminding James Edward that she was a master of her craft and he a mere novice. Harman’s reading of this, and of all Austen’s literary utterances, is that it reveals a writer consciously controlling her creative persona. The Austen of Harman’s book is unlucky at times, fortunate at others, but always aware of herself as a professional, despite her provincial, domestic environs.
The scope of Austen’s posthumous success exceeds by several orders of magnitude the ambitions virtually any writer could ever entertain. The two-inch bit of ivory on which Austen once worked has grown over the centuries to resemble a mammoth tusk. The writing has been so thoroughly plundered and harvested that it — and she — would seem to be at risk of extinction. Yet Austen, like the zombies who have attacked “Pride and Prejudice,” never dies.
“Jane’s Fame” charts the rise and rise of the Austen cult and reminds us how weird that cult can be. The task of the “Janeites” (as George Saintsbury called her fans in 1894) is to amass encyclopedic knowledge not just about Austen’s life and work, but also about her scholarly and critical reception. Janeites labor tirelessly to know everything about her.
Harman’s book doesn’t contain much about Austen that hasn’t been covered elsewhere, but it presents the story of Austen’s self-fashioning and later popularity in a convincing, enjoyable way. Harman describes Austen’s reputation from her own lifetime to the current era of Jane Austen Inc., synthesizing a good deal of scholarship into a series of tidy chapters offering an accessible guide to the evolution of her subject’s renown.
The strongest arguments come early on, when Harman presents Austen as anything but an amateur. An extremely canny writer, the most talented member of a surprisingly literary family, Austen read her contemporaries and predecessors rigorously, thinking deeply about her own style, about her aspirations for her writing. Amazingly, Austen came up with technical breakthroughs that would take the novel well into the modern era.
“Jane’s Fame” isn’t aimed at specialists, but its repackaging of existing academic research attracted controversy in Britain when the Oxford scholar Kathryn Sutherland told The Observer that Harman had used her work without attribution, remarking that it felt “a bit like identity theft.” Harman registered a defense through the Press Complaints Commission, which advised the newspaper to publish her reply. Their exchange, a reminder of how overwrought Austen skirmishes can be, recalls once again her prophetic quip: much labor, little effect.