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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered The World by Claire Harman

Author Claire Harman

Book Review
Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered The World
by Claire Harman
originally published in Edinburgh by Canongate Books Ltd. 2009
American publication by Henry Holt and Company 2010

   Almost every facet of this book is worth singling out for praise:  The original publisher, the Author, the concept itself, and the execution of the concept.  It's all very inspiring for me, personally, on every level. Jane's Fame could have been called "The Rise of Jane Austen."  Harman tells the story of Austen's posthumous rise to world-wide, multi-century popularity in a crisp narrative style that maintains the best practices from both academic and general audience non-fiction.

   Since Jane Austen didn't really "rise" until the mid 19th century, Harman fills out the first few chapters with details related to the career and publishing of Jane Austen's works while she was alive.  The level of detail attended to is minute, for example, the index entry for "Mansfield Park, economies in production of, 46-47." discusses how it was published on commission (vs. the publisher buying the copyright out right.) and the thinness of the page and smallness of the type, a function of the economic impact of the Napoleonic Wars.

  The critical moment in Jane's Fame is the publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1869.  Prior to that date, Jane Austen was the 19th century equivalent of a "Cult Artist"- she had her fans- including important fans, like the very Authors who were more highly regarded by the general public then herself, but she didn't have a wide Audience.   Other Artists had "made it" to that point by 1869.  The mass Audience for a novel or a novelist was in existence, when Memoir was published.

  Austen was a prime beneficiary of the rise in the Academic humanities programs of the American and British University system in the 20th century, and her "Canonization" within that system has certainly created a positive feedback loop between Jane Austen and the general reading Audience- I'm talking about everyone who reads a book in this general reading Audience.

  The clearest evidence of that feedback loop in operation of the "Austen Revival" of the 1990s, which mainly manifested itself in movies and television.    According to a Google Ngram of Jane Austen vs. Charles Dickens, mentions of Jane Austen sky rocketed relative to Dickens in the 1960s, before tapering off afterward. Those who would have been students in high school's and universities during this period were making the movies and television shows in the 90s.
  The specific details of that 1990's film revival filling up multiple chapters towards the end of the book is forgivable, considering Amazon reviewers actually give Jane's Fame negative reviews for not including a discussion of Kiera Knightleys portrayal of Elizabeth Bennett.  Idiots are passionate about Jane Austen, it's just a fact. Jane Austen has a huge Audience, and this book describes how, exactly, she gained this huge Audience.  Worth reading for that reason alone.

 A note about this book- the same Author wrote a biography of Frances Burney called Fanny Burney back in 2001.  Meanwhile, I purchase Margaret Anne Doody's Frances Burney: A Life in the Works, and Amazon never connects the two books together.  Surely someone interested in one Frances Burney biography would be interested in another?

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