How Jane Austen
Conquered the World
by Claire Harman
Holt, 304 pp., $26
When Jane Austen died in July 1817, aged 41, she had achieved moderate fame as a writer. In the previous six years, four of her novels had been published. She had been the subject of a long and highly favorable review in one of the country’s most respected journals, the Quarterly Review, and the Prince Regent was said to be “a great admirer” of her works, keeping sets of her novels at each of his residences.
Yet just a few years later, she was forgotten. Almost nothing was published by or about her during the 1820s, although a few admirers, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge, quietly enjoyed her books. In the 1830s, Jane’s brother and sister, satisfied that their sister’s fame was now irretrievably a thing of the past, were only too happy to sell five of the six copyrights in their possession to the publisher Richard Bentley. Bentley kept a small stock of Austen novels in circulation, and by the early 1840s, he had created a market for her books. It was a small one, though, and when the copyright of each expired (Sense and Sensibility in 1839, Pride and Prejudice in 1841, Mansfield Park in 1842, Emma and Northanger Abbey in 1857, and Persuasion in 1860), the publishing world didn’t seem to notice.
Jane’s reputation rose slowly throughout the 1850s and ’60s. Tennyson and G. H. Lewes were fervent admirers in England—both early “Janeites,” a term coined much later—as was William Dean Howells over here. Mostly, though, Austen’s books occupied a niche market. Her caucus of followers grew increasingly evangelistic, but it took a long time to kill off the idea that her novels were little more than formulaic period romances. In the 1860s, it was still possible for an Englishman to know nothing about her. James Edward Austen-Leigh, the author’s nephew and first genuine biographer, remembered a verger at Winchester Cathedral expressing bewilderment that so many people wanted to see “Jane Austen’s tomb.”
“Pray, Sir,” the verger asked, “can you tell me whether there was anything particular about that lady?”
The turning point, as Claire Harman explains in this excellent new book, came in 1870 with the publication of the Memoir of Jane Austen, a work reluctantly undertaken by Austen-Leigh after friends and relatives convinced him that his aunt’s life deserved greater attention. The Memoir was a surprising success. Soon there were demands for more editions of the novels, for more information about Austen herself, and even for unfinished fiction
By the 1890s, editions of Jane Austen’s novels had become widely available. At the turn of the century, according to one anonymous reviewer, “every man of intellectual pretensions either likes to read her books or thinks it necessary to apologize if he does not”—a state of affairs that’s held true ever since. In 2010, it’s possible to think the Brontës preposterous and cloying, to think Thackeray cold and pretentious, and to dislike Dickens’s long-winded moralizing. It’s simply not possible for a literate person to think poorly of Jane Austen.
Harman’s book is an attempt to answer the question, How did it happen? How did Austen go from being the author of a few half-remembered Regency-era romances to one of the most hallowed names in English literature? Austen, after all, wasn’t one of those writers who, like Blake or Kafka, were misunderstood or ignored by their own age but later given posthumous esteem. Austen hasn’t just achieved her due; she has become a permanent international celebrity, a universally recognizable brand, an obsession among Anglophiles all over the globe. She is the subject of scores of biographies, her works analyzed in thousands of literary-critical articles and monographs, and her novels have inspired more box office successes than any other 19th-century writer. All this from an author whose oeuvre extends to six novels, each of which concerns the affairs of (to quote Austen herself) “three or four families in a country village.”
The chief delight of Jane’s Fame is that time and again we’re reminded of why Austen’s (let’s admit it) utterly predictable plots are nevertheless so deeply satisfying. There is her marvelous way of combining tender-hearted warmth with a clear-eyed understanding of human motivations. There is the seemingly unconscious ease with which she constructs complex narratives: Her novels don’t strike you as having been composed so much as told or remembered. “Of all great writers,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “[Austen] is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”
The most important reason for Austen’s near-universal appeal, however, is also the most obvious: Austen’s novels are love stories. It’s certainly true that her plots have all the elements of modern romance novels, but they also contain (as Harman writes) “matter for a lifetime’s rumination on relations between the sexes.” Austen dealt with a limited sphere of themes, as everybody knows: The Napoleonic Wars are hardly anywhere in her novels, and attempts to find social or political messages in them—I’m thinking of Patricia Rozema’s film version of Mansfield Park (1999)—must strain to do so. But Austen dealt exquisitely and unforgettably with the fears, desires, and false expectations attendant upon the passage from early adulthood to marriage—a theme, if you can call it that, touching just about every question worth thinking about.
And she did it all without saying a word, explicitly, about sex—an absence that, as Harman is right to say, “leaves her books charged with sexual feeling.” That goes a long way toward explaining the improbable rise of Austenmania at the end of the last century. It turns out there are more insights into the nature of love and eros in Pride and Prejudice than are dreamt of in Freud’s philosophy.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.