Why do some authors stay famous, while others fade from history’s roll of honor? When it was published in 1811, Mary Brunton’s racy novel Self-Control was a runaway bestseller. Although its theme was moral fortitude, it was wildly exciting. An ardent suitor, Hargrave, kidnapped the heroine, Laura Montreville. Despite loving her captor, she resisted his improper advances and passionate mood swings. Her daring escape from Quebec involved piloting a birch bark canoe over a waterfall:
With terrible speed the vessel hurried on. It was whirled round by the torrent—tossed fearfully—and hurried on again. It shot over a smoothness more dreadful than the eddying whirl. It rose upon its prow. Laura clung to it in the convulsion of terror. A moment she trembled on the giddy verge. The next, all was darkness!
Readers brave enough to open their eyes on the next page discovered that she had survived, to be rescued by a Scottish ship’s captain, who would prove to be the sensible and reliable catch that every girl hopes to find in a murky pool. Jane Austen, who was about to publish Sense and Sensibility, was seriously worried that her novel—which has a similar theme, if a drier line in plot development—had been scooped.
Her fear was justifiable. For the next 50 years, Austen’s novels failed to outpace Brunton’s in sales. Austen died in 1817, aged 41; Brunton in 1818, aged 40. There is evidence that some contemporary readers couldn’t tell the difference between them (Queen Charlotte’s library catalogue attributes Brunton’s novels to Austen) or, like the actor William Macready, actively preferred Brunton. Nobody in 1840 could have predicted that rather than idolizing Sir Walter Scott, whose level of superstardom in that era was supreme, or catapulting over cataracts with Brunton, readers in 2015 would prefer the tea-table realism of Jane Austen, whose fame would resound triumphantly from Harvard to Hollywood.
Professor H. J. Jackson sets out to analyze the factors that affect literary renown and to consider why some authors become permanent exhibits in the gallery of public memory, while others molder forgotten in backrooms. One possible reason, of course, is that quality triumphs in the end. As Austen herself remarked, Brunton’s Self-Control, while “elegantly-written,” has nothing of “Nature or Probability” in it. Scott’s novels are mostly long and feature tartan-clad historical melodrama of a kind that modern audiences relish less than witty domestic romance. But was this evolution of taste inevitable, and Austen inexorably fated to become a sleeper hit? Jackson suggests not. Indeed, she argues that “what happened to Brunton—the gradual fading and extinction of her name—could easily have happened to Austen.”
One thing that made all the difference, Jackson posits, was family. Brunton had none. Austen had a nephew, James Austen-Leigh, who in 1870 published a memoir of his aunt that was a key text in reviving interest in Austen’s life and work. Austen-Leigh conflated Austen with the heroines of her novels, extolling her love of dancing, her lack of pretension, and the bank of green turf at the back of her childhood home down which, like Catherine Morland, she must have rolled. He tactfully omitted details such as the aunt who was a shoplifter and the brother who went bankrupt. His nostalgic myth of Jane Austen was one of minimally educated “natural genius” and rural seclusion. He (falsely) presented her as an author who had no popular following: By claiming that she was an acquired taste, he encouraged hundreds of discerning readers to acquire it.
Jackson notes that it is often authors who have only a coterie readership at first who become the darlings of posterity. (Think of Emily Dickinson and James Joyce.) It is especially useful to an author’s posthumous success if there is more to discover: letters, unpublished work, fragments, romantic scandal. If you are an author who wants to be remembered, I advise you right now to develop a secret cache of writing. And to leave behind, if possible, some helpful relations who can drip-feed the oil of biographical speculation onto the pyre of your reputation, to keep the flame alight.
You should also think carefully about your name and where you live. If your surname is Sim and you reside in Dullsville, you may have a problem. For, Jackson astutely observes, authors whose names can be made into pleasing nouns or adjectives are advantaged in the fame stakes. Devotees of the cult of Jane Austen early became known as Janeites. Poems can be Blakean, Keatsian, Coleridgean, or Wordsworthian. Whereas a Simian poem would just be bananas.