Books In the wake of numerous costume dramas and a new wave of schlock-horror literary remixes, Claire Harman's engaging examination of Austen and the industry that surrounds her work couldn't have come at a better time.
In the wake of numerous costume dramas and a new wave of schlock-horror literary remixes, Claire Harman's engaging examination of Austen and the industry that surrounds her work couldn't have come at a better time, writes Peter Terzian.
Jane's Fame: How Austen Conquered the World Claire Harman Canongate Dh108 Our obsession with Jane Austen has turned a dark corner. February brought news of a new book titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which splices Austen's original text with scenes where, according to the publisher's website, Elizabeth Bennet "wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead". Weeks later, word came that a film called Pride and Predator, in which a space alien claws up Regency England, was in preproduction, to be scored by Elton John. The forthcoming Jane Bites Back is the first book of a proposed series that imagines the early 19th-century novelist as a vampire, now 200 years old and ticked off at the profitable Austen industry.
Are these monster mash-ups the attempt of our boorish era to retroactively desecrate a more civilised time? Or an acknowledgement that it takes the kind of spirit and tact that only an Austen heroine can possess to ward off the bogeymen of our nightmares? Either way, it's clear that Jane Austen, the author of six quietly witty novels about mating and mores, is now as much a pop culture icon as Spider-Man. (Indeed, Marvel recently began a five-part comic-book edition of Austen's most beloved novel, in which the Bennet sisters are depicted as lush-lipped hotties.)
One shopworn criticism of Austen is that her novels don't engage with the world outside provincial England. The Napoleonic Wars, slavery and poverty aren't allowed to intrude upon the "3 of 4 families in a Country Village" she described as the setting of her novels. But it's exactly that sense of timelessness tha gives Austen's novels such widespread and enduring appeal, suggests Claire Harman in Jane's Fame, a blithe, entertaining history of Austen's writing career, publication history, critical fortunes and cultural juggernaut. Austen intentionally stripped her books of historical details that might date them. She spent 20 years of her writing life unpublished, and "had time, almost her whole adult life, to develop her characters, live with them, fantasise about them". From childhood, Austen read widely and for pleasure. "She knew what she liked in a novel, she laboured to make her own novels as attractive as possible - and it worked."
According to Harman, who has written biographies of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Robert Louis Stevenson, there have been two periods of "Austen mania". The first was in the 1870s, a half-century after Austen's death, when her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, published a mythmaking memoir of his aunt. The second? You're soaking in it. Austen published her novels anonymously; her identity, while known to a small circle of family and friends, was only revealed to the public after her death in 1817. Her books, favourably received and modestly successful in her lifetime, promptly went out of print and out of fashion, though they had ardent fans, including Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott and Tennyson - who, upon visiting the town of Lyme Regis, insisted that his host show him where Louisa Musgrove fell off the sea wall in Persuasion. (Austen had famous detractors as well, including Mark Twain, who weirdly wanted to "dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone", and Charlotte Brontë, who thought her less than robust: "no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill?") For 50 years after her death, though, Austen the person remained something of an unknown.
Austen-Leigh's memoir filled in the lacunae of his aunt's biography with handed down family tales, his own sketchy memories and those of his sisters. The spinster aunt he described was sweet and loving, helpful around the house and handy with a needle. Her life was eventless, untroubled by romantic entanglements. Writing was something she did in her spare time, in the sitting room, hustling away the little slips of paper she wrote upon when someone walked in. Austen-Leigh's aunt didn't write for posterity or for money. She had a "humble mind", he wrote, and composed novels "for her own amusement". Really, you'd have liked her.
The Victorians ate this up, and Austen-Leigh's book was a bestseller. But his hash of truth and fiction was very different from the life that Jane actually led. Austen was born in 1775, to a middle-class Hampshire clergyman's family. The Austens were a writing clan. Jane's older brother James wrote poems, organised family theatricals, and briefly edited a literary magazine; as a child, Jane wrote funny skits and stories. By the age of 25, she had written the early versions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. After her family moved from rural Steventon to Bath, where her beloved and supportive father died, she seemingly wrote nothing for a decade - it wasn't until 1811, and the sale of Sense and Sensibility, that she began her fourth novel, Mansfield Park. But Harman believes that Austen spent these "lost" years doggedly revising her first three novels, and possibly attempting to get them published. Harman's Austen was quietly ambitious.
Contra her nephew, Austen was very conscious of what her intimates thought about her books. She canvassed her circle, compiling a record of "Opinions" of her later novels, both positive and negative ("not equal to P and P" was something she must have tired of hearing). To her young niece Anna she wrote: "Make everybody at Hendon admire Mansfield Park." And she was, as a single woman who relied upon her brothers for income, eager to make money. "Though I like praise as well as anybody," she wrote, "I like... pewter too." When her brother Henry confessed that he had blurted out the secret of her identity when he heard a fellow guest at a dinner party praise Pride and Prejudice, Jane's reaction, in a letter to her brother Frank, was "hard-nosed", writes Harman. "The Secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now? whenever the 3rd [novel] appears? I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it." Writing made her comfortable but not rich. Her total lifetime profits upon her death amounted to a little less than £700.
From the time of her death to the publication of her nephew's memoir, Austen's novels were fondly remembered by a handful of readers but not in any sense "beloved". Austen-Leigh wrote of a family friend who "had established it in his own mind, as a new test of ability, whether people could or could not appreciate Miss Austen's merits". (This test still holds true. A friend once told me that she thought Austen's novels were "all the same", and things haven't been the same between us since.) But in 1890, William Dean Howells remarked upon the emergence of "a constantly, almost rapidly, increasing cult? she is a passion and a creed, if not quite a religion". Austen's novels appealed to cultural conservatives - in the era of the New Woman and the suffragette, here was an example of a high achiever who was, according to Austen-Leigh, happy with her lot. But she also found devotees among the left-wing avant-garde. The anarchist Felix Fénéon discovered a copy of Northanger Abbey while imprisoned for a bombing plot and found a fellow traveller who stringently criticised the bourgeoisie. Her novels were a balm to soldiers in the trenches of the First World War, a reminder of homeland and peacetime. Rudyard Kipling wrote a story - titled The Janeites, as her fans came to be called - in which a private learns that knowledge of Austen's books admits him to an informal brotherhood of soldiers. Still, some couldn't help wondering if Austen's acolytes, under the sway of Austen-Leigh's hagiography, weren't focusing on the wrong things. Sir Hugh Smiley, an active member of the Jane Austen Society for 30 years and the owner, with his wife, of a stately home filled with Regency furniture, claimed that he had never read one of Austen's novels and didn't intend to. The idea of Austen's genteel world, with its silver spoons properly set, shone brighter for many than the texts themselves. How, asked the novelist Margaret Oliphant, could such cynical books - "calm and cold and keen" - be so massively popular?
Henry James praised Austen's "little touches of human truth, little glimpses of steady vision, little masterstrokes of imagination" ("Little, little, LITTLE," counters Harman). The Janeite Robert Champman, a First World War veteran and Oxford don, produced the first critical text of Austen's novels and juvenilia, but he girded them with information about period carriages and costumes, shifting the focus away from Austen's writings and onto the trappings of her time. WH Auden saw Austen as a proto-Marxist who revealed "the economic basis of society". Freudian, feminist and postcolonial readings flowered in the second half of the last century; a cheeky headline that the London Review of Books attached to a review of Austen's letters that investigated her close attachment to her sister ("Was Jane Austen Gay?") had British tabloids in a state of high dudgeon.
Of course, it took a bit of sexing up to take Austen to the next level. When Colin Firth, a smart, smouldering Darcy, jumped fully clothed into a pond and emerged wearing a dripping, skin-tight white shirt in a 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, Jane went from being the province of the academy to a Hollywood commodity. A steady stream of movies and television productions, many of which make visual the erotic charge of Austen's restrained novels, has followed, as have "updatings" that transplant Austen's plots to the present (Clueless, Bridget Jones's Diary) and into other cultures (A Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility called Kandukondain Kandukondain, the Bollywood-style musical Bride and Prejudice).
If few of the film and TV versions are exceptional as adaptations or as filmmaking, most are entertaining. How could they not be, with Austen's sure-to-please storylines and sparkling dialogue? The sets and costumes are appealing; the actors and actresses are attractive. But the characters are sometimes tweaked to give them more screen presence: Hugh Grant's Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility is dithery rather than taciturn; the mousy and moral Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is turned feisty. And most of the adaptations feel more like each other - like big-budget pop - than Austen's books. Search YouTube and you'll find scores of homemade videos in which fans have edited together love scenes from different movies and set them to pop songs; it works because the films look more or less the same. Since for many viewers the cinematic versions are a substitute for (rather than a pathway to) the books, the line between original and derivative has become thin. Harman cites one academic who has written about Darcy's pond dive as a "rebirth", as though it were part of the text itself.
I confess. I saw most of the adaptations before I cracked open the books. When I did get around to reading them, in a great rush, from Sense and Sensibility to the unfinished Sanditon, I was startled at how fresh they were and how radical they must have seemed in their day. The kids struggle to find true love; the parents, mostly foolish, get in the way. Intelligence and courage save the day. Every book ends in a wedding (or two), for which the courtship has been a proving ground.
In the end, Austen wins. The timeless appeal of her novels shines past the bonnets and ball gowns of the film versions, the Jane Austen dating manuals, the spin-offs and sequels. Vanquishing a drooling extraterrestrial shouldn't be a problem. Peter Terzian is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives.