Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame (2009)

Nowadays, publishing a book with the word “Jane Austen” in the title is sure to attract some attention. To raise some expectations, if not to say prejudices. Receiving an offer for a review copy of such a book does speak something of me as well, of the image I am projecting through this blog. I did wonder. I still do.

Why would someone from a publishing company assume that I will read and review positively a book about Jane Austen? Because I’m a woman? Check. Read any classics? Check. Doesn’t read much “literary fiction”, with a lot of quotation marks (I do mean avant-garde prose)? Check. Perhaps I’m talking clichés here, but my guess was you get bonus points if you’re a librarian with a cat and a bun, if you read romances, perhaps some chick-lit and rom-coms. Okay, that’s just me being cynical.

I was curious to read Harman’s book, but I was equally suspicious, because I’m difficult to please and Jane Austen has become a brand for a lot of things. I remember how disappointed I was when visiting Bath, to see her name merchandised to the point of indigestion (just as in Stratford-upon-Avon, where everything has to be Shakespeare-this or William-that). Perhaps you remember how annoyed I was by the Jane Austen Book Club.

But to my pleasure, Jane’s Fame turned out to be exactly what I needed: a clever analysis of that curious phenomenon that turned a provincial female writer of 19C, a clergyman’s daughter that never married, ambitious by all means but not that successful commercially during her life, into a huge myth. Because there are very little facts about her and so much… well I was going to say garbage, but perhaps I should say propaganda.

Harman shows how Jane has become the vehicle for a lot of cultural fantasies, especially about writing women, so that it’s both very instructive and entertaining to set down the bare facts again. Like many people, I had this image that she wrote in a corner of the family drawing room, on papers that she hid from general view. I did wonder and admire that, but Harman debunks the popular myth and state that not only was Jane very ambitious, but also very hard-working in a family of writers: she didn’t have to hide her writing at all, on the contrary. It was important for her to make money out of her skills, so she was also sensitive to the commercial appeal of her plots.

The book is very well documented and nevertheless fun and witty, even when we get to the chapters on opinions and controversies about Jane Austen after her death. I didn’t know, for instance, that for most of the 19C she was not considered a good writer at all, and that her popularity went up again during WW2 when she was deemed a suitably virtuous national figure to boost English morale. I would compare Harman to Claire Tomalin’s analytical biographies, and I will certainly look forward to her other books.

Eventually, just like some novel I will not name, I find myself setting my prejudices aside, to be grateful for the clever marketing person who targeted me so rightfully for this book.

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