Claire Harman's Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (just out in paperback) is a well-researched and very accessible examination of how Jane Austen evolved from a solitary Regency author to a hot Hollywood commodity. This is a particularly interesting and difficult project because Jane's own family didn't think she'd be remembered and thus didn't do a very good job preserving her memory, memorabilia, and writings.
In fact, the first biography of Jane, written by her nephew, didn't appear until decades after her death. Her relatives were astonished by the public's reaction. Readers wanted more: The Jane Austen fan club had come out of the closet.
Harman's biography of the Austen phenomenon begins with Jane's publication history and personal life. Jane was a lifelong writer and a constant reader, which informed her use of language, her story lines, and her characterizations. In the middle to late 1800s, when self-proclaimed Janites were rescuing Austen from obscurity, some critics--Emerson and Twain among them--thought her novels too narrow or too contrived.
But by the 1920s and 1930s, the naysayers were in the minority, and Jane's work was being canonized. The novels and the author were also subject to every kind of analysis: Freudians, feminists, anthropologist, social historians, and others dissected the major works to gain insight into Austen and her readers. As well, the Regency period was very much in style during this time, adding to Jane's popularity.
The last section of Jane's Fame explores the great variety of literature that has been inspired by Austen's novels, from Bridget Jones to Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. Most of the recent interest in Jane can be traced to the 1990s BBC miniseries of Pride & Prejudice staring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. The last two decades have seen an explosion in films and TV adaptations, Austen-like novels, critical works, and biographies. And the reading public (me included) have not yet tired of Jane Austen and her unforgettable characters.
Don't let the number of footnotes deter you, Harman's writing style is easy to read and entertaining. You'll be drawn right into the story of how Jane became one of the most beloved authors of all time. This analysis of the last two centuries of the world of Jane Austen is highly recommended.
Come back tomorrow for a chance to win the two Austen-inspired books I reviewed this week. One reader will win a copy of Jane's Fame and a copy of The Three Weismanns of Westport.
Published by Macmillian / Picador, 2011 (paperback)
Source: Review (see review policy)
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