While Harman spends the first two chapters of her book on a biography of Jane Austen, seventy-five percent of the book is devoted to analyzing her cultural influence and why people have such strong opinions about the author almost two hundred years after her death. Harman explains the paradox of an academically revered author whose work has served as the inspiration for quote-unquote chick lit and movies based loosely on her life.
As much as I love the works of Jane Austen, this is the first biography of the author I have ever picked up. In that regard, the book was a highly informative read. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of how much control Austen kept on her manuscripts, how meticulous she was about timetables and other seemingly minor details. And I appreciated how masterfully Harman managed to shatter the myth of Austen as a shy spinster who hid her writings from her family, which her family perpetrated by burning all of Austen’s letters following her death.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the connection Harman makes between Austen’s diligent editing and her difficulty in getting her manuscripts published. Many of Austen’s original titles were dropped because other novels with the same title were published before hers. Those titles have faded into obscurity along with the works of the acclaimed authors of Austen’s time. But the time Austen spent struggling to find a manuscript meant, according to Harman, that Austen had to be careful to make her novels appear timely when they finally ended up in the hands of the reader. Thus, her novels never tackle issues of the time in which they were written — namely, war — and continue to appear timely to today’s reader.
I picked up this audiobook because of its subtitle, “How Jane Austen Conquered the World”, and I am afraid I found Harman’s novel lacking in that regard. Much of her information is anecdotal in nature, and her argument as to how Austen came to conquer the literary world never found its footing.
In one chapter, Harman states that Austen became famous because her books were considered appropriate for an older, male professor to discuss with the young, female students filling the ranks of college students but consigned to the English department due to their sex. In the next chapter, Harman explains that Austen’s novels are popular because she represented a quaint version of England for the men fighting overseas during World War I. These reasons are not mutually exclusive; I merely offer them up as examples of how many different directions Harman goes in her book.
To be honest, I resent the judgment she holds for Austen fans of all stripes, which might have colored my reading. That said, I appreciated the amount of information I learned about Austen herself and the growth in the Austen artifact industry. Do fans of her novels really need to be able to see a lock of her hair dyed to its presumed original coloring?
- Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Read by Wanda McCaddon. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Media, 2010. Audiobook. 9 hours, 2 minutes. ISBN: 9781400116935.