Saturday, October 09, 2010

Book Review -- Jane's Fame by Claire Harman

Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman

This isn't a biography, at least not in the traditional sense -- it's the history of her fame, really. It's about how her audience(s) has thought about, reacted to, derived from, understood and misunderstood both her and her writing.

That's quite an unusual subject for a book.

What made me give it four stars? I wish I could write an intelligent, well thought out explanation for that, discussing the various strengths and weaknesses of the books, the accuracy of the research, the validity of the arguments and conclusions, but I admit I cannot. I have no idea how accurate the research is, although it is copious and well documented (at least, the last 50 or so pages of the book are endnotes, bibliography, acknowledgments, and index). I'm not sure what the stated argument was -- that Jane Austen is now known far beyond what she would or could have ever expected when she was alive? That she would be confused and amused, shocked and delighted by the forms her fame has taken? That she is rarely -- if ever -- portrayed as she was, but more often as various people wanted her to be? That the reactions to her life and her writings are a unique phenomenon? That her place in the Western Literary Canon is deserved because the surface simplicity (that, apparently, disgusts, disarms, misleads, and outright blinds many readers and critics) is a shell over depth and breadth? That she really was a writer of small things? That it is impossible for a reading audience to ever really know an author, and all readers create for themselves a Jane Austen of their own?

Those are just a few of the questions pinning down the pages of this book. Answers are less prevalent although, from the tenor of the questions, it isn't hard to imagine what Harman's opinion is.

This is, of course, a book intended for those already positively disposed, in some degree, toward the works of Jane Austen, or any of the works derived from those original novels. In fact, in some ways it is more about those derivative works and the feelings, responses, and opinions that lead to those secondary works. Why is it that Jane Austen is so important that, although there are only the 6 complete novels and some fragments, we continue to create more in the way of movies and books attempting to continue, copy, or imitate her work?

Jane's Fame really doesn't dig in to that particular question, although it certainly works hard to state it clearly and at length. Perhaps there isn't a single answer, or Harman is not willing or feels it worthwhile to proclaim a single answer. This is a book to prompt more discussion. It brings together many opinion (quoted excerpts range from those of her own siblings to somewhat snarky discussions on current Internet forums). As a collection of the varying opinions and an assessment of the current state of the "Janeites" or "Austenarians", it's very engaging, interesting, and slightly provoking. It's also worth, I think, purchasing for myself (this is a library loan) and examining more closely at some point hence.

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