“There is something viral about fame: heartless, predatory, proliferating.” So says Claire Harman, author of Jane’s Fame, a different sort of biography about Jane Austen. This is not a linear accounting of her life, but rather a thorough study of how her books have lived on and why the author is known on a first-name basis around the world.
Following her death at age 41, Jane Austen’s image was carefully controlled by several generations of her extended family. Her books were never unavailable, but their popularity was limited in the years after she died and through the Victorian era. The first Austen biography was written more than fifty years after death, and her acceptance by literary critics and the academy was gradual and a long time in coming. She always had her fans though, (Leslie Stephen coined the term “Austenolatry” in the 1870′s, imitating the use of Bardolatry for the proliferation of all things Shakespeare), and many believe we now have reached the Austen saturation point with multiple movie versions, sequels, and spin-offs of her novels.
Some of my favorite morsels that illustrate the growing popularity of Austen and her books: It is well-known that after the success of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, it was strongly hinted to Austen that the prince regent would like her next work dedicated to him. Emma was duly presented to him, but Harman reports that the deluxe dedication copy was later found in the servants’ library, to which it had been relegated during Queen Victoria’s reign.
Another: A lock of Jane Austen’s hair was given by her sister Cassandra to a relative, and it has survived intact and now resides in the Jane Austen’s House Museum. In the 1970′s, however, they felt the hair had faded and so had a touch-up color job done. And one more: Harman gives an early and extreme example of Austen books as comfort food for the mind when she tells us about Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites,” about the WWI officers and soldiers who read Jane Austen in the trenches.
This is a fun-but-serious, fast-paced book that should appeal to anyone interested in Jane Austen and her writing. It is impossible to escape Jane in today’s society, and Jane’s Fame will tell you why.