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Pride And Sensibility: Jane Austen's Literary Ambition

Mar 22, 2010 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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At the time of her death at age 41 in 1817, Jane Austen had published four novels, anonymously, that had sold a few thousand copies. A few years later, those novels, along with two more published posthumously, were out of print. Austen's reputation compared with that of her contemporaries — blockbuster lady novelists like Fanny Burney and swaggering celebs like Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron — was faint, as faint as the candlelight in the sitting room of the cottage she shared, during the final years of her short life, with her mother, sister and a close friend. There, according to the now-famous legend, Austen scratched out her novels, modestly concealing the latest pages of Emma or Mansfield Park whenever a squeaking hall door alerted her to the "casual interruptions of servants or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party."

Austen's first biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, drummed in this reassuring image of Austen as a mouse, who wrote without regard to fame or fortune, when he equated her writing to her skill with embroidery. In his 1869 biographical sketch of Aunt Jane, Austen-Leigh approvingly noted that "the same hand which painted so exquisitely with the pen could work as delicately with the needle."

Can you hear the chortling from beyond the grave? That's Austen — or at least the Austen Claire Harman gives us in her lively new book called Jane's Fame. Harman's Austen is a literary workhorse who coveted the bottom line of big sales. After Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and the secret of its author's identity began to leak out, Austen wrote to her sailor brother, Frank: "[T]he secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now — & ... I believe whenever the 3rd [novel] appears ... I shall ... try to make all the Money [rather] than all the Mystery I can of it. People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them."

Harman's shrewd critical study, brimming with Brit wit, freshens up our impression of Austen — an enterprise always hampered by the overarching fact that Austen's life, like Shakespeare's, left behind few biographical fossils, not even a decent portrait to bow down before and worship. The primary aim of Jane's Fame, however, is to tackle the great literary mystery of how this parson's daughter "who was happy to limit her scope to '3 or 4 Families in a Country Village' [came to] conquer the world."

With nimble steps, Harman dances through 200 years' worth of critical reception of Austen's novels, sharing the good, the bad and the brainless. Austen's own mother thought her son, James, a failed poet, was the real writer in the family (oh, Mom!). And then there were those, like Mark Twain, who found Austen's work representative of the most stultifying aspects of English literary taste. Twain growled: "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone."

But, even during the bleak half-century between Austen's death and the publication of her nephew's biography (when Austen's cool ironic sensibility seemed so out of fashion with Victorian earnestness), Austen was admired by a discerning few. After James Edward's biography was published, the first wave of Austen-mania hit, with "Janeites" like Rudyard Kipling and the Bloomsbury set leading the cheers.

During the First Women's Movement at the turn of the 20th century, Harman writes, Austen was embraced by conservatives as a "high-achieving woman in an unreformed society who seemed to have been perfectly happy with her lot." Subsequently, she has become the darling of feminists, queer theorists, Merry Olde England hucksters, post-colonial critics, romance addicts and pornographers.

The 1990s witnessed another variant on Janeite fanaticism with the proliferation of Austen films, which Harman says maximized the erotic potential in Austen's novels. Think of actor Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in that dripping wet shirt, and you know she's right.

Harman's informed and elegant chronicle of the rise of "Divine Jane" (as the late Victorians called her) is an eye-opener. The fact that Austen's posthumous success is also an affirmation of the ideal of a literary meritocracy — the notion that the canonical cream always rises to the top — makes Jane's Fame as happy a fairy tale as any of Austen's own novels.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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