Canongate £20

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

The novels of Jane Austen were almost consigned to history, before Walter Scott came to their rescue

In this extraordinary book, crammed with scholarship and glittering with trivia, Claire Harman provides an account of every conceivable perception of Jane Austen during her short life and in the near-200 years since her death in 1817.

The Memoir produced in 1870 by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, prompted a great surge of interest which has swollen ever since but, ironically, it was also responsible for the received impression that Austen led a life of gentle sequestration, nervously concealing her writing, quite without ambition, happily engaged in domesticity and child play. "Her performances with cup and ball were marvellous," he tells us. She was excellent, too, at Spillikins. Austen's wholesomeness and gentility were, of course, reflected in her writing but another kinsman, Lord Brabourne, brought out in 1884 an edition of her letters which was at variance with this notion. Jane's voice, here, is often materialistic and nasty. Commenting on an acquaintance's stillborn child, she suggests the mother must have taken a look at the father. No one wanted to see the writer like this; the letters were set aside.

Harman shows that, from childhood, Jane was spirited, competitive and proud of her writing, which she circulated happily around her wide circle of friends and family, many of whom wrote themselves. Skits, burlesques, lampoons and amateur theatricals provided endless fun and Jane painstakingly collected her early writings into little books, her Volumes. Harman's quotations are enticing: "A lovely young Woman lying apparently in great pain beneath a Citron tree was an object too interesting not to attract their notice."

Austen was working on full-length novels by her late teens, rewriting and reshaping in bursts of energy over long periods. An acquaintance remembered her as very pretty, a husband-hunting butterfly; another saw her as a silent observer, still as a poker by the fire; later, as her fame grew, albeit locally, she became "a poker of whom everyone is afraid". Her books were anonymous, as was customary for women writers, but on receiving the joyful news of high praise in high society, she determined to reveal herself with Mansfield Park: "I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it. People shall pay for this knowledge." But when she died, the gravestone her family erected made no mention of her writing, her papers were dispersed, and despite sporadic interest over the decades, it seemed that a line had been drawn under her very existence, until that Memoir was prompted by some sense of rivalry with the Brontës' great celebrity and a growing annoyance at drifts of speculative gossip.

And so her fame spread, with new editions and gathering critical acclaim, first, notably, from Sir Walter Scott, who identified her as the creator of an entirely new way of writing; naturalistic and concentrated, unlike the traditional literature of drama and sensation to which he himself subscribed – "the Big bow-wow strain" as he adorably put it. Scott and Thomas Macaulay were perhaps the first of many fervent male admirers, who have included Tennyson, Wilde, Fenimore Cooper (who wrote his first novel, Precaution, in the manner of Persuasion), Coleridge, GH Lewes, Bulwer-Lytton, and even Robert Southey, who had been so rude to Charlotte Brontë: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be." (Austen turned down an offer of marriage for literature.) Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice 17 times.

Mark Twain, however, expended much energy on her vilification. She was "entirely impossible", worse than Poe, and should not have been allowed a natural death. He would like "to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone".

Harman's book offers so many delights. Byron's wife-to-be, Annabella Milbanke, adored Pride and Prejudice and is the first recorded admirer of Darcy. What a quirk of fate it was that later brought her sister-in-law, the scandalous Augusta Leigh, to assist her in the birth of her first child, clasping a copy of Emma. Kipling was poignantly moved to write "The Janeites" for Storyteller Magazine, 10 years after his son's death in battle at Loos. There is a marvellous illustration on the cover, showing a soldier on a battlefield reading Austen. Her books were at the top of the Fever Chart devised for reading in military hospitals. As Harman says, "It is odd to think of how many damaged and dying men in field hospitals and convalescent homes might have swum in and out of consciousness to the sound or the memory of Divine Jane's words."

This is a fantastic compendium of absolutely everything relating to Austen, the tone calm and impartial despite severe provocation. It is another irony that so many people's enthusiasm for Austen's writing is actually an enthusiasm for the images of screen. A couple of years ago, the director of the Austen Festival in Bath sent, under a pseudonym and the title "First Impressions", the opening chapters of Pride and Prejudice "with proper nouns slightly adjusted" to 18 British publishers, all of whom rejected them. Only one recognized the hoax.

But beyond all the hullabaloo, the need and yearning for Jane persists, perhaps because she is both most constant and most elusive. A lock of her hair in the Jane Austen House Museum, despite the interventions of the Elida Hair Institute, gives up no inkling of its original colour. As for her likeness, there is the "horrid sketch" by her sister Cassandra and just one other verifiable image, which most wonderfully shows her "in a pelisse and bonnet, out of doors on a summer day, with her back to the viewer".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor