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".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week