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?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices