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".