Do you, dear reader, dither over Mr. Darcy? Enthuse about the archness of Emma? Wail about the likes of Willoughby? If so, you just might be a Janeite. If that’s the case—and even if not—there is much to divert and please in Claire Harman’s well-blended biography and cultural commentary, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Harman, an award-winning biographer, turns her sharp scholarly eye, acutely sensible prose and considerable wit on the life of the “divine Jane” in this gem of a book, tracing Austen’s early years and literary pursuits through to the present-day cult of Austenmania.
There is, nearly 200 years on, still much mystery surrounding Jane Austen’s life. Though she left behind, upon her death in July 1817 at age 41, various papers, manuscripts and correspondences, much of that catalog was destroyed, lost or sold off. This biography-history fills in many blanks, brimming with entertaining anecdotes and quotes, robust scholarship and ironic humor. Harman’s research exhaustively mines the materials and memorabilia contained in the body of institutions, trusts and Austenian scholarship as well as Austen’s own surviving letters, in which she declares that “tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like . . . Pewter too.” This pointed statement, though brief, gives insight into Jane, the hard-headed businesswoman—a characteristic most definitely not universally acknowledged in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s rather saccharine 19th-century biography of his famous aunt.
Harman insightfully portrays Jane, the writer and published author; tracks Jane’s rising fame and readership against the broad historical backdrop of the 18th and 19th centuries; identifies the trends of Austenian literary consumption and criticism (Mark Twain was not a fan); follows the “canonization” of all things Austen in print, theater and film; and finally, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, explicates how Jane Austen became a 21st-century brand through the power of TV and film—a phenomenon helped not a little by the memorable vision of Colin Firth in a clinging wet shirt.