The Idea of Her
By Claire Harman
Henry Holt, 2010
If you read, go to the movies, or watch TV, you hardly need a 250-page book to tell you that Jane Austen has “conquered the world”; you would have to be living under the proverbial rock to be unaware of the seemingly endless stream of novel adaptations, retellings, and spin-offs, many of which are catalogued in the concluding chapter of Claire Harman’s engaging volume Jane’s Fame. As Harman details, James Edward Austen-Leigh’s best-selling 1870 Memoir of his aunt created a public appetite for all things Austen that has been fed ever since, from the 1940 Hollywood Pride and Prejudice to the 2004 Bollywood version Bride and Prejudice; from Helen Fielding’s 1996 best-seller Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) to Laurie Rigler’s 2007 Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict; from the costume balls of the Jane Austen Society to blogs, websites and YouTube compilations. Harman’s book went to press before the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters, but these mashups epitomize the phenomenon she describes: Austen’s texts can be turned to anyone’s purposes, bent into an infinite number of new, even monstrous, forms—remarkably, without losing their identity or their appeal.
Harman’s survey of Austen’s rise from obscurity to ubiquity is both thorough and lively. She begins with an account of Austen’s life that sets aside the myth of an “endlessly patient genius putting the demands of family life . . . before her work, writing when she could, in guarded but modest isolation.” Rather, Harman emphasizes that the young Austen was “a quick-witted, praise-hungry teenager, vying for attention in a close, loving, intellectually competitive household.” Reading and writing was, for all the Austens, “an essential part of their lives”: “two of her brothers, two first cousins, an aunt, two second cousins, and a neighbor were all published authors.” In this environment Austen’s own talent and ambitions flourished, expressing themselves in a range of early writings before her father offered the manuscript of First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice) to the London publisher Thomas Cadell on her behalf in 1796. Cadell refused it, but Austen persevered through years of further writing and revising until the six novels that now comprise her canon were all in print, beginning with Sense and Sensibility in 1811. Emphasizing Austen’s work ethic and professionalism, Harman shows us a confident and unapologetic author, self-conscious and deliberate about writing to please her audience as well as herself—an Austen consistent, in other words, with her own exact, ironic prose.
Despite the success and praise Austen eventually enjoyed during her lifetime, when she died in 1817 nothing foreshadowed the Austen-mania that was to come. Harman notes that compared to the “global fame of Scott and Byron, Austen’s little group of admirers and sales of a few thousand copies were negligible”; her novels were generally perceived as “light entertainment for the current day.” Scott himself, in contrast, was an admirer: writing about Pride and Prejudice in his journal, he admitted “The big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.”
In the Victorian period, Austen was championed by a few discerning critics but disdained or dismissed by others—famously including Charlotte Brontë, who responded to George Henry Lewes’s description of Austen as “one of the greatest artists that has ever written” with the protest that all she found in Pride and Prejudice was “a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.” Elizabeth Gaskell aired this disparagement in her biography of Brontë, published in 1857; this and other public depreciations seem to have motivated Austen-Leigh’s memoir of 1870.
Austen-Leigh’s account of his aunt’s life and career established two key elements of “the future Austen legend”: the story of Austen working in the sitting room, concealing her writing during her family’s frequent interruptions, and the “extreme of self-deprecating modesty” of her description of the “little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush,” an image which evokes, as Harman says, “miniature painting, dedication to craftsmanship, doggedness, and painstaking expertise.” Though it provoked complaints in some quarters—including from fellow novelist Margaret Oliphant, who protested that Austen-Leigh seemed “half-ashamed to have it known that [Austen] was not just a young lady like the others, doing her embroidery”—this portrait of Austen as self-effacing, domestic, and happily self-limiting, established her as a nostalgic icon of a literature, a nation, and a femininity untainted by the dramatic changes of the later nineteenth century: she was “a high-achieving woman in an unreformed society who seemed to have been perfectly happy with her lot.”
This conservative appreciation underlies the great flowering of Austen fandom during World War I, most famously depicted in Rudyard Kipling’s 1924 story “The Janeites”; by this time, Harman explains, “’Jane’ had come to represent qualities that not only defined a sorely threatened English culture but held out the means to repair it.” Austen’s novels were even recommended as “an aid to convalescence for the most severely-shell-shocked soldiers.” Scholarly interest in Austen rose rapidly in the 1920s, partly, Harman proposes, because the academy was “stuffed with Janeites.” As the twentieth century unfolded, as Harman puts it, “Austen’s popular image skipped ahead along a primrose path.” But among critics, the admiration was never unanimous; the Lewes-Brontë exchange anticipated a continuing divergence between those who celebrated Austen’s restraint and those who found her merely constrained. Further, as more sustained attention was paid to the content and contexts of the novels over the next several decades, they either seemed less consolingly conservative than they had previously, or their perceived conservatism seemed less attractive. Harman briskly surveys some of the key developments in academic studies of Austen, from feminist to postcolonial to queer theoretical approaches. For her purposes, the key point is that all this “minutely interpretive work” confirms Austen’s “iconic status”: for critics of all persuasions, Austen became “the Everest glistening majestically in the distance, demanding to be attempted.”
a YouTube compilation
Harman thoroughly describes the stages and features of how Austen got to be “this special, this useful to the culture, this important to a nation.” What she does not address as effectively is why Austen in particular became a “truly global phenomenon.” Brontë’s fundamental question to Lewes—“Why do you like Miss Austen so very much?”—remains one without a self-evident answer. “Austen is a genuinely great artist as well as a popular one,” Harman declares, but her definition of genuine greatness is circular, relying on precisely those qualities for which Austen is best known (“the brilliantly constructed plots, the romance, the comedy, the pellucid language,” etc) when as her own account shows, many judicious readers have found Austen’s novels painfully deficient. “Can there be a great artist without poetry?” Brontë demanded; D.H. Lawrence found her “thoroughly unpleasant, English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word, just as Fielding is English in the good generous sense”; and Mark Twain “loathed what he perceived as Austen’s artificiality and English spinster passionlessness. . . . ‘Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.’”
Indeed, some of Harman’s (and others’) claims on Austen’s behalf might lead us to conclude that her posthumous triumph is not greatly to either her credit or ours. Harman repeatedly cites Austen’s accessibility, for instance, but while that might explain her wide readership, it hardly proves her literary transcendence. In fact, “accessibility” could just mean that her novels offer few challenges to readers’ preferred ways of thinking about the world, or, as Harman acknowledges elsewhere, that they gratify readers’ romantic and erotic fantasies, their investment in “maintaining the status quo,” or their self-satisfaction as “a band of people linked by complacency over their own taste”—from early on, Harman notes, part of Austen’s charm was that appreciating her “could be made to reflect flatteringly on the discoverer.” Many novelists make more overtly stringent formal, moral, or philosophical demands on their readers, but it would be equally facile to suppose that their relative difficulty in itself either guarantees or diminishes their achievement.
Harman offers other arguments for Austen’s high standing, particularly emphasizing Austen’s role in “modernizing” the novel:
No one had reproduced dialogue so naturalistically before, no one had reined in so skillfully from caricature to character, no one had been so honest about female motivations or so efficient in telling a story.
In another kind of book, proceeding from the unquestioned assumption of Austen’s singularity would be more problematic. A significant body of research by scholars such as Eleanor Ty, Claudia Johnson, and Katie Trumpener, challenges Austen’s long standing as the only noteworthy figure in Romantic women’s fiction, and readings of her more radical but lesser-known contemporaries, including Eliza Hamilton, Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Mary Wollstonecraft, further suggest that Austen’s current predominance may arise from the ease with which her work could be accommodated by existing social and literary hierarchies, rather from any innate superiority. “Jane Austen’s a hack!” a colleague of mine exclaimed recently, frustrated with the way Austen crowds out attention to other writers she considers at least as worthy of our attention—and also, perhaps, more challenging to our self-satisfaction.
But other scholars continue to argue, as Mary Waldron does in Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time, that Austen was a “radical innovator,” and in any case, for Harman, Austen’s undeniable popularity renders such academic debates basically irrelevant. “Austen’s appeal has been powerful enough to threaten the jurisdiction of critics and certainly of literary critics,” and that popular appeal, she argues, is based on a factor “from which critics tend to avert their eyes: the love stories”:
In a permissive age, the restraint and decorousness of her love scenes seem in themselves erotic, and the idea of the heroines attracting so much male attention by making so few sexual concessions becomes, for the modern woman, an unattainable fantasy of female empowerment.
There’s some inconsistency here with her parallel argument that the films have propelled Austen to new heights of popularity because of their “visual realization of the erotic potential of the novels,” but a more substantial weakness of this contention is that “decorousness” is something Austen’s novels actually have in common with legions of other nineteenth-century examples written, notoriously, so as not, in the words of Dickens’s Mr Podsnap, to “bring a blush into the cheek of a young person.”
Again, then, it seems to be not so much Austen or her novels in particular but her representative standing as an icon for a nostalgically imagined past that best accounts for her persistent popularity. As Harman notes about the seemingly endless stream of BBC productions of literary classics,
Thackeray, Austen, Dickens, Brontë, Eliot, Austen, Austen, Gaskell: the author is really the least important factor. They are popular products because they are seamlessly reliable and predictable.
They aren’t, of course, in their original forms: Thackeray’s cynicism is a long way from Gaskell’s reforming earnestness; Austen’s understated irony is profoundly unlike Dickens’s flamboyant grotesqueries. But Harman observes that today the novels themselves are not, in fact, well known: “If Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is now regularly given away free with newspapers and voted Great Britain’s favorite book and a literary treasure that ‘we can’t do without,’ it is in great part because it is the book of the film.” It’s an idea of Austen, of what she and her novels are believed to be like and to stand for, that has such a hold on the popular imagination today—that, and the image of Colin Firth in a dripping wet shirt.
Though for the most part Harman documents impartially the “vast distance our admiration has opened up between its object and the ways in which she is celebrated and consumed,” she eventually does display some discomfort at how completely the distinction between fact and fiction has collapsed, as with the photos of actress Olivia Williams “now on sale at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, without acknowledgment that these are publicity shots connected to a film [Miss Austen Regrets] . . . but as if they are pictures of ‘the real Jane.’” If she could see us now, the “real Jane,” Harman hints, might be amused, not altogether kindly: such capitulations to self-indulgent fantasy are, after all, usually both mocked and punished in her novels. Or perhaps she would simply rejoice. “’I write only for Fame,’” she wrote to her sister, and though she may, as Harman says, have been joking, “she labored to make her own novels as attractive as possible, and—it worked.”