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Now universally acknowledged

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman

1 April 2009

12:00 AM

1 April 2009

12:00 AM

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World Claire Harman

Canongate, pp.342, 20

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman

What does Mr Darcy look like? Anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice will be able to give an answer. I believe that he is tall, square-jawed, beetle-browed, slightly weather-beaten and dark-haired. Is any of that at all controversial? But on returning to the novel, we find a strange thing. The one feature in that list which I would have thought beyond dispute is that he has dark hair. This, however, is what Jane Austen has to say about his personal appearance. On his first entry, he is said to have

a fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien …The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr Bingley.

A little later, Elizabeth says that ‘he has a very satirical eye’. When he and Wickham meet again unexpectedly, Austen comments that ‘both changed colour, one looked white, the other red’. Towards the end of the novel, Kitty calls him ‘that tall, proud man’. And that is pretty well about it. Austen very rarely gives anything approaching a personal description of a character, and loses almost nothing by her decorous omission. Darcy might perfectly well be ginger; and yet not one reader in ten thousand by now believes him to be anything but black-haired.

The accretions, sediment and barnacles which have attached themselves to these six great novels in the past 200-odd years are Claire Harman’s subject. Jane Austen’s celebrity was not a completely posthumous phenomenon. Cognoscenti recognised her subtlety and, above all, her naturalness during her lifetime. If there is sometimes an aspect of literary perverseness in the way her contemporaries admired her, the Prince Regent’s enjoyment was clearly sincere, commanding her to dedicate Emma to him.

But after Austen’s early death in 1817, her books maintained only a thin presence in the culture for some decades. When John Murray offered to buy the copyrights of the novels in 1831, a businesslike response from Austen’s sister Cassandra (‘How big an edition was he thinking of? How many volumes would there be, and of what size and price?’) quickly deterred him. He wasn’t so passionately enthusiastic as all that. The royal presentation copy of Emma was sent downstairs to the servants’ quarters — non-readers on the whole, and the copy is now in exceedingly good condition. There was a famous sexton in Winchester Cathedral who asked a visitor in the 1860s whether there was ‘anything particular’ about ‘that lady’, since so many people asked to see her grave. In 1866, a reader wrote to that learned journal, Notes and Queries, with a sincere inquiry after the authorship of a book mentioned by Macaulay, Mansfield Park.

Austen’s early death meant that many of her nearest relations long survived her — Cassandra by 30 years, her brother Frank by nearly 50. Her siblings, nieces and nephews saw no reason to encourage impertinent biographers by publishing letters, juvenilia and unfinished work. Only when a generation took charge, in the late 19th century, with no personal memory of Austen, did her celebrity move beyond a small coterie.

Some people haven’t cared for Austen — Charlotte Bronte, who called her novels ‘an accurate, daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face’, or Mark Twain, who wonderfully and ambivalently said that ‘every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone’. But by now admiration for her novels is so universal that the exclusivity of the cult of Jane, perpetuated by what George Saintsbury called the ‘Janeites’ seems perfectly inexplicable.

They were, clearly, quite nuts. Austen became for them a kind of holy martyr, and Harman has fun running through their talk of odd bits of Persuasion as ‘one of the very sacred things of literature’, or the Earl of Iddesleigh describing a Janeite trip to ‘worship’ at various ‘sacred spots’, such as Chawton. They might have been joking, but the fervid scenes at postwar AGMs of the Jane Austen society when a lock of hair, or Jane and Cassandra’s amber crosses, were spontaneously presented by rich American collectors, seem perfectly authentic outpourings. Of such people, Leslie Stephen’s comment that ‘I never knew a person thoroughly deaf to humour who did not worship Miss Austen’ seems fair enough.

And yet there is a kind of universal genius there, and the formula of ‘three or four families in a country village’ means something to almost everyone. The French anarchist Félix Fénéon discovered her while languishing in prison for possession of ten detonators and a vial of mercury, and translated her most elegantly (‘Personne qui ait jamais vu Catherine Morland dans son enfance ne l’aurait supposée née pour être une héroïne’). It was noted in the early 1960s that Nigerian rural schoolchildren had no problems with the dilemmas of Pride and Prejudice, and in recent years Bollywood adaptations, and a delightful Valley Girl version of Emma, Clueless, have demonstrated a high degree of cultural transferability. There seems no reason why these novels should not go on forever.

Claire Harman has written an entertaining book about the afterlife of Austen’s novels, and what people have made them signify. She skips over most of the direct engagement of novelists with Austen’s practice, and isn’t that interested in the misreadings of posterity — the point about the personal appearance of characters escapes her, and we have to go on wondering whether we think of Darcy as dark because of his name, because of Victorian illustrations, because of film treatments, or for more nebulous reasons. She has some fun with some awful illustrations, with the anachronisms in Aldous Huxley’s 1940 Pride and Prejudice film with Greer Garson — ‘Shall we not call it quits and start again?’ — and could have amused herself some more with later, 1990s atrocities. (‘Of course it’s just a theory …Mr Knightley and Jane Fairfax are a couple!’) She is rightly suspicious of the horrid Heritage Industry version of Austen, but perhaps not quite hard enough on those absurd television or film adaptations which decide to introduce more slavery into Mansfield Park, more sex into Emma, or more manly country pursuits into Pride and Prejudice. The most ridiculous sounding of these is a 2007 ITV adaptation of Mansfield Park which cast the far from demure Billie Piper as Fanny Price. ‘Once you’ve cast Billie,’ the producer explained, ‘you could never pretend she’s anything less than startling-looking, so we had to find other ways to emphasise her difference … [Edmund] is more playful, he’s sillier, he drinks more…’

Such grotesqueries are one thing, but the excesses of critics are quite another. That lecture-room favourite, Eve Sedgwick’s essay ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl’, quickly followed by ludicrous essays speculating on Austen and Cassandra as incestuous lesbians, put the icing on the cake of half a century of terrible critical speculation. Mansfield Park, within the academy, is now quite simply ‘about’ slavery, just as Emma is about something called ‘heteronormativity’.

One such scholar, Claudia Johnson, has whined about how badly she and her colleagues do in Jane Austen Society quizzes (‘we rarely recollect the colour of this character’s dress or that servant’s name’), and complained about a general lack of respect in the fraternity.

Our own papers becoming yet another relatively undifferentiated, unhierarchalised item in the great repository of Austeniana assiduously collected by Janeites and compiled in ne
wsletters and reports, printed somewhere between recipes for white soup and the latest word jumble.

I hate to break this to Claudia Johnson, but a good recipe for the white soup that Bingley’s cook Nicholls makes would be of much wider and more permanent interest than any number of fanciful articles about post-colonialism in Persuasion.

No doubt the wild enthusiasm for Austen in the late 1990s and early 2000s had something to do with property pornography and the mercantile imagination. Auden said it made him uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle-class

Describe the amorous effects of brass.

That scruple had long gone by the 1990s, to be replaced by a frankly Regency shamelessness. We’ve been through a succession of Jane Austens, ably chronicled by Claire Harman. Just at this moment, I think we are waiting for the next one. It might be a film now in pre-production, according to the internet movie database, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I hope not, though.

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