While the media likes to portray Janeites as a homogeneous group of tea-sipping, cat-stroking, bonnet-wearing, rather silly ladies of a Certain Age who swoon as one the words “wet shirt” and pay little attention to the Serious Themes of Jane Austen’s novels, the Gentle Readers of AustenBlog (who understand the Editrix’s use of Irony, most of the time) know better. We are all ages, dispositions, levels of obsession, and some of us are even male. 🙂 Yet even those who seek to market to us often marginalize us as Those Austen People, the great unwashed who don’t understand and don’t deserve the riches heaped upon us. As Karen Joy Fowler wrote, “Surely no one else’s fans have been scolded so often for so long over the wrong-headed ways they love her. Even Austen herself has been appropriated for this project. She would be so ashamed of you, her fans are told. You’d embarrass her.”
In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, Claire Harman casts a jaundiced eye upon Janeites since the books were first published—including Jane’s very first readers, her family—and is careful to make the reader understand that she is not one of Those Austen People. She is a Serious Scholar, thank you very much, and Jane Austen’s pearls deserve better than to be cast before the swine who have called ourselves her fans for the past two centuries.
We realize we are over-defensive on the subject (ya think?) but this condescension, and we don’t mean that in the Lady Catherine de Bourgh sense, is nonetheless something we have noticed, and not just in this book but in the workings of large organized groups of Austen fans both on- and offline. We like to say that we are a frustrated sociologist and while we are generally a happy and satisfied member of Tribe Austenfen, and while we, too, have been known to roll our eyes over some fan behavior, we cannot help but notice the various undercurrents in our relationships with our fellows, and we cannot help but notice that Ms. Harman’s detachment is more than strictly editorial.
That being said, we found the first half of the book absolutely fascinating. It is beautifully constructed and eminently readable, starting with a quick biographical overview concentrating on Jane Austen as a professional author (a subject that always interests us) and continuing through a detailed review of posthumous publication of her novels, a process in which Cassandra Austen had deep, hands-on involvement, and on through the first bloom of more or less organized Janeiteism that flourished in the wake of the publication of J.E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt in 1869. The interest in Jane Austen’s work continued through the beginning of the 20th century, when R.W. Chapman began to work on producing scholarly editions of Jane Austen’s novels, editions still used and enjoyed by many Austen fans today. While we were aware of the existence of the work produced by these turn of the century Austen scholars and fans, we did not know the extent and breadth of the scholarship of the time, or some of the stories behind the work produced, and it makes for fascinating reading. Unfortunately from our point of view, Ms. Harman joins in the sport currently fashionable in some academic circles of belittling R.W. Chapman’s invaluable contribution to Austenian scholarship. (Disagree with his editorial choices all you like, but you can’t deny that contribution; and we have always been amused by the contention over such things as the placement of a comma in the work of an author who wrote in a time when English spelling and syntax were not yet standardized and furthermore had a lifelong problem with the concept of “i before e except after c.” But then we read as a writer, not as a scholar, and perhaps it is our own hubris that leads us to imagine Jane up in literary heaven impatiently saying, “Oh, relax already!”)
This auspicious beginning unfortunately does not carry throughout the book. Once the history enters the era of postmodern literary thought, the author loses her detachment and her review becomes more opinionated—not always with good results. And considering her seemingly thorough treatment of early Austenian fandom, and considering those involved are still alive to be interviewed, we found Ms. Harman’s glancing treatment of current Austen fandom shallow and imperceptive. In this we think the distance, editorial or otherwise, did a disservice to the subject matter. It would have been really interesting to have One Of Us, a Janeite who is “not afraid to be seen wallowing” as Ms. Harman put it, to write an overview of the State of the Fandom, even a constructively critical one.
We suspect most readers are not as picky and prickly as the Editrix, and will find the book endlessly fascinating. We also now have a reading list as long as our arm from books mentioned in the text and in the bibliography (including our most recent acquisition, Kathryn Sutherland’s book on a similar subject). Though parts of it made us cranky, we can wholeheartedly recommend Jane’s Fame as a thorough, if perhaps overly opinionated, treatment of a fascinating subject.