Pot, Meet Kettle


Alert Janeite Laurel Ann pointed us to an interview with Claire Harman in the Globe and Mail, presumably in relation to the recent North American publication of her book, Jane’s Fame. While we enjoyed the book (read our review), we got a definite sense that the author held herself superior to Those Austen People, drinking their tea and wearing their bonnets and petting their cats while they eagerly rewound the wet shirt scene over and over. In our review, we admitted we might be a wee bit defensive about it, but reading this interview, we’re less convinced of that and more convinced that our first instincts were correct. And as Laurel Ann pointed out, it’s interesting that someone attempting to publicize a book that is written for a general audience presumably interested in all things Jane Austen is dismissive of that very audience. The article deserves a proper spork-fisking and we’re happy to provide it.

I wanted to write a straight biography of Austen some years ago, but then two major biographies came out. So I left Austen aside and concentrated on Burney for the moment. But I kept coming back to Austen.

So let’s get this straight: she put off writing the biography, despite a continuing fascination with the subject, because it was not commercially feasible. Got it.

I do hate that “little bit of ivory” idea, but that’s also what made her genuinely popular, She knew what readers wanted and she gave it to them.

Not what the “bit of ivory” is about. It meant she was working on a smaller scale than her contemporaries writing sprawling romances (in the literary sense of the word), such as Scott and Radcliffe and, yes, Burney. Jane Austen wrote about “three or four families in a country village” not because she was not capable of more but because she needed no more. And which of those authors are more widely read today? Probably because modern literary novels are generally on a similarly intimate scale, so Jane Austen’s work feels more familiar to the modern reader. Today, for authors to work on that small scale is desirable and encouraged, at least in literary fiction. Sprawling epics are still around and very popular, but they are considered more commercial works.

It must have been peculiar to be in the public eye. I do love the story of friends reporting that at tea parties, she would sit and say nothing. They thought of her as a piece of furniture, like a poker. But once they found out she was Miss Jane Austen, author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, they wanted to stare at her.

Actually I think the quote is that they were all a little afraid of her after they found out she was an author.

I’m thinking of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Author Sean Graham-Smith and his publisher sat down with a list of classic novels and another of genres and just drew parallel lines between them, looking for titles such as Great Expectations and Vampires. But the fact that they hit on the instantly recognizable Austen is significant. The book sold far better than Austen’s books do; there’s much more money in the mutilation and exploitation of Austen than in Austen herself.

Really? Better than Jane Austen’s own work? Perhaps if viewed on a scale of the immediate period of Jane’s lifetime, or on a per-year basis, but overall we would hazard a guess that Jane Austen’s books have sold way more copies than P&P&Z.

The young people who read it do so for reasons that have nothing to do with Austen.

We’re very much in agreement with that statement!

They’re so difficult to please. I went to see the Gwyneth Paltrow film of Emma with a load of Oxford Austen scholars, and they blotted out the soundtrack with criticisms and comments. They spent much of the film picking it apart, took no joy in it.

For Austen scholars, we imagine there would be a lot to criticize, as there is in all the films.

What’s the best Jane Austen adaptation?

The BBC adaptation of Persuasion that had Amanda Root in it.

Also very much in agreement with this.

What would Jane have made of all this ado?

As we know, she did not overflow with the milk of human kindness, and I think she would been ferociously against all of this.

Okay, now wait a minute. Who says Jane Austen “did not overflow with the milk of human kindness”? She cared about her family and was charitable to the poor. So she made snarky remarks about people who sometimes did not deserve it, but those were mostly for private consumption; public remarks, that is, about characters in her novels, were usually very much deserved. Like Elizabeth Bennet, she might say, “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”

We also disagree that she would have been “ferociously against all of this”. While it is impossible to know what Jane Austen thought, we can infer, from the Jane we have gotten to know through her books and letters, that she was, first of all, a glass-half-full kind of person in general, despite her snark. The letters from when she first moved to Bath, when she is clearly trying to make the best of a situation she neither chose nor desired, indicate that to us. And her reaction to her brother Henry telling all and sundry of her authorship, against her express desire, tells us that she was able to see the humor in the situation even while it annoyed her. So, we think (and we stress this is very much our opinion) that Jane Austen would have viewed “all of this” with a mixture of exasperation and amusement, and also that she would have wanted her share of the “pewter.” Interestingly, Michael Thomas Ford, author of Jane Bites Back, the type of work Ms. Harman is excoriating, got that exactly right with his vampire Jane.

What do you think had sparked the current interest in the history of reputation such as we see in Jocasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth and Francine Prose’s recent book on Anne Frank’s afterlife?

I think it’s a trickle-down from academic writing: History of the book and reception history are growth areas in academic writing.

Exploiting the “growth areas in academic writing,” eh? We see.

We’re the first one to complain about certain authors who in our opinion bald-facedly exploit the current interest in Jane Austen in popular culture; we refer to them as carpetbaggers. However, we are pretty sure that most of the authors who have presented Austen-related works, fiction and nonfiction, to the public in recent years are working from a place of love and respect and a desire to share information and maybe a story with our fellow Janeites. We’re not suggesting that even Ms. Harman is a carpetbagger, but she needs to realize that it is never a good idea to excrete where one takes nourishment.

10 thoughts on “Pot, Meet Kettle

  1. Bravo Mags. This interview of Harman really wound me up. After I wrote to you about it last week, it kept festering and I just wanted to vent. When I read Jane’s Fame last year, I thought that the biographical chapters were well researched and written. The chapter on Jane Austen after Jane Austen, had undertones of cynicism about the pop culture machine; another academic looking down from their ivory tower at the Austen fan girls. This irritated me to the point I could not review the book and be objective. I admire Claire Harman. Her biography of Fanny Burney is brilliant. One wonders out loud why she wanted to write a book about Jane Austen’s fame and the people who generated it (including her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, author of A Memoir of Jane Austen)if she thought it all so silly? Hmm? I hear the cash drawer cha chinging. Indeed. Pot meet kettle is a perfect analogy.


    • Mags

      “History of the book and reception history are growth areas in academic writing.”

      Whereas there are already all these biographies. Cha-ching.


  2. A. Marie

    So let me get this straight: Harman is not only (according to Kathryn Sutherland) borrowing rather too freely from Sutherland, she’s condescending to us as well? Terrific…


  3. Allison T.

    “She [Austen] was in no way that slightly obstructed, daffy writer we expect to find in that generation of women writers.”

    Wow! As Miss Manners would say, here is a truly efficient put-down that encompasses not only Austen but any female contemporary of hers (tho’ conveniently leaving out blow-hard male contemporaries who wrote for money and fame like Byron & Scott, Walpole & Lewis.)

    “That generation of women writers…”–gosh! what a denigrating statement! Does she mean Burney (one presumes)? Charlotte Lennox, Mrs Radcliffe, Mary Wolstonecraft? What exactly is “that generation of women writers”? That generation that sought to support themselves by their pens? That generation that began to explore human emotions and motivations in a way that even Sir Walter Scott, that boring male blow-hard, acknowledged that Austen surpassed him in?

    And then Austen tepidly characterized as *not* an “obstructed” or a “daffy” writer? Daffy? DAFFY!!? What do these words mean in an 18th century context? “What ho, any one for tennis or perhaps a spot of marriage?” Austen as an “obstructed” writer? WTF does this mean? She couldn’t find the words or the emotions? She didn’t use or express them? Sorry, don’t think so.

    And, yes, watching Paltrow’s Emma can be enjoyable, but why should a modern movie be held above criticism? Why should that particular film version be considered to be sacrosanct above Austen’s own text? Movies are a great addition to AustenLand, but they are only an addition–they are not the primary source of enjoyment. It does not seem to be a supportable argument to pick at Janeites who don’t care for a particular movie; to mock or criticize someone who prefers the author’s own words to a movie version of any novel is very, very bizarre indeed, especially from someone from The Academy.

    The most generous thing I can think of is that Harman gave an absent-minded interview over the phone to an inexperienced writer who didn’t edit her enough.

    Here’s a final thought as to why some academics might want to diss Jane’s popularity and her fans–it’s not just the pop culture aspect that they don’t understand and can’t control: they’re afraid. They’re very afraid. And what they’re afraid of is that we hard-core Janeites can give them a run for their money and leave them in the dust. It’s not only that we can cite chapter and verse as to the novels, the letters, etc., but that we’re hep to all the literary and other allusions in the text. WE DON’T NEED THE ACADEMY any more to appreciate Austen and that’s why they are afraid, and, therefore, dismissive. While academic insights can be helpful to us, many of us don’t need academic validation to understand Austen’s works.

    It’s as if we’ve outsourced Austen from the ivory tower to the wider public.

    And if this is true, what author will be next? What if Shakespeare is out-sourced direct to the public? Boom! there go a thousand assistant lecturer appointments.

    I’m not by any means saying that academics cannot play in the Austen sandbox–what I am saying is that, at certain levels, the out-of-academy observations–whether they come from individual Janeites or from movie-makers or manga-illustrators or whatever–need to be treated on an equitable and rational basis. No more of this sneering from the tower.


    • Mags

      *hands Allison the Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness*

      *steps back*

      Let’s face it, my own corner of Austenland is pretty much the opposite of academic; yet many of the Austen scholars I’ve encountered are kind and generous and enjoy a good snark as much as the next Janeite. They certainly do not look down upon lowly bloggers. I can’t help thinking that academics who are dismissive are operating either from a place of ignorance–they don’t really understand what we’re all about–or from a place of insecurity. They have to puff themselves up because they fear sinking beneath otherwise.

      I do think this interview sounded like they woke her up and she wasn’t thinking much as she answered, though as Laurel Ann and I both pointed out, she is kind of the same way in her book, so it might not be accidental. Who knows. My book group is reading Jane’s Fame in July so I’ll be re-reading it at that point, and I wonder if it will bother me as much this time around?


  4. Mags

    Just realized something:

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Author Sean Graham-Smith

    I thought that looked funny, but thought it was just that Grahame was misspelled. I just realized his first name is wrong, too (it’s Seth, of course).


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