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.