Friday Bookblogging: Mostly Audio Edition


It’s been a while for Friday Bookblogging, but there’s so much today that we couldn’t resist; and interestingly, much of it is audio-based, or at least partly. (There are transcripts for nearly everything if you are at work or otherwise audio-challenged.)

NPR has been featuring Claire Harman’s book, Jane’s Fame, over the past week or so, and there are several audio clips and interviews about the book.

The first is a basic review of the book, which starts out with an unfortunate and undeserved slam of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir.

Austen’s first biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, drummed in this reassuring image of Austen as a mouse, who wrote without regard to fame or fortune, when he equated her writing to her skill with embroidery. In his 1869 biographical sketch of Aunt Jane, Austen-Leigh approvingly noted that “the same hand which painted so exquisitely with the pen could work as delicately with the needle.”

Can you hear the chortling from beyond the grave? That’s Austen — or at least the Austen Claire Harman gives us in her lively new book called Jane’s Fame.

We run across this sort of thing all the time. Do the critical academics understand that the Memoir was not meant as a biography as they would understand it–a critical look at the subject’s life and work–but as a family remembrance, recorded by the remnants of the generation who actually knew and were well-acquainted with Jane Austen? Yes, their stated and recorded intention was to prevent those who had not been acquainted with Jane from writing something of which they would not approve, but they also wanted to get their own impressions, those of the people who actually knew her, down on paper. There is nothing wrong with that and the continued slamming of the Memoir as ludicrous because it is uncritical really misses the point in our opinion.

Another piece, an interview with Claire Harman, continues in this vein.

I mean that was really lighting the blue touch paper for Austen’s fame, because it dealt almost exclusively with Jane Austen’s supposedly meek and genteel personality and hardly anything about the books. Suddenly readers who were vaguely aware of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility” were made even more aware of them by this personality of the lovely aunt.

And James Edwards’ memoir of his aunt made her into a sort of sentimental object. You know, and people loved her as a person and as a character, as well as the books and sometimes instead of the books.

While we’re aware that the Memoir helped create a rather Victorian-flavored view of Austen that continued for quite a few years, we suggest that the Victorians would have done a lot of that without Austen-Leigh’s help anyway, because that’s how they were.

Ms. HARMAN: Well, she’s certainly a loving sister and she was certainly a beloved aunt. But she wasnt necessarily a nice person at all. I mean there’s really nothing in the letters to suggest anything other than a very sharp-witted and at times rather acid-tongued woman.

Even the nicest of us have our snarky moments, particularly in PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE. Why does everyone seem to forget that Jane never dreamed anyone but Cassandra would see those letters? No wonder they’re down on the Memoir, with its description of an aunt who took time to listen to children and talk to them and play with them and tell them stories. That doesn’t fit the Nassssty Janeses Narrative, no it doesn’t. But from the letters, note the trouble she took to critique her niece Anna’s novel, which sounded perfectly dreadful to be frank, and to do it in the most kind and encouraging yet thoroughly constructive way possible. Is that the action of a person who is not “nice”? (Paging Mr. Tilney!)

WERTHEIMER: But do you think she would have had the faintest notion that all this could have happened?

Ms. HARMAN: Not in the slightest. Because Jane Austen’s fame is disproportionate – I mean she’s a genius but still her fame is disproportionate to anybody’s genius. It has grown and it has moved away from the text. It occupies people’s minds in ways that dont relate to the books but relate to fantasies and dreams around the books.

And she would have been quite appalled, I think, at even more fame than she had in her lifetime, which was little enough. She didnt want to be gawked at by neighbors who’d discovered she was an author. She wanted to maintain her integrity and her freedom to look at the world and be able to honestly say what she thought about it.

Disproportionate? Really? We don’t think so. Besides, it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, because things were different in Jane Austen’s day. A lady of her position did not seek notoriety; today, everyone wants their fifteen minutes of reality-television fame. That’s not to say that Jane would have put herself out there, but she would have managed her fame as any modern writer does. J.K. Rowling, who probably isn’t wild about some of the results of her fame (we’re sure she has crazy fans sending her underwear and letters written in their own blood and nail clippings, etc.), manages it, and from all reports remains as down-to-earth as someone in her position can be; same for John Grisham and Stephen King.

Thanks to Alert Janeites Lisa, Maria, and Sarah for the links.

We spotted on Twitter a link to another NPR piece that seemed Austen-related from the title, and clicked through, but decided it really had nothing to do with Jane Austen and hadn’t planned to post it, though several Alert Janeites also sent the link; but Alert Janeite E. Patton sent a link to the announcement on NPR’s Facebook page and noted that the discussion had developed into “a little kerfuffle.” We have to applaud our old pal DeeDee Baldwin, whom you might know as the creator of Austenbook, who commented, “Reducing Jane Austen to just “gossip”? Really?” Hear hear! Several other commenters agreed.

Alert Janeite Sarah also sent us a link to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the monster books and Austen paraliterature in general. As Sarah noted, “Any article that opens with the line ‘This year, Jane Austen is not simply timeless—she is undead’ deserves a read,” but for us the piece contained several Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments. (Also it gives BIG DIRTY SPOILERS for Jane Bites Back, which annoys us as some of us took pains to NOT spoil the bally book in our review.)

Lord Byron (he did, after all, draft the first prose vampire story in the English language)

Um, no. That was his doctor, John Polidori. The story was incorrectly attributed to Byron, but we’ve known that he didn’t write it for a really long time now. Well, some of us knew it. 😉

In 1813, the year Austen published Pride and Prejudice, Byron published “The Giaour,” which includes a description of vampires feeding on their own kin.

Actually, the narrator of “The Giaour” was cursing the man who murdered the narrator’s love interest to live as a vampire, feeding on his family members. (That story, by the way, is referenced in Jane Bites Back. Does that mean the author of the paraliterature might know more about “The Giaour” then the author of this piece? HMMMMMM.)

Purists will no doubt shudder, but Austen herself was not a snob about novels—as long as they had “genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.” Oh, that’s all.

Please to re-read the passage, which actually says that novels, as a group, have those things to recommend them.

She thoroughly enjoyed the bloody horrors of Matthew Lewis’s sexually charged The Monk

Someone’s been watching movies written by Andrew Davies again. There is no evidence that Jane Austen “thoroughly enjoyed” The Monk; the character John Thorpe appeared to have “thoroughly enjoyed” it, which tells us something of what Jane thought about it, though only if we actually read Northanger Abbey with some care.

Austen confessed in a letter, “I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life,” but she did like to read them.

Again, quoting way out of context. That comment was self-deprecating and meant to discourage a persistent pain in the neck who kept trying to mansplain to Jane what she SHOULD be writing. In her “Plan of a Novel,” she mocked the intended recipient of that comment so thoroughly that anyone who actually thinks it through will, again, understand what she really meant. We suspect she simply wrote what she preferred to write.

But she would also, I imagine, have entered into the spirit of fun and granted her fellow novelists the right to craft bloodsucking fictions. “Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans,” she wrote in her defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey.

Now, that we can agree with!

And finally, get your weekend off to a great start with the newest Carte Noir reading: Joseph Fiennes reading from Sense and Sensibility. It’s the scene in which Elinor learns about Lucy Steele’s marriage.

5 thoughts on “Friday Bookblogging: Mostly Audio Edition

  1. Allison T.

    OOOO I’m in love! What a great reading!

    also Greg Wise reading The Letter from Persuasion.

    And what insightful comments, Mags, on the JA info above. I always learning something here.


  2. Deborah

    The thing that irked me most about Claire Harman’s interview was her referring to JA as “cynical and worldly.” If we adopt Oscar Wilde’s useful definition of a cynic as someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” I’d say that JA is the reverse of cynical: she always knows what’s valuable, what really matters. She’s certainly clear-eyed and hilarious about the failings of fools, toadies and snobs, but her works are filled with people who are capable of growth and change, and she doesn’t laugh about the real damage inflicted by her truly unsavory characters, the Wickhams, Willoughbys and Crawfords. Harman makes her sound like a character out of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, all witty repartee and nihiism.


    • Mags

      Very insightful, Deborah. I can’t help thinking that perhaps Harman is trying to hard to disprove the “saintly Aunt Jane” view (and I’m on board with that, to an extent), that she’s going too far in the other direction.


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