Friday, June 24, 2011

I Heart JA

It's been quite a while since I read an Austenprose pick - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was the last - so I'm certainly due for one.  And this one is a true Austen, not just some tangentially related female-geared novel.  Claire Harman has written Jane's Fame - subtitled "How Jane Austen Conquered the World". Really, you say? Jane Austen rules the world? Well you know I think so at least :) (to the non-existent readers of this blog, I refer you to an old joke, the tagline of which is "Rochel thinks she's the whole world" - see, girls? I'm not the only one!)  The premise of the book? Tracing the growth of Jane Austen's popularity from her lifetime until now.

Now you know I'm not going to argue about Jane Austen's (or, as we Janeites would have it, Jane's :)) popularity or supremacy is the world of literature.  But it's funny to find that so many of my ideas are shared by others, and have been shared for ages.  The idea that one can be judged on their like and dislike of JA - I have said repeatedly that when it comes to girls, I don't get why anyone wouldn't like P&P.  And I consider it a negative trait to dislike it, of course :) And I certainly feel strongly enough about why I like the book to be offended when others try to interpret it in other ways.  And I get a kick out of hearing how all these famous literati worship Austen.  Okay, maybe it makes me a little cliche, but you know what? I don't mind being cliche.  Besides, there aren't *all* that many people who like JA enough to actually read this book... right?

The book itself is a lot of fun to read.  It starts out as a bit of a biography, since it talks about Austen's notoriety during her lifetime.  But, unlike a biography, it talks mostly about Austen's relationship with the public, meaning it largely avoids the speculation necessary to write a comprehensive biography of the author's personal life.  There were a few occasional indulgences in fancy, but nothing to get me too distracted.  And once the book passes into Austen's posthumous reputation, it becomes almost all fact.  There is certainly a liberal sprinkling of interpretation here and there, but mostly forgiveable.  Only the last chapter, talking about Austen's current rise in popularity starting with the '95 P&P reads more like literary criticism than straight fact.

I have to say I'm often skeptical of what there are of Harman's interpretations/musings, so I'm glad they're kept to a minimum.  She's definitely in sync with me in wanting to paint Austen in the best possible light, but at times (a lot of times), she had me thinking, really? Couldn't I write the exact same book about Charlotte Bronte? To some extent, the answer is definitely yes - the Brontes have their fans, and at times, I'm sure, a much larger fan base.  Still... I bet Jane's is bigger :) In the end of the day, I don't need a book to prove to me that Jane Austen is a universal favorite - I have her books as proof that there's every reason she should be.  Hearing the reasons everyone else thinks so (her writing, her wit, her perspicacity, her exquisite touch, her realism, her feel-good bent...) are a fun confirmation though, most definitely.

Verdict: 3.5/5

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