A feisty new look at Jane Austen, plus the comedy of manners lives!
In a way it’s a pity this new literary mash-up craze got started with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Of all the classic writers I can think of, Jane Austen needs the help least of all. She’s already hugely popular with modern readers — which contrasts dramatically with the small success she enjoyed in her lifetime.
Over at NPR, I’ve found a couple of pieces to excite not only the insatiable Janeite, but also anyone who enjoys either a witty and perceptive critical reassessment, or a cracking good comedy of manners.
Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s resident book reviewer, praises Claire Harman’s “shrewd study,” Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, for “brimming with Brit wit” that “freshens up our impression of Austen.”
Scantly more is known of Austen’s life than Shakespeare’s, Corrigan says. But Harman’s aim is not to elucidate the author’s shadowy life, but “to tackle the great literary mystery of how this parson’s daughter ‘who was happy to limit her scope to “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” [came to] conquer the world.'”
Harman counters the cliched understanding of Austen as a “mousy” spinster in a modest family at the lower rungs of landed gentry. Far from scratching her novels out quietly, “without regard to fame or fortune,” writes Corrigan, Austen was “a literary workhorse” who coveted “big sales.” I love that image, don’t you? Corrigan, drawing on Harman’s book, backs it up:
“After Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and the secret of its author’s identity began to leak out, Austen wrote to her sailor brother, Frank: ‘[T]he secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now — & … I believe whenever the 3rd [novel] appears … I shall … try to make all the Money [rather] than all the Mystery I can of it. People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.'”
That wasn’t to be, although Austen did have literary admirers during her lifetime. After her death, the books languished – at one point going out of print for 12 years. Austen began her rise with the publication of a nephew’s 1869 biographical sketch, “Aunt Jane.”
Austen had her literary detractors, notably Mark Twain, who said many clever and nasty things about her novels, including, “Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.” But early Janeites included Rudyard Kipling and the Bloomsbury set, notes Corrigan, and by the 1940s Austen was generally accepted in the highest ranks of English literature.
In addition to Harman’s book, which sounds both erudite and delightful, Helen Simonson, another NPR correspondent, suggests three novels Janeites might like. Only six Austen novels exist, leaving devoted fans longing for more and giving rise to a never-ending industry of pastiches: sequels and prequels to Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility; novels in the manner of Austen that include her as a character and so tiresomely on.
Simonson, though, suggests three novels with literary bona fides that happen to be, like Austen’s books, comedies of manners: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton; Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maughum; Mapp & Lucia, by E.F. Benson.
I suspect most Janeites have no more interest in literary quality than the average zombie aficianado. It’s brains and blood for the latter, Regency romance for the former.
If you think I’m wrong, then be so good as to prove it by sharing a few of your non-Jane favorites, with emphasis on the comedy of manners. Also, share your love of Jane, in any way you choose. As a blog comment, I mean. Please, no bricks through my living room window.