Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Jane Austen: more than a cottage industry

For a writer who claimed that she worked with a fine brush on a “little piece of ivory,” Jane Austen hasn't done too poorly for herself. Her novels of manners and morals in Regency England continue to send out waves in ways she never could have imagined. As her own brother Henry wrote, Austen's “was by not any means a life of event.” Yet oh, what she made of it, transforming her observations, experiences and thoughts into prose so perfect that it has people pouring over it to the last scintilla (and seeking biographical correlations hither and yon)!
Interest in all things Jane continues to expand, in ways both sensible and not. Scroll through our current list of Austen offerings in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, and you'll see what I mean.
Besides myriad editions of her books (including scholarly and annotated ones), one encounters biographies, critical studies, Austen societies, Austen festivals, Austen blogs, feature films, tv series, commemorative balls, story competitions, fan fiction, sociological studies, books of excerpts, mysteries using her characters, "private diaries" of same, and bizarre mash-ups of her fiction featuring sea monsters and the like. Pop stars even pay big bucks for her memorabilia. (Kelly Clarkson sported an Austen ring for a while before the Brits could reclaim the $250,000 item as a national treasure.)
One book we have in both hardback and paper, Jane's Fame by Claire Harman, surveys what writers and critics have made of her work over the centuries. In a Daily Telegraph review, Frances Wilson wrote:
The material Harman has deftly put together makes two things strikingly apparent: no reading of Jane, however seemingly wayward, is a misreading; and Austen’s major effect is to inspire good writing. Harman proves the point of Lionel Trilling’s insight that “the opinions which are held of Jane Austen’s work are almost as interesting, and almost as important to think about, as the work itself”. Jane’s Fame is threaded through with 150 years of these opinions – a potential death-knell in a book for a general readership – but there is not a dull sentence among them. Annabella Milbanke, later Lady Byron, saw instantly that the skill of Pride and Prejudice lay in its absence of the usual novelistic gimmickry. Jane Austen, Milbanke reported, “depends not on any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lapdogs and parrots, nor chambermaids and milliners, nor rencontres and disguises”.
Another spot-on observation was made by the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately (Austen is one of the few woman writers who appeals equally to men), who dared to suggest that her “heroines are what one knows women must be, though one can never get them to acknowledge it”. For evidence, witness that brilliant joke in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet tells her sister that her love for Darcy dated from “my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley”.
Mary Russell Mitford called Austen “a poker of whom everyone was afraid.” In the small drawing at right by her beloved sister Cassandra from about 1810 (National Portrait Gallery, London
), Austen looks like a person who did not suffer fools gladly … and who would skewer them at the earliest opportunity. By 1869, this image was refashioned into the more anodyne one below.

No comments:

Post a Comment