This is an immensely readable combination of biography, literary analysis, and personal essay, both exasperating and enlightening.
It is at its most ex This is an immensely readable combination of biography, literary analysis, and personal essay, both exasperating and enlightening.
It is at its most exasperating when Harman attempts to tell us what Austen or her contemporaries were thinking, or what they really meant; it is best at uncovering facts and patterns relating to Austen’s publication history, reviews, biographies, and mentions in wildly ranging contexts after Austen’s death.
Examples of the former: page 46, in quoting a letter between Jane and Cassandra, about losing her anonymity due to her brother Charles’ enthusiasm (and lack of ability to keep his lip zipped):
"The truth is that the Secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now—& that I believe whenever the third [novel] appears, I shall not even attempt to tell Lies about it—I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it. People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.”
Harmon goes on to say, This is a remarkably hard-nosed remark, a world away from the portrait later painted by Henry Austen and James Edward Austen-Leigh of the woman who ‘only wrote for her own amusement.’
I can’t help but regard that as a stupid remark—‘hard-nosed’—as if Harman is tone deaf to the joking irony with which Austen habitually wrote to her sister, as well as in the books! Then she goes on to say, with an equivalent total lack of proof, Critical success was gratifying, but Austen also coveted sales dearly. Where, in the scant data Jane Austen left behind, is the evidence of ‘coveting dearly’?
Another instance of bending over backwards (with three twists and a half-gainer) to prove Austen’s feet of clay is this example on pages 47-8: Mary Russel Mitford, a novelist whose long life barely overlapped with Austen, heard gossip through a friend who reported the words of another friend in 1815:
“A friend of mine, who visits her now, says that she has stiffened into the most perpendiculr, precise, taciturn piece of ‘single blessedness . . .’” And it goes on to basically castigate Austen for not talking much during calls.
From this third-hand gossip Harman posits that Austen was being “actively unpleasant to her admirers.” Where’s the proof that Austen was ‘actively unpleasant’ to anyone? Being silent during a call could mean any number of things—and deriving behavior patterns from the gossip of a third-hand party is not exactly predictive of patterns.
A third egregiously stupid remark comes in the chapter after Jane Austen died, when Harman reports on family letters. Cassandra, who held Jane until she died, wrote afterward to their niece Fanny.
Harmond reports it this way, in quoting Cassandra’s letter and commenting on it:
“I have lost such a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”
But this outpouring of feeling is instantly checked by the following consideration: “I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others, and I can acknowledge, more than as a generl principle, the just of the hand which as struck this blow.”
The absolute Christian correctness of this seems to violent for sympathy.
What a fatuous, stupid remark. Cassandra is writing from the depths of grief, striving to make sense of life, death, and the universe in a very eighteenth-century Christian fashion, and Harman sneers about ‘Christian correctness being too violent for sympathy.’
But once Jane Austen is dead, Harman is safe from the horror of Christian faith as the years go on and Austen gradually goes from obscurity to fame. Her conclusions about Austen’s fame are nebulous, and many of the specifics of how Austen’s books have been refashioned in modern times are really not specific to Austen but could stand for remakings going clear back to the evolution of Arthuriana over centuries, but the discussion is interesting, especially the formidable range of material on which she sheds light.
Harman’s tracking of mentions in the letters and essays of a variety of famous people shows her at her best: as a detective.
The gradual changing of Jane Austen’s few portraits, deliberately made simperingly pretty, is recorded in the photo insets. (Not that this was at all new; Mary Shelley and her son and daughter-in-law did a similar makeover on Shelley, actively changing some of the existing drawings from Shelley’s rather louche demeanor to an angelic perfection) We also learn about a wide variety of people whose lives were touched by Austen’s work: the revolutionary Fenelon, who translated Austen in prison while awaiting trial for a bombing, Rudyard Kipling, who wrote about grizzled Janeite soldiers, Winston Churchill, who retired with Austen to bed when he was sick or weary.
It ends with an exploration of Austen being discovered by filmmakers and the romance world. Various questions are raised bout the remarkable sticking power of Austen’s fame—is it really all about the famous dip in the lake, which incident never appears in the book?
She offers a variety of reasons, never pinning down one. That’s okay—it’s part of the fun of reading and talking about Jane Austen. Basically, this book is a good read once Austen is dead, and an interesting if untrustworthy one during her too-short life, and so it joins the many, many Austen-related books on the shelf, after having commented on its predecessors. ...more
A sweet, painful, true, wishful and hopeful, horrifying, and insightfully exploratory snapshot of adolescence, with an especial take on gender exploraA sweet, painful, true, wishful and hopeful, horrifying, and insightfully exploratory snapshot of adolescence, with an especial take on gender exploration. It is done in a deliberately messy style that seems to me to perfectly fit the messiness of teenhood....more