JANE’S FAME: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. By Claire Harman. Henry Holt. 277 pp. $26. A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED: Thirty-Three Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen. Edited by Susannah Carson. Random House. 295 pp. $25
Not long after Jane Austen’s death in 1817, at age 41, her brother Henry wrote a “Biographical Notice” to coincide with the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. “Short and easy will be the task of the mere biographer,” he assured his sister’s readers. “A life of usefulness, literature, and religion was not by any means a life of event.”
Can any biographer in literary history have been less prescient? In the two centuries since Henry Austen made that assessment, curiosity about his sister’s life, along with enthusiasm for her work, have reached a frenzied level, and her very name has become “an infinitely exploited global brand,” as Claire Harman observes in her fascinating and beautifully written study of the shifts and changes in the novelist’s reputation, Jane’s Fame. Nowadays, Harman points out, “a glance along the ‘A’ shelf of any good bookshop will reveal a dizzying array of books on Jane Austen: study guides, biographies, source books, companions, books on Jane Austen and the theater, Jane Austen and food, and religion, and money, and the Romantic poets. . . . Jane Austen on film, in a social context, as a parson’s daughter, as a sailor’s sister, the historical Jane Austen, the postcolonial Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s style.”
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Brooke Allen’s most recent book is The Other Side of the Mirror: Travels in Ancient and Modern Syria, which is forthcoming. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.more from this author >>