Biography Offers New Glimpses Of Jane Austen

It has been almost 200 years since Jane Austen's death but her books remain some of the most widely read in English literature. Claire Harman, author of the book Jane's Fame, about Austen's life, discusses her popularity.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Jane Austen has given us some our favorite love stories, movies and TV programs, and daydreams of characters like the rich and handsome Mr. Darcy. And quotations: It is a truth universally acknowledge that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.

How did this spinster, born in 1775, who live most of her life in an English village, come to inhabit imaginations in the 21st century?

Claire Harman answers that question in her new book, "Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World."

For one thing, Claire Harman says, Jane Austen wrote in a completely new style.

Ms. CLAIRE HARMAN (Author): She really took out of the 18th century all the flimflam and the verbosity that had held it back, really, and reshaped the novel. I mean she modernized the novel single-handedly and before she was published.

WERTHEIMER: Modernized it how?

Ms. HARMAN: By making it shorter, more streamlined, funnier. She's such an intellectual and she's writing love stories, so you get a wonderful combination of very clear thinking, very astute analysis of society and of human nature. And her jokes are terribly funny.

WERTHEIMER: She was not writing about kidnappings and sword fights and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: ...all the sort of romantic and gothic-ee(ph) stuff that was current when she was young.

Ms. HARMAN: No, she didnt put in scenes of high drama, anything unrealistic. She kept to simple storylines, three or four families in a country village, credible characters. I mean they step out of those books as if we know them from everyday life today. I mean they are so well observed in such enduring types.

WERTHEIMER: Jane Austen was reasonably successful even in her lifetime, and then she had a kind of a trough - a period where no one read her. And it began to look as though her books would just die with her.

The biography that was written by her nephew, that helped just sort of propel her into a wider readership.

Ms. HARMAN: Oh, yes, very much so. I mean that was really lighting the blue touch paper for Austen's fame, because it dealt almost exclusively with Jane Austen's supposedly meek and genteel personality and hardly anything about the books. Suddenly readers who were vaguely aware of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma" and "Sense and Sensibility" were made even more aware of them by this personality of the lovely aunt.

And James Edwards' memoir of his aunt made her into a sort of sentimental object. You know, and people loved her as a person and as a character, as well as the books and sometimes instead of the books.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think she really was like that, that sort of meek and mild and the dear aunt and the loving sister and so forth?

Ms. HARMAN: Well, she's certainly a loving sister and she was certainly a beloved aunt. But she wasnt necessarily a nice person at all. I mean there's really nothing in the letters to suggest anything other than a very sharp-witted and at times rather acid-tongued woman.

And, you know, the mind behind the novels could only be a very discerning, very critical mind. I mean she's - the famed irony of Austen's novels is really a way of saying that she was quite cynical and very worldly.

WERTHEIMER: You told me something that I had never heard before in this book, that Jane Austen had big fans in the trenches in the First World War - a sense of Austen and other literature of her period as a moment of escape.

Ms. HARMAN: Thats right. The 18th century novelists and writers were very popular in the trenches in the Great War. And yes, Austen was used in the fever chart that the War Office drew up to treat shell-shocked soldiers. She was put top of that chart, in terms of how therapeutic her works could be in a dire situation where a man was grievously wounded and needed to be read to. Austen's novels were thought to be the most comforting.

WERTHEIMER: I think there are a lot of people in the 21st century who feel that way about Jane Austen. Certainly I do. I have three of her books on my electronic reader for, you know, when things go horrible on me, I can sit down and read for a little while and calm down.

Ms. HARMAN: You know, when Im on an airplane, for instance, I always turn - if there's a Jane Austen adaptation, I will watch it for the Nth time because I always feel as if Im in mortal danger on an airplane and I want the reassurance of Austen or, you know, a similar writer and the comfort of that known thought.

And yet the wonderful thing about Austen is however many times you read those books, they're always surprising. I mean you know what the outcome of the plot is going to be, but she still manages through her shared skill to keep you in a state of suspense.

So you know, when you get near to the end of "Emma" you think, gosh, will Mr. Knightley actually propose?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARMAN: And it's absurd. Of course you know he's going to propose. What else is there to happen? It's Austen's amazing ability to be fresh every time you read her.

WERTHEIMER: In your account of Jane's fame, every time that her popularity seems to sag a bit, something saves her - well-timed biographies in the 19th century. And then maybe her biggest rescuer of all, the movies in the 20th century.

Ms. HARMAN: Certainly. Well, since the 1995 BBC film that really surprised everybody with its intense interest, great success, and nobody realized how that could be followed up by even more films, even more adaptations and riffs on them. You know, you had all those films like "Clueless" and "Bride and Prejudice." And you now have strange spin-offs like the zombies books last year, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

Who would have thought that a book that contained 85 percent of Austen's text would sell so much more than a hundred percent of Austen's text? I mean it's really amazing.

WERTHEIMER: If Jane Austen were alive today, one thing she would be is stinking rich...

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: ...from all of the rights to the movies and the books and whatnot.

Ms. HARMAN: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: But do you think she would have had the faintest notion that all this could have happened?

Ms. HARMAN: Not in the slightest. Because Jane Austen's fame is disproportionate - I mean she's a genius but still her fame is disproportionate to anybody's genius. It has grown and it has moved away from the text. It occupies people's minds in ways that dont relate to the books but relate to fantasies and dreams around the books.

And she would have been quite appalled, I think, at even more fame than she had in her lifetime, which was little enough. She didnt want to be gawked at by neighbors who'd discovered she was an author. She wanted to maintain her integrity and her freedom to look at the world and be able to honestly say what she thought about it.

WERTHEIMER: Claire Harman's book is called "Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World."

Thank you very much.

Ms. HARMAN: Thank you.

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