TERRY GROSS, host:

Claire Harman has written acclaimed biographies of the novelists Sylvia Townsend Warner and Fanny Burney. In her latest book, "Jane's Fame," Harman considers the mostly posthumous career of the biggest female novelist of them all: Jane Austen.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: At her death in 1817 at age 41, Jane Austen had published four novels, anonymously, which had sold a few thousand copies. A few years later, those novels - along with two more, published posthumously - were out of print. Austen's reputation compared to that of her contemporaries - blockbuster lady novelists like Fanny Burney and swaggering celebs like Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron - was faint, as faint as the candlelight in the sitting room of the cottage she shared during the final years of her short life with her mother, sister and a close friend. There, according to the now-famous legend, Austen scratched out her novels, modestly concealing the latest pages of "Emma" or "Mansfield Park" whenever a squeaking hall door alerted her to the casual interruptions of servants or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party.

Austen's first biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, drummed in this reassuring image of Austen as a mouse, who wrote without regard to fame or fortune, when he equated her writing to her skill with embroidery. In his 1869 biographical sketch of Aunt Jane, Austen-Leigh approvingly noted that the same hand which painted so exquisitely with the pen could work as delicately with the needle.

Can you hear the chortling from beyond the grave? That's Austen - or at least the Austen Claire Harman gives us in her lively new book called "Jane's Fame." Harman's Austen is a dogged literary workhorse who coveted the bottom line of big sales. 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 that: The secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the shadow of a secret now, and I believe whenever the third 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.

Harman's shrewd critical study, brimming with Brit wit, freshens up our impression of Austen - an enterprise always hampered by the overarching fact that Austen's life, like Shakespeare's, left behind few biographical fossils - not even a decent portrait to bow down before and worship. The primary aim of "Jane's Fame," however, is to tackle the great literary mystery of how this parson's daughter who was happy to limit her scope to three or four families in a country village came to conquer the world.

With nimble steps, Harman dances through 200 years' worth of critical reception of Austen's novels, sharing the good, the bad and the brainless. Austen's own mother thought her son James, a failed poet, was the real writer in the family. Oh, mom. And then there were those, like Mark Twain, who found Austen's work representative of the most stultifying aspects of English literary taste. Twain growled: Every time I read "Pride and Prejudice," I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone.

But even during the bleak half-century between Austen's death and the publication of her nephew's biography, when Austen's cool, ironic sensibility seemed so out of fashion with Victorian earnestness, Austen was admired by a discerning few. After the biography was published, the first wave of Austen-mania hit, with Janeites like Rudyard Kipling and the Bloomsbury set leading the cheers.

Subsequently, she's become the darling of feminists, queer theorists, Merry Olde England hucksters, post-colonial critics, romance addicts and pornographers.

The 1990s witnessed another variant on Janeite fanaticism with the proliferation of Austen films, which Harman says maximized the erotic potential in Austen's novels. Think of actor Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in that dripping wet shirt, and you know she's right.

Harman's informed and elegant chronicle of the rise of Divine Jane, as the late Victorians called her, is an eye-opener. The fact that Austen's posthumous success is also an affirmation of the ideal of a literary meritocracy - the notion that the canonical cream always rises to the top - makes "Jane's Fame" as happy a fairy tale as any of Austen's own novels.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Jane's Fame" by Claire Harman.

I'm Terry Gross, and I'd like to end today's show by wishing Stephen Sondheim a happy 80th birthday, and I want to thank him for his extraordinary music.

(Soundbite of song, "Pretty Women")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Pretty women, fascinating. Sipping coffee, dancing. Pretty women are a wonder. Pretty women, sitting in the window or standing on the stair. Something in them cheers the air. Pretty women, silhouetted. Stay within you, glancing. Stay forever, breathing lightly, pretty women.

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