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When too much Jane Austen is barely enough

May 31, 2009
Cover image: Courtesy Cambridge University Press

Cover image: Courtesy Cambridge University Press

Okay, this is not going to turn into a Jane Austen blog but, nonetheless, you will probably find her the author I talk about the most. Today I read Frank Kermode‘s review in the London Review of Books of the recent Cambridge edition of the works of Jane Austen, Volume IX: The later manuscripts and Claire Harman’s Jane’s fame: How Jane conquered the world. Having reviewed, for a Jane Austen journal, another volume in the Cambridge edition, Jane Austen in context, I was interested to read Kermode’s take on what Cambridge has done. Not surprisingly he is impressed by the scholarship involved though recognises the end result is not necessarily geared to the lay reader (or even the lay enthusiast). Funnily, he talks more about other books in the series than the one he is reviewing. He spends a bit of time on Jane Austen in context, complimenting the range and level of commentary it provides. I heartily concur – it is indeed a wonderful book.

Cover image: Courtesy Cambridge University Press

Cover image: Courtesy Cambridge University Press

I’m not going to ramble on here about his review except to say that in his very dignified and scholarly way – I read that he turns 90 this year – he has a sly dig at that pehonomenon that so frustrates we Janeites, that is the Austen enthusiasts who haven’t read the books. He writes:

It is said that among the television audience there were some who saw Darcy’s emergence from his pond – an event omitted from her narrative – as the high point of the book.

Need I say more? Anyhow, this leads nicely to Claire Harman’s book, Jane’s fame. This fame is a matter of some controversy among Janeites. Do we love the fact that everyone loves her? Do we become frustrated that by focussing on the films (including such biopics as Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets) many “learn” things about Jane and her books that are not, in fact, “true”. Do we hope that after seeing the films people will turn to the books? What do we make of Pride and prejudice being rewritten as a zombie story? Or made into a Bollywood film? Or a series of Marvel comics? Is there a point of no return and has it been reached?

These are not, though, the questions Kermode asks. Having tracked a little the rise of her fame as described by Harman, he asks a more basic one:

How many novels of merit, less fortunate, have disappeared forever, or to wait for scholarship, perhaps only for a moment, to revive them. And is it true, as Harman claims, that it is ‘impossible to imagine a time when she or her works could have delighted us long enough’?

Good questions. And I would answer that I hope if those works are out there they do not replace Janeism but produce more wonderful writers for us to read and delight in.

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