Monday, February 28, 2011

Jane's Fame by Claire Harman: Review and Giveaway!

The incredible height of my TBR pile prompted me to postpone reading Jane'e Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered The World when it was first released, but when the kind people at Picador (check them out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/picadorbookclub)offered me a free copy for review, I bumped Claire Harman's exploration of the meteoric rise of Austen's reputation to the top of my priority list. Despite my great appreciation for and love of any free book, I really wish I had broken down and bought a copy in order to read this sooner. I found it absolutely fascinating and far more informative than yet another biography, which is what I had been led to largely expect. While the book does offer much information regarding Austen's life, the focus always remains on her notoriety, particularly how an unmarried lady from Hampshire went from a moderately successful novelist who, after her early death, began to fade into obscurity, into the massively popular cultural phenomenon that she is today. While many of us Janeites are highly familiar with the end of this tale (and I found it highly gratifying to read the names of some of my favorite Austen blogs towards the end of the book), the light Harman sheds on the years that really solidified Austen's renown, from about the middle of the 19th century though the early years of the 20th, was a revelation to me. I highly recommend this absorbing account to anyone with a love for the "Devine Jane".

The information included in the book is far too dense to recount in detail here, so I will instead focus on the aspect of it that I found most remarkable: the massive diversity of those who have found in Austen both solace in times of turmoil and political justification of their causes. The most astounding example of the first is probably the fact that Winston Churchill, when planning the-day operation with Roosevelt and Stalin, suffered from a severe fever which he weathered by reading Pride and Prejudice. Overall, this book offers a wonderful new argument for me to leverage against all those who so frequently claim that Austen is strictly chick-lit. Harman recounts her popularity amongst troops in the trenches during World War I, for whom Austen represented the calm and peace that was so absent from their lives. She was also recommended reading to soldiers recovering from wounds, as her novels were considered therapeutic. This is a far cry from the modern image of bonnet-wearing, cat-loving Janeites who swoon over Colin Firth in a wet shirt (not that there is anything wrong with that), and I loved every detail of  Harman's stereotype busting narrative. I was further mesmerized by Harman's highlighting of the ability political opponents have to leverage Austen in the name of the disparate causes. Suffregettes looked to her as an example of the powerful nature of the feminine mind, while their opponents held up her values as ideals of traditional femininity. The latter argument was further complicated by her popularity amongst anarchists, who saw in her wit an execration of the bourgeois lifestyle. Harman proves over and over again that Austen can be all things to all people. Her novels are open to as large a variety of interpretations of the Bible.

And here is your opportunity to be similarly delighted by your very own free copy of this intriguing book. For those of you who might shy away from the notion of reading non-fiction, let me assure you that Harman is highly readable and accessible to all, not just those with an academic bent. If you love Jane, I find it hard to believe you will not be enthralled by Jane's Fame. For your chance to win simply leave a comment, including your email address, by Wednesday, March 16th. For a second opportunity to win, let me know why you think Austen's novels have such a broad and lasting appeal. Good luck to all who enter. The lucky winner will be the owner of a wonderful celebration of Austen's unprecedented popularity.        

16 comments:

  1. Hi Alexa. Sounds like a great book.

    Hmmm....why do I think Jane Austen's books have such broad and lasting appeal? For me, the language is exquisite. And her ability to draw a character so that they leap off the page and either make you laugh or swoon. That and the fact that her novels transfer to the screen so well (it's almost as if she wrote the screenplays). I am still waiting for the definitive Mansfield Park, but the other films are ones I pop in to the DVD player when I need soothing. Better than Pinot Noir and chocolate!

    jennyallworthy at gmail dot com

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  2. I would love to win Jane's Fame, I've heaard so many good things about the book.

    Why do I think Austen's novels have such a broad and lasting appeal? Many reasons, but one reason is her wonderful characters.

    Felicia
    felicialso@gmail.com

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  3. Hi Jenny! I too would love another Mansfield adaptation. The 1983 version is the only one that even remotely satisfies me, and it is very dated. Thanks for entering a good luck!

    Hi Felicia! I think you would enjoy it very much. Good luck in the giveaway and thanks for participating!

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  4. I saw this book on amazon.uk.co shortly after it came out and ordered it here in the US. I loved it. I didn't know it had the cover shown above and am guessing this is the American cover. I'd love to have that one, too. The book was highly entertaining for so many reasons. I totally recommend others read it.

    kfield2@verizon.net

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  5. Hi Karen! I think this is actually a second edition cover, as the one listed on Amazon is different, but I am not positive. I'm glad you enjoyed it too, and good luck!

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  6. I think her books are so popular because she writes so eloquently about universal themes - themes that still effect our lives to this day. In Pride and Prejudice, for instance, several characters are concerned with appearance and class; today, we still worry about how we fit into this world and having enough money to be part of the right class. And of course there is love - we all secretly hope to be part of a love story as beautiful as those written by Jane.

    Margay1122ATaolDOTcom

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  7. Hi Margay! We certainly do, and I like to think her books provide a blueprint for helping us to get there. Best of luck to you in the giveaway, and thanks for entering!

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  8. Everyone wants to BE Jane Austen....or at least have her love life!

    nowakoski@sbcglobal.net

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  9. Hi Ms. Dawn! I assume you mean her character's love life? Thanks for entering!

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  10. Yes Alexa, her praise of Emma Tennant showed how little she knows about JAFF! Lovely and well-written reivew, as always! I'm glad you admired it as much as I did!

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  11. Thanks Meredith! I always feel good when we concur on books, as it is reassuring to know that my own slants and biases didn't affect my judgment.

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  12. Aurelie - livresdemelleaurel@hotmail.frMarch 4, 2011 at 3:07 AM

    I really appreciate AUSTEN. In France, we don't have lot of books around this autor.
    Austen's novels have such a broad and lasting appeal ? That, we are English, American, French, we all have the same passion regardless of the culture !

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  13. She's so popular because her themes are always current: loving the best friend who's in love with someone else (Fanny), disliking someone and then discovering it was a prejudiced decision (Elizabeth), falling in love at first site and sharing everything with sisters/friends (Marianne), daydreaming about being a heroine in a book (Catherine), regretting a decision (Anne). I've been in each one of these situations (except perhaps Anne's, but I'm just 24, I suppose it's a bit early for that :-)) and, more than once, I found myself thinking "what would Jane Austen say?", because she's not stuck in her period.

    And, since her books are not soppy silly love stories (although sometimes are so considered by non readers), even the male public is charmed, because she's witty and her characters are real.

    But these are just my opinion, I'd love to know more about her actual influence (I mean, Churchill?? WOW)

    lallyjx@libero.it

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  14. Hi Aurelie, and thanks for stopping by! I agree - Austen's appeal crosses all cultures. Her themes are universal.

    Hi Laura, and how nice to see you here! I too have experienced all theses circumstances, including Anne's (though I do my best to live without regrets, it's nearly impossible). And thanks you for highlighting the male perspective. I think one of the biggest tragedies of Austen's modern popularity is that it has been such a largely female phenomenon. Though I love them, I blame the films for this. Not many men are willing to read her novels, though I know of none who could despise them once they took the plunge! Good luck in the giveaway!

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  15. Alexa, by the way, now us "bonnet-wearing, cat-loving Janeites" have also Dan Stevens' wet shirt to swoon over ;-) (just saying :-))

    Have you seen the movie "The Jane Austen book club"? I've found it incredible, especially the reactions of Grigg and Sylvia's husband (and the way he uses Jane to save his marriage :-)). In the interviews the male actors were adamants about being prejudiced, prior the movie, to JA and later becoming great fan.
    I forced my parents to watch P&P 2005 (my mom is more a thriller fan so she's never read JA, much to my dismay), and strangely enough, now is my father who's hooked with JA :-) (through the movie he kept comparing the characters to us or people we know, especially Kitty and Lydia: they are my younger sisters) heard from him last evening and he was like "I don't get this Edmund: why is he going after Mary when he could have Fanny?" :-)

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  16. Laura - Your father sounds like a man after my own heart! I have converted my husband into a Janeite, but I can't convince him to appreciate poor Fanny. I must admit that, while amused by The Jane Austen Book Club, I didn't love it. I had a very hard time relating to the characters, other than their love for Jane of course. Their problems were very alien to my life, and as I had long been reading Austen aloud with my husband when I first saw the film, I kind of felt like it co-opted my personal indulgence. I should probably rewatch it and do a post on it (I saw it previously before I started blogging). Maybe I'll enjoy it more the second time around?

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