The novel is unique in the sense it gives the reader of intimacy with an author; and authors, like potential friends, present themselves more or less alluringly. Most come and go; I've noticed that after decades in the shadow of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope has emerged in the past few years - not only, I suspect, because of his enlightening worldliness, but also because of his judicious style.
At the same time, who is reading Sinclair Lewis any more? Lewis's works are smart and even relevant to our times ( It Can't Happen Here, Elmer Gantry), but there is something about his style that doesn't suit us. Maybe in 50 years, he will be all the rage.
Anyone who thinks that an author shouldn't have a rest from time to time should read Claire Harman's Jane's Fame, about the evolution of Jane Austen's career from about 1802, when, at the age of 27, she sold her first manuscript (of Northanger Abbey, never published in her lifetime) for £10, to now.
The common misconception about Austen, according to Harman, is that she was reclusive and indifferent to her own concerns, including the reception of her books, but Harman makes a convincing case that she was neither as indifferent nor as obscure as we have been led to believe.
She had important readers, such as Princess Charlotte, the only legitimate daughter of George IV (then the Prince Regent), who enjoyed Sense and Sensibility and others, and though Austen wasn't well connected enough to hear about this particular fan, she did know her works were well-liked, and she did make money from them (which she saved). After her death, a prominent publisher paid her family £500 for the rights to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and she got an excellent review of them in Blackwood's.
Austen fell into obscurity for about a generation, so much so that a popular novelist of the 1830s, Thomas Lister, "seems to have read Austen's works with care and reproduced a great many scenes, characters, and even names from them in his own novels." Austen had other imitators: As early as 1820, James Fenimore Cooper published as his first novel a book called Precaution, which seems to have been an American revisioning of Persuasion.
But Austen's readership began to grow, so that by 1869 her living relatives felt that a biography was in order, one that would set out a proper image of the woman who was their great-aunt. Unfortunately, so many of Austen's letters and possessions had been destroyed or dispersed that the biography was more hopeful than accurate, rather like the various portraits that were drawn of Austen (the only known pictures were sketches by her sister Cassandra, one of them from behind). Austen remained much more obscure as a person than as a narrative voice, which meant that readers like you and me continued to be absolutely free to adore her, and we have.
Lord Alfred Tennyson loved her and Charlotte Brontë did not. William Dean Howells loved her and Mark Twain decidedly did not (but he didn't like Cooper either). Critics George Saintsbury and Leslie Stephen disagreed about her. Henry James admired her, but deplored the publishing rush that was, by 1905, promoting Austen's works as not only saleable but tasteful, safe and "pretty." He must have seen something more in there than prettiness. Maybe it was intelligence.
Because even in Northanger Abbey, a book that Austen wrote in her 20s, there is nothing so apparent and so delightful as the fact that this author is smart as well as witty, unless it is that she thoroughly enjoys her own powers. Each book repays rereading: A reader may be younger than Lydia when she reads Pride and Prejudice the first time, and older than Mr. Bennet when she reads it the last time, and with every different perspective, the characters and the plot take on new charms.
And although the six Austen novels bear similarities to one another, each displays a slightly different mood, the brightness of Sense and Sensibility modulating through subsequent novels to the resignation of Persuasion. Yes, there's no one quite so in control of her tone and her material as Jane Austen.
But her fate through the 20th century and into the 21st is to have become all things to all readers, and this is the cautionary part of Claire Harman's precisely told and carefully researched (though amusing) tale. The six novels aren't enough for us. They have to be made into movies that substitute romantic grandeur for Austen's own skepticism; they have to generate blogs, books of advice and pastiches such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. They have to give birth to rewritings and additional volumes and a body of chicklit, not to mention reams of critical writings and scads of souvenirs.
Most of these offspring grow out of acts of love, not merely commerce, but one finishes Harman's book a little chastened. What hath Jane wrought? Is there any harm in it? As a lover of Jane Austen myself, I've got to wonder. Probably not much, but to get stuck in Jane Austen may be to miss George Eliot (who had more ambition), Virginia Woolf (who never promoted happily ever after), Rebecca West (even more ambition), Nancy Mitford (funny too, and more sophisticated) along with hundreds of others, and those are only the English ones.
If Austen went into hibernation for 10 years, there would be plenty of new pleasures awaiting the rabid fans who read her over and over. And at the end of 10 years, we could go back to Austen herself with renewed appreciation.
Jane Smiley's new novel, Private Life, will be published in May.