Amanda Vickery’s latest documentary, on Jane Austen’s fame and how her reputation has spread since her death in 1817, was aired on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, and I thought you might be interested in my thoughts on it. In the hour-long programme, she told the story of how Jane Austen and her works have come to enjoy such astronomical fame today, to the point where she is now ubiquitous. And it is an interesting journey, when you seriously consider it. Just how did the daughter of an obscure cleric, whose works were favoured by a small, elite group in her life time,
and then was almost forgotten…whose birthplace is now destroyed,
whose only authenticated image is tantalisingly vague,
and whose gravestone omitted to mention the fact that she a was a professional, published author of novels,
manage to become so famous, to the point where the world-wide Jane Austen industry (heritage or otherwise ) is today worth millions, and where one of her incomplete manuscripts, The Watsons, can command a price of almost £1 million at auction?
This story has been told before: Claire Harman’s book, Jane’s Fame:How Jane Austen Conquered the World( 2009), covered this topic quite succinctly - but this programme was not really meant for Jane aficionados who most probably will have already read the book. It was really aimed, in my opinion, to inform the non-obsessed amongst us (And yes, they do exist!) Those who, perhaps, take for granted that Jane Austen and her vibrant characters have always been so dominantly amongst us, this past 200 years, and may be surprised to learn that this has not really been the case.
This story was told as an interesting illustrated international journey- beautifully shot and Amanda Vickery is always a congenial, intelligent companion. En route we met with academics such as Professor Kathryn Sutherland, who explained away some of the Jane myths, especially those that surround the “official ” images of her;
Lucasta Millar, shown below in the gloomy graveyard at Haworth with Professor Vickery, explained the Romantic’s attitude to Jane and why they so violently rejected her.
One of the most outspoken critics of her, was, of course, Charlotte Bronte, hence the filming at Haworth in Yorkshire.
We learnt how the publishing world and in particular, W. H. Smith’s mid championing of the mid to late 19th century cheap yellow back railway editions of Jane’s novels began to spread the word ( when they were conveniently out of copyright)by offering them via their outlets on stations to the many thousands of bored railway travellers, desperate for some cheap entertainment on interminable journeys…
and how her reputation grew amongst a group of aesthetic men, to the point where many men serving in the trenches of World War One found solace in her world, retreating in their heads to her place of safety, thus avoiding the real horrors that daily beset them.
The academic world and its near obsession with her ( Have you ever tried to keep count of the sheer number of academic papers of varying merits that are published about Austen every year? Don’t attempt it, I beg of you…) was addressed and particular emphasis was paid to the important influence of F. R. Leavis and his wife Queenie
with their pugnacious championing of the English Novel (and in particular the moral and literary worth of Jane Austen) in their teaching at Cambridge, and also in his book The Great Tradition (1948) where he boldly asserted that
‘The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad’.
The importance of the wider media was also acknowledged, and indeed, this is probably the most important factor which has been the enabler of Jane’s extreme fame today. Given the amazing commercial success of film and TV adaptations of her novels, it may stun you to realise that, while Charles Dickens’ works were filmed countless times from the beginning of the cinema industry in the late 19th century, Jane Austen was ignored by Hollywood until the 1940 adaptation of Helene Jerome’s successful Broadway production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Laurence Oliver and Greer Garson.
BBC TV led the way to a certain extent with adaptations of Pride and Prejudice in 1938, 1952, 1958, and 1967, though this version ( of which I have vague memories) was aired in the Sunday tea-time slot, and was aimed primarily at an audience of children.
The 1980 version by Faye Weldon was broadcast on BBC2, and this, it was argued, was the beginning of Austen’s now massive popularity where TV audiences are concerned. Amanda confessed to finding David Rintoul’s Darcy particularly attractive…
And, of course, it was in 1995 with Andrew Davis’s version of the novel for BBC 1( aired this time at primetime Sunday evening viewing at 9 p.m.) that a world-wide, very enthusiastic audience was generated.
The documentary included an amusing interview with the incorrigible Andrew Davis, still championing his admittedly successful formula of “sexing-up ” of Austen’s novels, gaily claming she missed a trick in her portrayal of the, to him, rather sexless heroes of Sense and Sensibility( complaints on a postcard to Mr Davis and not to me , if you please)
What I liked most about the programme was its attitude toward the Janeites of today. The annual Bath Regency Promenade, part of the Bath Jane Austen Festival, shown here descending Gay Street , was filmed and most affectionately was it done, too.
The participants interviewed were not depicted (as I had feared) as crazed fans, but as thoughtful but fun-loving people whose interest in Jane had spurred them on to research her era in their own way. The JASNA conference at Fort Worth might have been an easy target for scorn, but Amanda seems to have genuinely enjoyed the experience, and found, I think, to her slight surprise that the audience consisted mainly of powerful, genuine, intelligent women, typified by Dr Cheryl Kinney, below. The point was made that the members of JASNA who came together to share their admiration and love for this author, saw her on many different levels. All interpretations were welcome. This section was a delight.
For the committed Janeite, there was not much new to be learned. But I have done a little market research amongst my Christmas Guests- none of whom are Janites, but who have endured my obsession for too many years to number here- and they learnt a lot from the documentary. ( Do note that watching it was not compulsory in this house, but some brave souls did sit through it with me). They had assumed, incorrectly, that Jane’s fame has always been as great as it is now. Their surprise was palpable when they discovered this was not the case. They throughly enjoyed this entertaining and charming history of the cult of Jane. It was an interesting programme, and if you do not have access to the BBC Iplayer, where you can watch it again, here, then I do hope it will be made available to you on DVD soon.