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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jane Austen at the Swindon Festival of Literature!


Literary Festivals are marvellous things. They are full of thought-provoking talks on topics that can give you endless story ideas, you can meet famous authors who make you feel great because it turns out they experience exactly the same writing process that you do, and you can give your credit card a really good work out.

Over the past 10 days I’ve been attending various events at the Swindon Literature Festival. Now in its 16th year the festival is beautifully run by Matt Holland and always provides a fascinating programme with a great mix of writers, thinkers, philosophers and storytellers. Last week I heard the ever-entertaining Julian Clary talk about his latest novel, I went to a talk by Professor Kathleen Burk about the historical and current relationship between Britain and America and I went to a Philosophy Society discussion on the nature of friendship. And today I sallied forth to hear Claire Harman talking about her book Jane’s Fame, an exploration of how Jane Austen conquered the world.

The talk proved to be a wonderful scamper through the history of Jane Austen’s popularity from her attempts to achieve publication (great encouragement for aspiring writers there as she was rejected on several occasions and it took years for her first book to be published) to her powerful influence on contemporary phenomena such as chick-lit, romantic comedy, the heritage industry and film. We covered the ground from books written by “A Lady”, or “Lady A” as her publisher described her, possibly with deliberate misdirection, to Jane Austen and zombies, vampires and various other paranormal phenomenon.

I loved hearing anecdotes about the time that Jane’s niece Anna picked up a copy of Sense and Sensibility at the circulating library and, not knowing that her aunt was the author, put it down again saying she could tell that it would be boring simply from reading the title. Claire Harman also touched on Jane Austen’s first fan – a Miss Sheriff who was recommended Jane Austen’s works by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and became such a devotee that she wanted her carriage to break down at Chawton so she could knock on Jane’s door asking for help. Also interesting was the fact that Annabella Milbanke, who went on to have such an ill-fated marriage to Lord Byron, was one of the first ladies who found Mr Darcy incredibly attractive. Perhaps that explains why things didn’t work out for her with Byron. He couldn’t live up to Darcy. And who would have thought that James Fenimore Cooper’s first novel was called Precaution and bore more than a passing resemblance to Persuasion? These and other vignettes were slipped into the talk to make a fascinating whole.

Jane Austen’s popularity experienced various peaks and troughs in the Victorian era and whilst some critics were so fulsome in their praise they were practically suggesting canonisation for her, others were less complimentary, including Mark Twain who commented: “Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” That’s something to remember, perhaps, if one receives a critical review. You can please thousands of readers but not everyone! Claire Harman commented that it was the illustrations that accompanied William Austen Leigh’s biography of Jane Austen that did much to increase her appeal as the "Divine Jane". The pictures were soft and pretty and Jane was portrayed as a domestic angel – no wandering about on the moors for her, unlike the Bronte sisters!

I had not heard previously that during the First World War many British troops read Jane Austen for nostalgic reasons, for reassurance and for a reminder of home. Her dissection of character and her descriptions of village life were exactly what they wanted in such violent, disturbing and alien a place as a theatre of war.


And so to the present, and the proliferation of fan clubs, films, TV adaptations and fiction inspired by Jane Austen’s work. We were running short of time by now and so there was no analysis of what it is about Jane Austen’s books that might make another author choose to re-write Pride and Prejudice with added zombies. This was a topic that I would have found very interesting. I suppose it was also inevitable that Claire Harman referred to romantic fiction in a somewhat derogatory way, with even Georgette Heyer being called “lowbrow.” This, as always, made me bristle for the generalisations and value judgements involved, particularly since Claire Harman also mentioned the Colin Firth wet shirt moment in the 1995 TV version of Pride and Prejudice with something approaching gushing approval. I wish that commentators could see the contradiction in their own words at times like this; it reminds me of those newspapers that are so snooty about romantic fiction in film, TV and book reviews and then print lonely hearts advertisements on the next page without apparently seeing the hypocrisy of their actions. Anyway, a point about the Jane Austen films and TV adaptations that was well made was that many people who have seen the adaptations but never read the books are convinced that the wet shirt Darcy moment actually existed in the original and so their “experience” of Jane Austen is different from that of a reader.

All in all this was the sort of public history I love the best, not a biography of Jane Austen or a critique of her work but a witty and interesting analysis of the “Jane phenomena” from the time she was writing to the present day.

1 comment:

Anna Campbell said...

Fascinating post, Nicola. I would have loved to hear the zombie take too!