Who Says Jane Austen Was a Popular Novelist?

Given Jane Austen's ubiquity, and the fact that anything with her name on it will sell, you might think she's always been a sensation. But you'd be wrong.
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Jane Austen has conquered the world, as Claire Harman puts it so well in Jane's Fame. Austen is now a brand.

There's been no end of hit films and miniseries of her work and she's so much a part of our popular culture that we've gone light years beyond books featuring Jane as a detective to mash-ups with vampires and zombies. The sequel to Terminator Salvation is going to be subtitled Revenge of the Regency and Christian Bale goes back to save Jane and her novels from destruction. Could there be a better date film?

Okay, I made that one up, but it might be time for a Mel Brooks musical. I can hear Austen now, singing to the melody of "Fame":


I'm gonna be so famous
I'm gonna live when I die!

I feel my audience growing
They're gonna love me and buy!

Given Austen's ubiquity, and the fact that anything with her name on it will sell, you might think she's always been a sensation. But you'd be wrong, as Jodi Picoult was when she recently said the New York Times needed to review popular authors because

historically the books that have persevered in our culture and
in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day,
but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think
about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular
authors. They were writing for the masses.

Not at all. Austen's fame and popularity grew long after her death, but during her life she was only moderately successful, and novels weren't even the most popular genre in her era.

Back then, novels were less widely read than poetry by celebrity authors like Sir Walter Scott and Byron. The day it was published in 1814, Byron's The Corsair sold 10,000 copies. Also published in 1814, Emma took six months to sell out its printing of 1250 copies.

And when Scott turned to historical fiction in 1814 with Waverly, he became an instant success in this genre, thanks to his poetry. He sold far better than Austen ever did in her lifetime. Given his status as 800-pound gorilla on the literary scene, it's not surprising Austen made fun of their different levels of success in a letter to her niece Anna:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. - It is not fair. - He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths. - I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it - but fear I must...

So who did read Austen? She was a special favorite of the fashionable set who enjoyed guessing at her identity because her first four books were published anonymously. Aristocrats ranging from the future wife of Byron all the way to the dissolute Prince Regent and his beloved daughter Charlotte admired her work. The royal librarian even gave Austen a tour of the Prince's ornate London residence, telling her that his master kept copies of her books in all his homes.

When she died in 1817, Austen was more than fifty years away from the idolatry and burgeoning sales of her first great boom (the second came in the 1990s, thanks in part to Colin Firth's Darcy). As Jane's Fame records, "Compared with the global fame of Scott and Byron, Austen's little group of admirers and sales of a few thousand were negligible and although plenty of her readers had declared themselves delighted....her fame seemed temporary and localized."

It would take a very long time for Austen to become a superstar. But now that she has, baby, we'll always remember her name.

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