Literary fame is something all writers think about. From contemporary stars like Stephen King and JK Rowling to authors of the classics, like Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen, all that recognition sounds pretty darn exciting. These days, literary stardom can come overnight if you hit the right topic, and nothing can stop anybody from producing a book for the world to buy.
On a recent trip to England, I had a chance to think about fame and what it might really mean. Let me start by saying, I’m not a Janeite, the term coined in the late 1800’s for fans of Jane Austen. But I’ve read some of her books, get a little too excited over Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, and certainly admire Ms. Austen for writing about the strong societal topics of her era.
And here I was, walking the same cobblestone pavements that inspired Jane to write Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Even sleeping on the same street where she once lived, an unintentional hotel choice (although I learned Jane lived in several different apartments during her five years in Bath.) So naturally, when I passed the Jane Austen Center on our way to visit the Circus and Royal Crescent (Georgian styled homes made from local, golden-colored “bath stone”), I had to pay homage to the woman who’d created Mr. Darcy. Come on, don’t all romance writers and authors of women’s fiction owe her a little something?
Only as our tour proceeded, I learned the celebrity status Jane owns in history is nothing she ever lived to see. In fact, Jane struggled to get her work recognized.
- In 1795, early versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were both rejected by publishers.
- In 1803 Northanger Abbey was sold to a publisher for ten sterling pounds, but not printed.
- In 1810 Sense and Sensibility was finally accepted for publication, only the author name showed the book as written by “a Lady.”
- In fact, Jane’s name never appeared on any of her published books until after her death in 1817.
Imagine these facts, especially in light of how she’s viewed in today’s world of publishing. And Jane wasn’t the only author I stumbled upon during my visit whose written works were overlooked.
At Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (London), I learned Geoffrey Chaucer is buried in the south transept of the abbey. Only I also found out that when Chaucer first died back in 1400, he’d been actually living near the abbey and was in royal favor. His burial, initially, at the cathedral was done with a plain slab near one of the chapels, mostly due to his friendship with the monks, but definitely NOT because of his writing career. Only over a hundred years later did the author of The Canterbury Tales end up being moved and buried next to Shakespeare, finally recognized by the church for his literary achievements.
The only piece I control is the quality of my writing, with the hope for a decent paycheck. And the truth is, that’s what drives me to write. Not the others things. So if I’m Jane A., looking down on earth from some heavenly place, I’d be satisfied (and a teeny bit bitter lol!)
What about you?