In spite of becoming a twentieth-century pop-culture phenomenon, the inspiration for numerous romantic films and chick-lit publications, Jane Austen remains one of literature’s most significant novelists. Today, in honour of International Women’s Day, we’ll push aside the accumulated sentiment to look at Jane Austen as writer and author, and examine the publishing history of her novels.
Austen was born in Hampshire, England in 1775, the seventh and youngest child of George and Cassandra Austen. George was an Oxford-educated rector, and the family was comfortably middle-class, closely-knit, and engaged with literature and culture. George saw to it that his daughters, Cassandra and Jane, were both educated, and Jane developed her taste for reading and theatricals from activities within the family, including the influence of her older brothers, as well as the libraries she had access to during several years at boarding school. Influenced by authors such as Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Richardson, she began writing stories and poetry at a young age, and many of her early pieces parodied the dramatic popular novels and histories of the era.
In the early 1790s Austen started composing full-length novels, beginning with Sense and Sensibility. It was not yet finished when, in 1796, she began work on “First Impressions”, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice. The first of her novels to be completed, this became a family favourite and was offered by her father to the publisher Thomas Cadell in 1797, but was turned down. Undaunted, Austen in 1798 and 99 completed her third novel, first titled “Susan”, and then “Catherine”, but renamed Northanger Abbey when it was later published posthumously. The rights to this third novel were sold to Richard Crosby & Son in 1803, though they failed to publish it.
Despite this setback, Austen and her family persisted in seeking publication, and they offered Sense and Sensibility to Thomas Egerton, who had previously printed James and Henry Austen’s Oxford periodical The Loiterer. As was common during the period, Austen was asked to pay for publication on a commission basis: Egerton fronted the money and the author was only paid after the printing costs and publisher’s commission were recouped. Henry Austen wrote that Jane was so concerned about the book not meeting the printing costs that she “made a reserve from her very moderate income to meet the expected loss” (Gilson p. 8). Austen, as she would be with each of her novels, was heavily involved in editing and preparing the text for publication, and wrote to her sister in spring of 1811 that, “No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S. & S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child… I have had two sheets to correct, but the last only brings us to W.s. first appearance. Mrs. K. regrets in the most flattering manner that she must wait till May, but I have scarcely a hope of its being out in June” (Gilson p. 8).
Sense & Sensibility finally appeared in October 1811 as a three volume set in a print run of fewer than 1,000 copies, priced 15 shillings each. Despite Austen’s fears, it was a success, selling quickly and garnering positive reviews. The copy pictured above is a first edition in the original boards. This is a truly rare survival, as the board bindings produced by early nineteenth-century publishers were relatively flimsy and not originally intended to be permanent. Those who could afford it usually preferred to have the book bound in leather. Below, an example of the title page, with the anonymous attribution “By A Lady”:
The first edition was sold out by July 1813, and a second edition was published by Egerton in October of that year, with some corrections and changes, but also a number of textual errors, and it sold only slowly.
Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, was first published in January of 1813, also in three volumes by Egerton, in a print run that was likely 1500 copies.
Five copies were sent to the author, and on 29 January she wrote that “I have got my own darling child from London” (Gilson p. 24).
Below, an example of a first edition bound in contemporary tree calf, along with the title page. Pride and Prejudice was Austen’s bestselling book during her lifetime, and a second edition was published by Egerton in 1813 (it’s easy to tell the difference between the first and second editions because “second edition” is stated on the title page), as well as a third edition in 1817.
It is clear from her letters and other primary sources that Austen was serious about her writing and eager to be published. She established a routine for writing and was freed from much of the burden of housekeeping by her close female relatives. Austen also “dealt directly and firmly with her two publishers, Thomas Egerton and John Murray, complained when they were dilatory, and took a close interest in the progress of each of her publications, the costs of printing and paper (for which she was liable), and the copyrights and subsequent editions. She was not ashamed of meaning to make money” (ODNB).
Most tellingly, she carefully planned ahead for an additional three novels, ambitious narratives that would subvert the traditional storylines and sentiments to which her earlier books had adhered. Mansfield Park was begun in 1811 and finished in the summer of 1813, to be published in three volumes by Egerton in 1814. The print run was only 1,250 copies, with the publisher John Murray later expressing “astonishment that so small an edition of such a work should have been sent into the world” (Gilson p. 49). Pictured below is a copy in contemporary half calf with marbled boards:
At this time Austen was becoming unhappy with the Egerton firm, feeling ignored and hoping for larger royalties and greater control over her work. Most importantly, she had been unable to make editorial changes to later editions of her previous novels, since the copyrights belonged to the publisher, who could do with the texts as he wished. So she approached another publisher, John Murray, who offered to print the second edition of Mansfield Park along with the first edition of her fourth novel, Emma. This is the only one of Jane Austen’s novels to bear a dedication, to the Prince Regent, the arrangement of which generated a richly comic correspondence between the author and the Prince Regent’s librarian. Both books appeared in 1816, and unfortunately competed with one another, reducing the number of copies sold and forcing Murray to remainder 539 of the 2,000 copies of Emma. Below, a first edition of Emma in contemporary black half calf with marbled boards:
Unfortunately, this disappointment was the culmination of Austen’s literary career. In 1816 she completed Persuasion, the third of her planned novels, but she also began having back pains, and by autumn was suffering severely from what was probably Addison’s disease. She soldiered on, and in January 1817 began a new novel, Sanditon, though very little had been written by March, when she became too ill to continue. Austen died aged 41 on the morning of 18 July 1817, with her closest companion, her sister Cassandra, at her bedside. Two more novels, the recently completed Persuasion and the older work Northanger Abbey (her brother had recently repurchased the copyright from Crosby), were published posthumously as a set in 1818. This was the first time that Austen was credited as the author of any of her books, and it also included a biographical note by her brother Henry, which was lavish (most have felt overly so) in its praise. The copy below is in a contemporary binding of half calf with marbled boards:
Following this publication, Austen’s novels remained out of print for 12 years until the publisher Richard Bentley purchased the rights to all six books and in 1833 issued the first inexpensive editions, single volumes with an engraved frontispiece as illustration. His market was apparently the private buyer, as circulating libraries still had copies of the originals, and the lower cost allowed him to target the middle class. These early Bentley editions are more easily obtainable than true first editions of Austen’s books, and are very popular with collectors. Pictured below is the first Bentley edition of Mansfield Park in its original binding of purple calico with black labels to the spine. Like the first editions, Bentley’s editions were also available in more robust leather bindings, making these original, relatively fragile, cloth bindings uncommon.
Despite the Bentley editions, Austen remained a marginal author through much of the nineteenth century. It was not until the publication of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869 that interest in her was renewed and the first serious literary analyses of her novels were published. In 1892 J. M. Dent published the first collected edition of her works to include critical commentary (pictured below is a set of the Dent editions illustrated by C. E. Brock). The first scholarly editions, edited by R. W. Chapman, were published in 1923. These became the standard for future study and placed Austen firmly within the canon.
The insistence from some quarters that Austen’s work is romantic escapism, light reading revolving around unimportant women’s interests such as dresses and balls, is far from the truth. Inspired by a wide-ranging English literary tradition that included non-fiction, serious novels, and dramatic fiction, Austen used her intellect and unique wit to subvert and parody contemporary literary styles. She experimented with a variety of subjects and formulas, constantly innovated, and creatively incorporated a range of earlier material into her own books.
Though she didn’t write directly about what some consider “serious subjects” such as war or politics, she engaged with important social issues from a female perspective, notably class distinctions, the gulf between manners and morality, religion and hypocrisy among the upper classes, and women’s dependence on men. And while she was later portrayed by her nephew as demure and hesitant to be published, she was in fact serious about her role as author, dealing with her male publishers firmly and directly, and involving herself in all aspects of the publishing process.
Her impact on the world of English letters has been justifiably significant, and her books continue to be as engaging, humorous, and thought-provoking as they were in her own time.
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Links & Bibliography
- The standard bibliographies of Jane Austen are A Bibliography of Jane Austen by David Gilson (Oak Knoll Press, revised edition 1997) and Jane Austen:A Bibliography by Geoffrey Keynes (Nonesuch Press, 1929). Both are available from used booksellers on websites such as ABE.
- Though many biographies have been written, my favourite is Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin.
- Austen’s letters are available online. The text is that of the 1952 edition of the collected letters edited by R. W. Chapman, and is hosted by the University of Virginia Library.
- There are only two conclusively identified portraits of Jane Austen taken from life, both by her sister Cassandra. The most famous is this pencil and watercolour sketch c. 1810, which is held by the National Portrait Gallery. (The other is of the back of her head, probably a joke on her sister’s part.)
- The Bodleian recently acquired the last substantial Austen manuscript still in private hands, the unfinished novel The Watsons.
- In this amusing clip from her recent documentary From Elegance to Decadance: The Age of the Regency, historian Lucy Worsley discusses Jane Austen, her relationship to politics, and the infamous visit to the Prince Regent’s palace.