A Regency Bicentennial:   Sense and Sensibility Hits the Press!

Two hundred years ago this Sunday, Jane Austen saw her first novel published, though not under her own name. Sense and Sensibility was not the first novel she had ever written, nor was it the first book she submitted to a publisher, but it was the first of four novels she would see published in her lifetime, followed by two which would be published posthumously, all six of them during the Regency. For many people, the novels of Jane Austen define the Regency, or at least, what they think it ought to have been. Ironic, perhaps, since Jane Austen very much disapproved of the man whose title gave this short period in which her books were published the name by which we know it today.

The sinuous saga of Sense and Sensibility, from inspiration to publication …

Jane Austen began writing as a very young girl, apparently with the encouragement of her family, especially that of her father. He even gave her a portable writing desk at which she could work. In 1789, she wrote her first novel when she was about fourteen, entitling it Love and Freindship [sic – Austen’s spelling]. This first novel was a juvenile precursor to Sense and Sensibility, written as a series of letters from the heroine, satirizing the growing cult of sensibility and the effects of strong emotions. Five years later, as a young woman of nineteen, Austen began work on a longer novel contrasting two sisters, one very practical, the other very emotional. In her first draft of this novel, she wrote it, just as she had Love and Freindship, as an epistolary novel. There are some interesting parallels between Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer in the writing of their early novels. Both wrote their first novel in rather melodramatic style to entertain family members, with no thought of publication, though Austen was a few years younger than Heyer when she wrote her first novel. Georgette Heyer was nineteen when she wrote The Black Moth to amuse her younger brother, who was recovering from an injury. Like Austen, five years later, she re-worked The Black Moth, in that new iteration changing the satanic duke from villain to hero and allowing him to win the heroine he has come to love. Because Heyer considered the principal characters in her new novel to be shades of those in the first, she entitled this next novel These Old Shades.

Unlike Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen did not simply re-work her first novel, but she did take her inspiration from its theme, the late eighteenth century cult of sensibility. Despite its name, this cult had little to do with being sensible, in the sense of being rational or practical, and everything to do with heightened emotions and the finer feelings typically ascribed to women, particularly gently-bred ladies. The cult of sensibility, which flourished during the last decade of the eighteenth century into the first decade of the nineteenth, was in part a reaction against what many perceived to be the extreme rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. The most obvious aspects of the cult of sensibility were the social conventions that developed in the last decade of the eighteenth century among the ton which were manifest in exaggerated expressions of emotions. This was most prominent among ladies of the aristocracy and the gentry. True ladies were expected to show their delicacy and sensibility through frequent weeping, blushing and swooning in reaction to distasteful or stressful situations. This feminine frailty was soon highly sexualized, but society in general approved, because they believed this heightened delicacy improved male manners. However, this same feminine frailty enabled men, and many women, to rationalize the subordination of women, who were thought too delicate to shoulder the more difficult burdens of life. These frail women required the strong guiding hand of a man since they would be easily led by their strong emotions into inappropriate behavior. Not all women were in accord with this concept. Mary Wollstonecraft, for one, railed against the cult of sensibility, which she believed made women the prey of men, in particular, leading men to believe women were incapable of benefitting from a good education and therefore in need of male guidance, if not outright domination. Jane Austen, a well-educated and independent-minded woman herself, clearly understood the mistake so many women made of relying completely on the prevailing etiquette of sensibility, but she also saw that excessive rationality was equally unpleasant, as it could cause people to behave in a cold and seemingly inhuman manner. Therefore, she set out to write a novel which would contrast these two concepts against one another, in the person of two very different sisters.

It was the names of those two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, which became the initial title for Austen’s new novel about the balance of sense and sensibility. She began this first draft sometime in 1795, when she was a young woman of nineteen. It was at about this same time that Mrs. Mitford, a neighbor, described her as "the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembered." As with her youthful early novel, Love and Freindship, this first novel she wrote as an adult was initially written as a series of letters between two sisters, both in need of husbands. These epistolary novels were very popular in the late eighteenth century, which suggests that Austen had hopes of publication for this new novel. Though the original manuscript of Elinor and Marianne is lost, it is likely she worked on this novel in much the same way that she did her others. She wrote her first draft of a manuscript in little booklets of eight pages each which she folded down from larger sheets of paper. Each of these booklets very much resembled the signatures from which all books were made at that time. These booklets were convenient, particularly when she was working at the portable writing desk her father had given her. Probably because paper was so expensive, Austen wrote in a very tiny, but legible script on the small pages of her home-made booklets. As she filled one booklet, she moved on to the next, until her finished draft resembled the text block of a printed book ready to be bound. These booklets also made it easy for her to loan a manuscript to a friend or family member to read, which it is known she often did. Austen probably cut and mended her own quills, though it is likely she purchased her ink rather than making it herself.

Based primarily on information provided by her sister Cassandra, it is believed Austen worked on this first mature novel, Elinor and Marianne, for a little over a year, completing the first draft. Then, in October of 1796, she appears to have laid it aside to begin work on yet another novel, to which she gave the title First Impressions. She is believed to have completed the first draft of her second epistolary novel in August of 1797. Austen’s father thought so highly of this second book that, in early November of 1797, he wrote to Thomas Cadell, the publisher of Cecilia by Fanny Burney, offering First Impressions, a novel by a lady, for publication. However, Cadell declined the Reverend Austen’s offer of the manuscript by return post. There is no indication that this rejection dissuaded the budding young author from her writing. In fact, it seems to have caused her to reassess the saleability of the epistolary novel form. That same November, she began to re-work Elinor and Marianne, radically altering its format into a more narrative prose form.

Austen scholars do not know how far the author had progressed with her re-write of Elinor and Marianne by 1798, but it is generally accepted that she had moved on to a new novel, entitled Susan, a satire on the readers of Gothic novels, which she finished the following year. Like many authors who work on more than one novel at the same time, Austen may have worked on both Elinor and Marianne as well as Susan over the course of the next year. But her life would suffer a great upheaval in 1801, after her father decided to retire from the rectory at Steventon, resigning his living there to his eldest son, James. In May of that year, the Reverend George Austen moved his family, including Jane, to Bath. The family would reside in Bath for just over five years. Though Austen family biographies of Jane have it that she nearly ceased writing in these years, the evidence shows this was not the case. She probably revised her novel, Susan, not long after removing there, and in the spring of 1803, she sold it to the publisher Benjamin Crosby. Crosby paid her £10 outright for the manuscript, though much to the entire family’s disappointment, he never published it. Still undaunted, Austen began The Watsons the following year.

The death of her father, in January of 1805, was a great blow to Austen. He had been the most steadfast supporter of her writing all her life, and they shared very similar tastes in many things. Added to the loss of one so dear was the loss of his income, which required the Austen ladies to leave Bath in the summer of 1806, spending a few months at the homes of various family members before finally settling in Southhampton in the fall, to live with her brother, Frank, and his wife, Mary. They would remain there until the spring of 1809, when they moved to a small house provided by their brother, Edward, in Chawton, in the southern county of Hampshire. In this same year, Austen would attempt to recover her manuscript, Susan, from Benjamin Crosby, but was unsuccessful. Though her brothers were doing their best to help support their mother and sisters, they had heavy responsibilities of their own. Cassandra, Jane’s sister, had a small income left to her by the Reverend Thomas Fowle, her deceased fiance. Jane hoped to supplement their small income with her writing. She had two other completed manuscripts, Elinor and Marianne and First Impressions, which might be possible candidates for publication.

The story of the two Dashwood sisters living in straightened circumstances, both in need of husbands, was Austen’s favorite of the two works. In addition, since First Impressions had been rejected for publication when submitted by her father in 1797, she may have felt it would fare no better on a second submission. Sometime between the rejection of First Impressions and her move to Chawton, Austen decided to change the title of her first novel from Elinor and Marianne to Sense and Sensibility. She began revising and editing Sense and Sensibility with the intention of submitting it for publication, probably in the last few months of 1809. But she had a great deal of work to do, since the novel had been written more than a decade before and was in need of updating for a new century. She had to downplay the more overt aspects of the cult of sensibility, which had begun to fall out of favor by the time the Regency opened. She also had to update references to the changes in the postal service, as well as the income levels of the characters. She had to correct the amounts to be provided to the Dashwood ladies to bring them into line with the early nineteenth century cost of living. Where only small changes were needed, she would carefully draw a line through the unwanted words or phrases and write the new ones just above them or in the margins, in her very small script. For those areas which needed major changes, she would cut out small pieces of paper just a little larger than the old text. Using bank pins, she would pin the piece in place over the old material and write her new sentences or paragraphs on that clean surface. Once she had completed her editing, she made a fair copy, that is, she copied out the entire novel in her best penmanship, ready for submission to a publisher.

Jane Austen was determined that this novel would be published, and this time, she would bear the costs herself, if necessary. Thus, the publisher would not refuse to publish it. No one is quite sure how she managed it, more than likely she had been saving against just such an effort for sometime. Her annual allowance from her father had been £20 a year, but that was lost at his death. She also received a small legacy of £50 in 1806, some, or all, of which she may have set aside for just this purpose, to invest in herself as a professional author and finally see her work in print. However, she was taking quite a risk, as at least one Austen scholar estimates that had Sense and Sensibility failed to sell, Austen would have been in debt to the publisher for at least £180, an enormous sum she would have been hard-pressed to find. Clearly, she had great faith in her work, or, perhaps the financial need at Chawton was such that she simply must believe she would be successful. The novel was submitted to the publisher, Thomas Egerton, of Whitehall, London. It is believed by most scholars that Egerton was chosen at the suggestion of her brother, Henry, who handled the negotiations, because he had a prior connection to the publisher. While at university in Oxford, Jane’s older brothers, James and Henry, had, from January 1789 to March of 1790, published a literary periodical called the Loiterer, the title a witty nod to similar periodicals, The Idler, and The Rambler, as well as the later Tatler, and the Spectator. Egerton had been the London publisher for the Loiterer and it is likely that Henry trusted him to be fair in his business dealings for the publication of his sister’s novel.

In the winter of 1810, Thomas Egerton undertook to publish Sense and Sensibility for a commission on the profits, with the understanding that the author would pay all the publication costs of the novel, if it was not successful. By the spring of 1811, Jane Austen was living in London with her brother, Henry, at his home in Sloane Street, where she was planning a new novel, to be entitled Mansfield Park. But she had to set that work aside each time Egerton sent her a batch of proof sheets (sheets pulled from the press, with pages printed on each side, but not yet folded down into a signature) for correction. Because Austen was covering the publication costs, all three volumes of the novel were published at the same time, in duodecimo format. Thus, there would have been twelve pages of the novel on each side of each proof sheet she received. New to the business of book publication, Austen sometimes found herself frustrated with the seeming slowness of the process. On 25 April 1811, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra:

No, indeed, I am never too busy to think of S. and S. I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child; and I am much obliged to you for your inquiries. I have had two sheets to correct, but the last only brings us to Willoughby’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. Henry does not neglect it; he has hurried the printer, and says he will see him again to-day. It will not stand still during his absence, it will be sent to Eliza [de Feuillide – Henry’s wife].

But even June was an optimistic estimate for the publication of her first novel. In the end, it was not until Wednesday, 30 October 1811, that Sense and Sensibility: A Novel. In Three Volumes. By a Lady, finally rolled off the press. Though she was proud of her work, Austen did not publish the novel under her own name, as it was not considered quite acceptable for a proper lady to write novels. Certainly, a lady should not make them public by publication. Therefore, during her lifetime, Jane Austen’s novels would be published anonymously.

The first press run of Sense and Sensibility was 750 copies, a rather large press run at the time for a book by an unknown author. But fortunately for both Austen and Egerton, there were two positive reviews early on and the book sold well, the entire edition was sold out by July of 1813, during the last six months of which Pride and Prejudice was also on sale. Jane Austen made a clear profit of £140 on the first edition of her first novel, which would be well over £10,000 modern-day pounds. At the age of five-and-thirty, Jane Austen finally saw her first novel in print and had proven she had the talent to be a successful author. She was also able to make a greater contribution to the household expenses at Chawton, a point of pride for her, particularly in light of her mother’s dismissive attitude toward her writing. A second edition of Sense and Sensibility was published two years after the first, in October of 1813, but this time, "author of Pride and Prejudice" was added, beneath "By a Lady." on the title page. The sale of this edition was to bring in still more welcome income.

Jane Austen was very careful to conceal her identity as the author of Sense and Sensibility. Even when her niece, Anna, saw a copy in the local circulating library, and remarked that it surely must be rubbish with such a title, her Aunt Jane said nothing. She did not tell Anna the truth until sometime later, and swore her to secrecy. But as careful as Jane was, Henry was not. He could not resist telling people the author of Sense and Sensibility was his sister, should they praise the novel within his hearing. Eventually, her identity as the author was to spread through English literary circles, eventually reaching the ear of the Prince Regent himself. Austen would live to see three more of her novels published in the next six years, and two more would be published after her death. Those six novels are among the most beloved novels in the English language, even today. And it all began with the publication of Sense and Sensibility, two hundred years ago this Sunday. If Sense and Sensibility had failed to sell, it would have wiped out Jane Austen’s meagre savings, and worse, it is unlikely she would have attempted to publish any more of her delightful novels. We have much to celebrate on this particular Regency bicentennial.

Author’s Note:   A special, deluxe, illustrated hardcover edition of Sense and Sensibility was published last month, in Bath, England, by Palazzo Editions Limited. The book will be available in the United States at the beginning of next year. For more details, click over to Preview of Sense and Sensibility: The Bath Bicentenary Edition, at the Austenprose blog.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to A Regency Bicentennial:   Sense and Sensibility Hits the Press!

  1. Pingback: Regency Circulating Libraries — Why, How and Who? | The Regency Redingote

  2. I never realized this about The Black Moth vs. These Old Shades–wonderful! I absolutely love your parallels between Heyer and Austen.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you very much! I am glad you enjoyed it.

      Many years ago there was a review of one of Heyer’s books in Publishers’ Weekly in which they said that Heyer was the next best thing to Austen. Since then, I have often found myself comparing their lives and their works, though, of course, Heyer was much more prolific. But even though she was writing more than a century after Austen, there were many parallels in their writing careers, if not in their lives.



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