This coming Monday, 28 January 2013, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of one of the best-loved novels of all time, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Most scholars believe that the original version of Pride and Prejudice was the second mature novel that Jane Austen wrote, the first is believed to have been the novel that was eventually published as Sense and Sensibility. Thus, Pride and Prejudice was published in the order in which she originally wrote it. Unfortunately for Miss Austen, though it was the most popular of her novels to be published during the Regency, it also brought her the least financial remuneration.
The publication of Pride and Prejudice …
In 1796, when Jane Austen was twenty years old, she paid a visit to her brother Edward and his wife, Elizabeth, at their estate in Kent, Goodnestone Park. That October, after she returned home, Jane began writing an epistolary novel, that is, a novel written as a series of letters, about a country gentleman, his wife and his five daughters. Such novels had become very popular in the last decades of the eighteenth century. One of Jane’s favorite authors, Fanny Burney, had written her novel, Evelina in epistolary form, which maybe at least one reason why Jane chose that form for her own novel. She already had experience with that form, since, as a teenager, she had written an epistolary novel which she had titled Love and Freindship [sic — Austen’s spelling]. Jane completed her second novel as an adult in August of 1797 and titled it First Impressions. As she often did with many of her writings, she sometimes read it aloud to entertain her family, all of whom enjoyed the story.
In particular, Jane’s father, the Reverend George Austen, thought the story had great promise. In fact, he thought it the equal of the work of Fanny Burney, whose new novel, Camilla, had been published the previous year. On 1 November 1797, Reverend Austen wrote to Thomas Cadell, Jr., a partner in the publishing firm of Cadell & Davies, asking if he would like to see his daughter’s manuscript. The elder Thomas Cadell, who had retired in 1793, had been Fanny Burney’s publisher. It is likely that the Reverend Austen believed that it would be best to approach a publishing house which had already been successful publishing works by female authors. In his letter, he even described his daughter’s novel as " … A Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina." But apparently, Thomas, Jr. did not have the same vision and perception with regard to female authors as did Thomas, Sr., since he returned Reverend Austen’s letter, unopened, by return post.
Thus, the manuscript of First Impressions remained a private entertainment within the Austen family and their circle of friends for more than a decade. Fortunately, despite this early rejection, Jane Austen continued to write, encouraged by her family, especially her father. Sadly, Jane’s father died unexpectedly in 1805, and for a time after his death she stopped writing. The death of the Reverend Austen significantly reduced the income which his wife and daughters received and they had to give up their home in Bath. For a few years, Jane, Cassandra and their mother, moved from place to place, staying with various relatives. It seems Jane did little writing during these years. But in the summer of 1809, the ladies settled into their own home at Chawton Cottage, in Hampshire. It was here that Jane once again took up her interest in writing. She returned to her first mature novel, Elinor and Marianne, rewriting and revising it for possible publication. It is believed that this novel had also been originally written in an epistolary style, a style which had fallen out of favor by the early years of the nineteenth century. She also retitled this novel Sense and Sensibility.
It is generally believed that Jane decided to try to get Sense and Sensibility published for two reasons. It was her favorite novel, and First Impressions had already been rejected by a publisher years before and she hoped that Sense and Sensibility would have better luck. In 1810, her favorite brother, Henry, who also encouraged her writing, brought her novel to the attention of the publisher who had helped him and his brother, James, publish their short-lived magazine, The Loiterer, while they had been students at Oxford. The publisher, Thomas Egerton, agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility on commission, which means Jane had to pay all the publishing costs, but it also meant she got to keep most of the profits. The novel was published in 1811 and sold well enough that Jane was encouraged to prepare another of her manuscripts for publication. She chose First Impressions.
Jane had a lot of work to do. First Impressions was also an epistolary novel, initially written at the end of the last century. It was not only the epistolary novel form that was out of style. First Impressions had been written in an age when reason was considered superior to the more romantic attitudes which were taking hold during the Regency. Therefore, she not only had to convert her novel from its first-person letter format to prose, written in the third-person, she also had to rework the story to update it to appeal to more modern, romantic sensibilities, even when she herself did not approve of such attitudes. Jane made her revisions between 1811 and 1812, and at some point during that time, she also changed the title. It is possible that she did not wish to submit the manuscript under the same title it carried when it was rejected by Thomas Cadell, Jr. In addition, since she had first written First Impressions, both a book and a play had been published with that same title. Jane was an admirer of the works of Fanny Burney, and the final chapter of Burney’s novel, Cecilia, was titled Pride and Prejudice. "Miss J. Austen" was a subscriber to the first edition of Cecilia when it was originally published in 1796. Cecilia had sold well and remained popular, even into the Regency. Jane may have considered that phrase a fine complement to Sense and Sensibility, which had gotten some good reviews and was gaining the attention of the public by the time she had revised her second manuscript.
When Pride and Prejudice was ready for publication, the first print run of 750 copies of Sense and Sensibility was still selling, slowly, but steadily. However, it had not yet realized any significant profits for its author, as all publication costs and the publisher’s commission had to be paid first. Jane may have found the wait for her money too stressful, or perhaps she had a pressing need for cash. Either way, in late 1812, she had Henry offer Pride and Prejudice to Thomas Egerton for a lump sum payment. She told Henry she wanted £150 for the book, but Henry settled with Egerton for £110. Forty pounds was a great deal of money during the Regency, and Jane was rather disappointed with the reduction in the purchase price of her manuscript. But the deal was done and publication went forward. The first edition of Pride and Prejudice, a novel in three volumes, by "the Author of Sense and Sensibility," first went on sale in London on Thursday, 28 January 1813, for the price of eighteen shillings.
By the time her new book had gone to press, Jane seems to have come to terms with the lowered sale price. Perhaps because she did not think Pride and Prejudice quite as good as Sense and Sensibility. Shortly after Pride and Prejudice was published, Jane wrote to her sister, Cassandra:
Upon the whole … I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style.
Though Jane favored Sense and Sensibility over Pride and Prejudice, the reading public of the Regency were delighted with the love story of the lively Elizabeth Bennett and the haughty Fitzwilliam Darcy. Though Jane wrote to Cassandra about adding some " … solemn specious nonsense … " to Pride and Prejudice, it may very well be the fact that it was " … light, and bright, and sparkling … " which made it so popular. In 1813, England was involved in wars on two fronts, for both the Peninsular War and the War of 1812 were ongoing. People were weary of war and the privations which it brought. Pride and Prejudice gave them an amusing respite in the peaceful and traditional English countryside, which many valued highly as the epitome of the English way of life. A countryside and way of life which many realized was already under threat from the relentless progress of the Industrial Revolution. Jane’s fictional village of Meryton was populated by a host of amusing characters involved in the activities of everyday life and her witty tale included a pair of love stories that ended happily ever after.
Pride and Prejudice sold very well, the first print run of 1500 copies sold out even before the first run of Sense and Sensibility. Demand was so high that in October of 1813, Egerton released a second print run of Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen would eventually make £140 on the sale of Sense and Sensibility. But, due to her outright sale of Pride and Prejudice to Egerton, she made only £110, on what turned out to be her most popular novel, while Egerton made over £450, just on those first two print runs. He released another edition shortly after Jane’s death and made even more money. Jane did publish two other books before her death in 1817. Mansfield Park was published in 1814 and Emma followed it in 1815 and both brought her a modest income. But neither were ever quite as popular as Pride and Prejudice.
Even today, Pride and Prejudice is still regarded by most people as Jane Austen’s best novel. But, would a publisher today publish Pride and Prejudice, if it were offered to them as a new manuscript? It turns out they would not. In 2007, David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, set out to discover how difficult it would be for Jane Austen to find an agent and publisher in the twenty-first century. Lassman made a typescript of the first few chapters of Pride and Prejudice, slightly changing the names of some of the characters and locations in the story. He wrote a synopsis of the story, as is customary today. Then using the title, First Impressions, and the name Alison Laydee, a play on "A Lady", the name under which Austen first published her novels, he submitted the typescript and synopsis to eighteen of the top literary agents and publishers in Great Britain. Every one of the agents and publishers sent rejection notices to Lassman, but perhaps more surprising, only one of the eighteen recognized the work as Austen’s. Even though Lassman had included, unchanged, that famous first sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
Though it is great a pity that Jane Austen did not realize a substantial income from the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and Thomas Egerton got the lion’s share of the profits, we must be grateful to him for publishing the novel. If he had not, we might never have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of the Bennett family and all their friends and neighbors in and around Meryton. Let us hope readers will be able to visit Meryton and Longbourn whenever they like, for at least another couple of centuries.