Two hundred years ago, this coming Wednesday, Jane Austen’s novel, Emma was published. Though it was not the last of her novels which would go to press, it was the last she would see published in her lifetime. The heroine of this novel was Austen’s favorite, though the author did not expect the majority of her readers to like this beautiful, but rather spoiled young lady. Yet, today, most Austen scholars consider Emma the finest of her six novels.
When Regency readers met Emma Woodhouse . . .
Jane Austen first put quill pen to paper to write her new novel, Emma, in January of 1814. Unlike her earlier novels, she wrote fairly steadily on this one, with no long breaks. She also deviated from the pattern of her previous novels by creating a heroine who was beautiful, wealthy, spoiled and privileged. Emma was certainly neither as intelligent or as naturally witty as Lizzy Bennett, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, nor as reserved, practical and thoughtful as Elinor Dashwood, the heroine of Sense and Sensibility, both of whom lived in less than affluent circumstances. Even before she began this new work, Austen confided to her family, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."
The first drafts of her first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, were written in the form of a series of letters. That style was very popular in the late eighteenth century, when she began these two stories. In the early nineteenth century, Austen revised both of those books into the narrative form prior to publication. With that experience behind her, it seems she wrote Emma in the narrative form from the outset. It may well be that Austen’s experience in preparing her three previous books for publication helped her to complete her new novel in such a relatively short time.
Despite the fact that her first three novels had been published anonymously, her name was known in the better English literary circles. The Prince Regent himself was an admirer of her work. At his direction, his librarian, James Stanier Clarke, invited Jane Austen to Carlton House, the Regent’s London residence, during the period in which she was writing Emma. While she was there, Clarke invited her to dedicate her next novel to His Royal Highness. Though Austen did not approve of the Prince’s morals, nor how he had treated his wife, such an invitation could not be ignored. She did her duty and dedicated Emma to "His Royal Highness The Prince Regent." However, the stilted tone of her dedication suggests this was done with little pleasure, though there is no evidence the Regent himself read between the lines of the text.
Jane Austen completed her new story about the residents of the village of Highbury in March of 1815. It was in that same month that the news reached Britain that Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped Elba and was marching on Paris. Though Austen tended to ignore most major military and political events in her stories, Bonaparte’s actions may well have unsettled the majority of those on the home front enough to delay the publication of her new novel. She may also have wanted some time to go over the manuscript and to complete a fair copy before she was ready to approach a publisher for her latest book.
There was another significant difference for Jane Austen when it came to the publication of Emma. Since her three previous novels had been so well-received by the public, it was much easier for her brother, Henry, to interest the prominent and fashionable publishing house of John Murray in Austen’s latest novel. And, unlike her previous novels, Austen did not have to pay out of her own pocket to have her book published. Henry Austen negotiated a deal with John Murray by which the publisher assumed all costs for printing and distribution, with a percentage of the profits paid to the author.
Based on the success of Austen’ previously published novels and the fact that the book was dedicated, with permission, to the Prince Regent, John Murray ordered quite a large print run, a full two thousand copies. As with her earlier novels, Emma was published in three volumes. Though the actual date of publication was Saturday, 23 December 1815, the title pages of each volume bore the date of 1816. It is not clear if John Murray had originally intended to release the book in January of 1816, or if he used that date to ensure the books would appear to be a fresh new publication as the new year opened.
The full three-volume set of Emma was available from most book sellers for the price of twenty-one shillings, in boards. Many people who had enjoyed her earlier novels also purchased a copy of Emma. Probably at the request of John Murray, Sir Walter Scott wrote a review of Emma which was published in the October 1815 edition of the Quarterly Review. This positive review brought Austen’s work to the attention of an even greater number of readers and may have helped to stimulate continuing sales of her new novel. However, this new novel did see the brisk sales enjoyed by both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. It was not until the end of October of 1816, that a little over half of the first print run, about 1,200 copies, had been sold. Over the course of the next couple of years, Jane Austen was paid about £221 in royalties on Emma.
Though sales were rather slow, contrary to Jane Austen’s expectations, quite a number of those who bought the book liked the heroine of the story. Nevertheless, there were a few people who did not think Emma compared favorably with Elinor Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennett. Others thought there was no real story in the book, since there was little dramatic excitement or high adventure and it was seem by some as merely a character sketch of a village full of ordinary people. Yet, that is exactly what Austen had set out to do, she wanted to capture the nuances of a slice of life in the natural setting of a rural village.
Dear Regency Authors, various historical tidbits with regard to the publication of Emma might be used to embellish a Regency tale. Perhaps the heroine, or some other character, is an avid fan of the work of the author of Pride and Prejudice. Will they be delighted to receive that author’s brand new novel, hot off the press, as a Christmas gift in 1815? Or, might a lively discussion ensure between characters who have read Emma, some who found it a deft and entertaining sketch of life in an English rural village while others found it dull and lacking in excitement? How else might this new novel, Emma, feature in a Regency romance set at the end of 1815 or in 1816?