200 years ago today, Jane Austen’s most famous novel, was published in London by Thomas Egerton. Her own darling Child as she termed the final published form of her book, had a long gestation period. According to Jane’s sister, Cassandra Austen’s memorandum, Jane Austen began her novel, then called First Impressions, in October 1796, and finished it in August 1797. We have no idea what literary form this first version of this novel took: some have argued that the existence of so many letters in the finished book indicate it was an epistolary novel, written in a series of letters like Jane Austen’s earlier work, Lady Susan and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility. Sadly, as no manuscript of First Impressions or indeed the final version, Pride and Prejudice exists, we shall never know for certain. I’m not particularly convinced by that argument, to be frank, and I am more inclined to the view that the earlier version of this novel took a narrative form for if we know one thing about Jane Austen as a professional writer, it was that she didn’t rest on her laurels, but experimented and experimented, pushing the accepted boundaries of literary form. I think she would have moved on to a more exacting style…
Her wonderfully supportive father, George Austen, was an early fan. He took the extraordinary step of approaching a London publisher on Jane’s behalf. His letter to Thomas Cadell written in 1797 tells us all we need to know of his pride and not a little prejudice in favour of his talented daughter:
I have in my possession a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols, about the Length of Miss Burney’s Evelina. As I am well aware of what consequence it is that a work of this sort should make its first appearance under a respectable name, I apply to you. Shall be much obliged therefore if you will inform me whether you chose to be concerned in it; what will be the expense of publishing it at the Author’s risk; & what you will advance for the Property of it, if on perusal it is approved of.
Should your answer give me encouragement, I will send you the work.
I am, Sirs Yr. obt. hble. Servt.
Steventon near Overton,
1st November 1797.
The publishers wrote on this letter, the fateful phrase, “Declined by Return of Post”
And thus Jane Austen suffered the fate common to many writers, a rejection. As it was of her own darling child she must have felt it acutely. And she must have felt some frustration for it is clear from the evidence of her letters that her close family and her great friend, Martha Lloyd loved it. In her letter to Cassandra Austen dated two years after this rejection, the 8th January 1799,two hers after being rejected professionally, it seems that this early form of the novel was still being read amongst the family and was popular within the Austen’s close circle, as evidenced by this typically ironic statement by Jane Austen:
I do wonder at your wanting to read First Impressions again, so seldom as you have gone through it, & that so long ago.
This is all borne out by another amusing reference to this novel being read and re-read within the family circle, in Jane Austen’s letter to Cassandra written six months later:
I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, & I am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. – She is very cunning, but I see through her design; – she means to publish it from Memory, & one more perusal must enable her to do it.
This all suggests that Jane Austen’s family valued her work and further that she kept her precious manuscript with her, alive and being read and appreciated, even though it had been turned down by a distinguished London publisher. I agree with Professor John Mullan that she knew she was a good writer and that her works were extraordinary. It surely takes strength of character to continue to write and hope that eventually you will be published: I believe she had that self belief.
She needed it would seem, peace, routine, freedom from domestic cares and security in order to be able to write creatively (“Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb”) Her peripatetic and financially uncertain life after the death of her father in Bath in 1805 was, it would seem, not conducive to this at all, though I support the theory that she continued to “work” on her manuscripts if not on paper, then in her head, constantly revising ordering and collecting new material. (If only she has possessed a word processor) But in 1809 she moved to Chawton Cottage, which is now the Jane Austen House Museum, by the grace of her wealthy brother,Edward,and began revising her existing manuscripts in earnest.
Sense and Sensibility,which began life in the 1790s as Elinor and Marianne, was published in 1811. And Pride and Prejudice, as it eventually became, was published on this day in 1813.
A change of title was necessary because in the intervening 16 years quite a few publications had appeared under the title,First Impressions : Margaret Holford published a four volume novel called First Impressions in 1801, and Horatio Smith, one of Jane Austen’s favourite dramatists and satirists, had written a comedy called, First Impressions or Trade in the West. Her inspiration for the new title of Pride and Prejudice may have come from an author with whom she was wholly familiar and with whom she had some connection, Fanny Burney. Fanny Burney lived at Great Bookham in Surrey and there became great friends with the local clergyman, the Reverend Samuel Cooke and his family. He was rector of Cotsford in Oxfordshire and vicar of Great Bookham and, importantly for us, was married to Cassandra Leigh who was Jane Austen’s mother, Mrs George Austen’s cousin. The Reverend Cooke was Jane Austen’s godfather and, interestingly, his wife was a published authoress. Her novel, Battleridge was published anonymously in 1799 . The phrase Pride and Prejudice appears inFanny Burney’s book, Cecilia or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) which we know that Jane Austen read, and, if she did use the phrase with reference to Fanny Burney, it may have been as some sort of tribute to a fellow professional.
This novel has transfixed us for 200 years. For many of us, certainly for me, it was my entrée into Jane Austen’s world when I was aged 12 years old. A world which so captivated me I not only greedily read her other works, but began to explore, as far as I was able, books and museums to discover what her world really would have been like. As a result, over the intervening years, I have tried to recreate that world in my head with reference to artefacts, prints, maps and books of the early 19th century. This search to find out as much as possible about her world and the world her characters have inhabited has led me down many varied alleyways and paths and has enlivened my life ( and impoverished my pocket!) Thoughout this Year of Pride and Prejudice 200 I hope to be able to share some of this knowledge and artefacts with you on our Journey Through Pride and Prejudice. I do hope you will join me.
Next, The Places of Pride and Prejudice….