The Books of Jane Austen

The Books of Jane Austen: Part 1 

18th July 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. We now take for granted the almost universal popularity of the six mature novels and have a seemingly insatiable appetite for film and TV re-interpretations of the plots and characters. It is easy to forget that the popularity of the books was not instant and that for a long period of time, following the author’s death, they were actually out of print. This is the first of a series of postings about the books of Jane Austen.

The early writing history of Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on 16th December 1775, at the vicarage at Steventon in Hampshire to the local rector, George Austen and his wife Cassandra Austen nee Leigh. She had six brothers and one sister, named Cassandra like her mother, who remained her closest friend and confidant during her lifetime.

Jane Austen started writing for her own and her family’s amusement at about the age of 12. Later in life, she made fair copies of these early writings, now called her ‘Juvenalia,’ in three notebooks that she labelled with mock pomposity ‘Volume the First’, Volume the Second’ and ‘Volume the Third.’ These three volumes were eventually published many years after her death.

In around 1793, at the age of 18, Jane, or Miss Jane Austen as she would have been known by her friends and neighbours, began to write more mature and longer works with a view to eventual publication. Between 1793 and 1795, she wrote Lady Susan, a short novel written in the form of letters, which we call an ‘epistolary’ novel. She then started a longer novel that she called ‘Elinor and Marianne’, also as an epistolary novel, that was finished by 1796. She then embarked on ‘First Impressions’, another long novel that she completed in mid 1797. After this had been read to the family, and much enjoyed, her father wrote to the publisher Thomas Cadell in London to try to interest him in publishing ‘First Impressions’. The letter was returned marked “Declined by return of post.”

From late 1797 until mid 1798, Miss Jane Austen reworked ‘Elinor and Marianne’, changing it from an epistolary novel to a plain narrative form.  At some time in mid 1798, she embarked on a gothic romance that she called ‘Susan’, that she completed by mid 1799. Her brother Henry Austen sent the manuscript of ‘Susan’ to another London publisher, Benjamin Crosby, in 1803. Crosby paid ten pounds for the copyright and promised to publish the novel, but nothing happened.

George Austen retired as the Rector of Steventon in December 1800 and moved his family his wife and two daughters to Bath.  The Austen family lived in Bath from 1801 until 1805 when George Austen died. Miss Jane Austen wrote very little during that period and was not happy to have been moved from Steventon. For the next four years, after the death of her father, the three Austen women led a peripatetic, unsettled and uncertain life, until Miss Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, who had been adopted by a rich relative and had inherited large estates, offered his mother and two sisters the use of a cottage at Chawton in Hampshire, that was part of one of his estates, Chawton House. The three women moved into Chawton Cottage on 7th July 1809, and Miss Jane Austen resumed her interrupted writing life.

Jane Austen: The first published text

We know that Miss Jane Austen revised the text of ‘Elinor and Marianne’ during her first year at Chawton. 
In early 1811, acting as his sister’s literary agent, Henry Austen, now living in London and working as a banker, offered the revised manuscript of  ‘Elinor and Marianne’, now retitled as ‘Sense and Sensibility’ to the London publisher Thomas Egerton,  Egerton advertised himself as ‘Thomas Egerton of Whitehall’, but his offices were actually around the corner from Whitehall in St. Martin’s Lane.

Miss Jane Austen retained the copyright to ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and agreed to pay for the printing and publishing expenses of the book. A first edition of between 750 and 1000 copies was published by Egerton in October 1811. The title page famously reads:


by C Roworth, Bell-yard, Temple-bar

The text on the title page reveals several interesting aspects of this publication. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was published in three volumes in a duodecimo format. This was the standard way of publishing novels at the time, and the so-called “triple-decker” lasted in England until the 1880s. The circulating libraries, such as Mudie’s, were the main drivers of this phenomenon. The libraries would charge their subscribers about 6d (sixpence) per volume and would lend out their triple deckers one volume at a time, hoping that the reader would get ‘hooked’ by the first volume, and so would then pay another two sixpences to complete thier reading of the novel. 
The first edition of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was priced at 15 shillings retail. If the libraries paid the full retail price, they would then recoup their investment after ten readers had borrowed all three volumes. In fact, the circulating libraries paid a generously discounted price for their books, and probably were in profit by the 6th or 7th reader. It has been estimated that half of the first edition of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was bought by the circulating libraries.
The by-line was famously “by a Lady”. This is because it was not felt to be proper at the time for a ‘gentlewoman’ to be identified as a published author of a novel. As the daughter of a country rector,  Miss Jane Austen would certainly have been regarded as a gentlewoman,  In fact, Jane Austen was not identified as the author of any of her six mature novels until after she had died.
The phrase “Printed for the Author by …” signifies that the author has retained the copyright and has agreed to cover the cost of the printing, advertising and publication. Even the printer is of interest, as often the three separate volumes of a “triple-decker” could be printed by different printing firms. If a printing firm was sufficiently small or busy, it might not have enough type to have the whole of the volume, let alone the whole of a novel, ‘set up in forms’ for the entire print run. This means that the first impression of the first edition is the only possible impression, and that the next printing will be a second edition, with all of the type reset. This was the case for the first edition of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, although in this case the printer was C. Roworth for all three volumes. In these “triple-decker” volumes, the printers name usually appears on the verso (reverse side) of the title page, or of the half title page, or at the end of each volume. It is unusual for it to appear on the title page.
“Published by T Egerton, Whitehall” indicates that Thomas Egerton takes the legal responsibility for the printed text, even though he didn’t hold the copyright. Egerton was probably chosen because Henry Austen had previously had magazines that he had written at Oxford distributed in London by Thomas Egerton.
Thomas Egerton would have engaged the printer, Roworth, and we know from surviving letters that Miss Jane Austen was staying in London at her brother Henry’s house in Sloane Street during the process of reading and correcting the printer’s proofs, which would have been delivered to Sloane Street by Egerton. Early stages of the process of proof reading was taking place in April 1811, and Miss Jane Austen reported in a letter of 28th April to her sister that she despaired of the book being ready until after June of that year. In another letter dated 28th September 1811, Miss Cassandra Austen wrote to her niece Fanny Knight asking that Fanny did not reveal to anyone that Aunt Jane was the author of the soon to be published book.

In the event, the first trade advertisements for the book appeared on 30th October 1811 and continued through November. It is generally thought that publication coincided with the first advertisement.

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