Anne here, wishing you Happy Janeiversary — on the 28th January 2013 it will be two hundred years since the publication of Pride And Prejudice, arguably one of the best-loved novels in the world, with a first line that is undoubtedly the most oft-quoted beginning of a novel.
It was Jane Austen's second published novel — the first was Sense and Sensibility— but even so, it didn't have an easy passage to publication.
She started writing the novel, which she called "First Impressions" in October 1796 and finished it almost a year later, in August 1797. When her father wrote to a bookseller, Thomas Cadell, shortly afterward, asking him on his daughters behalf if he would read the manuscript, the man declined it, unread.
Like most aspiring authors, Jane didn't give up — she continued writing, revising and persisting.
Sense and Sensibility, Jane's first published novel — published anonymously "by a Lady" —was effectively self-published. She paid for 750 copies of the book to be printed and paid the publisher a commission on sales and indemnifying him against all losses. It was a huge financial risk — the cost of publication was more than a third of her annual household income of £460. She made a profit of £140 on the first edition, which sold out by July 1813, and a second edition was advertised in October 1813.
After the publication of Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen revised "First Impressions" substantially, renaming it Pride And Prejudice in the process. But despite the success of Sense and Sensibility, the risk of self-publication must have taken a toll on her nerves, and in 1812 she sold Pride And Prejudice outright — selling the copyright — to Thomas Edgerton for a sum of £110 — £40 less than she'd originally asked for. Thus all the risks — and profits would be his.
The novel was an instant success, the first edition, in three hardcover volumes, was sold out by October of the same year. A second edition came out in November 1813, and reviewers and fashionable London loved it — right up to the Prince of Wales. It came out in the same year in French and soon afterward in German, Danish, and Swedish. The publisher — not, alas, Jane Austen— did very well out of it. (In 2010, by the way, a first edition of Pride and Prejudice in the original 3 volumes sold at auction for £140,000.)
In the last two hundred years Pride And Prejudice and the other novels of Jane Austen have only grown in popularity and apart from numerous film and television adaptations, recent years have seen an explosion of Austenitis, as the books have been cloned, grafted, twisted, added to sea monsters and vampires and keep coming back in all kinds of guises.
I haven't quite done that, but I must confess I, too have succumbed to the recycling of Jane (which I condemned here a few years ago) albeit in a very mild way. My new book — THE AUTUMN BRIDE —comes out in February, and one of the activities that takes place in the book is the formation of a literary society. Lady Beatrice Davenham's literary society isn't quite the usual kind of literary society, it's more — well, I'll let my characters explain:
“A literary society?” Lady Beatrice exclaimed, screwing her nose up. “Where they discuss books nobody wants to read, and everyone pretends they’re all very learned and compete to say the most intelligent things?” She grimaced. Her old friend nodded in agreement.
Abby leaned forward eagerly. “Ah, but this won’t be that sort of literary society. It will be fun.”
“Fun?” Lady Beatrice said doubtfully.
“It’ll be much the same as we already do—one of us will read a chapter at a time, aloud, and then we’ll have conversation, tea and cakes, just as we usually do.”
Lady Beatrice’s eyes narrowed. “No clever remarks? No looking for metaphors and themes and hidden dratted meanings?”
“Not if you don’t want them,” Abby said. “It will be your literary society, after all, and you will make the rules.” Lady Beatrice clearly liked the sound of that.
“Just for the story, then, and the company?” Lady Beddington asked.
Abby nodded. “What do you think?” It wouldn’t exactly introduce Jane to eligible men, but at least they’d have made some connections with their mothers and aunts.
“A literary society for people who don’t want to be improved,” Lady Beatrice said thoughtfully. “Just a good story, with wine and cakes . . . I like it.” She looked at Abby and added, “The kind of thing an eligible young man could be prevailed on to escort his mother to.”
Abby smiled. “I’m not so sure of that. It’s not really a young man’s cup of tea—”
“Nonsense, we only need to get them here the first time. Once they meet those pretty gels, they’ll be fighting to come back.”
Abby laughed. “I like your optimism.”
Because of course, it's all a Cunning Plan. . . The thing is, Lady Beatrice has been forbidden by her nephew Max, Lord Davenham, to take Abby and her sisters out into society. Their background is quite shady, you see. The literary society, however, enables society to come to them. . .
Does their plot work? Take it from an old gentleman who might be familiar to some of you:
Sir Oswald turned to Max. “Your aunt’s literary society is provin’ a great success.”
“A literary society?” Max repeated blankly. He’d been gone not quite ten days. How had his aunt established a literary society in that time? Besides, a literary society? Aunt Bea?
The old gentleman beamed. “Indeed, and not like the usual sort of literary society—all allusions and metaphorical whatsits and epigrammatic thingummies—frightful bore, that kind of thing, too clever for me by half. But this one . . .” He rubbed his hands. “Somethin’ to look forward to each visit—as good as going to the theater."
And here's the book they're reading:
“Chapter fifteen.” Her voice was low and clear and carried to all corners of the room. A ripple of pleasurable anticipation passed through the audience. A hush fell as she started to read: “‘Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been little assisted by education or society. . . .’”
Any guesses what the book is? Yes of course, which is why I had to blog about this brilliant anniversary. So raise your glasses, and drink to the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice and the many delights Jane Austen has given us. I just wish she'd made some of the money so many others made from her books.
So do you belong to a literary society or book cloub? And are you a fan of Jane Austen? Why do you think her books have lasted when so many of her more successful contemporaries are forgotten? And who's your favorite Austen character?