Jane Austen: Background of Her Novels


First published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice has consistently
been Jane Austen's most popular novel. It portrays life in the
genteel rural society of the day, and tells of the initial
misunderstandings and later mutual enlightenment between
Elizabeth Bennet (whose liveliness and quick wit have often
attracted readers) and the haughty Darcy. The title Pride and
Prejudice refers (among other things) to the ways in which
Elizabeth and Darcy first view each other. The original version
of the novel was written in 1796-1797 under the title First
Impressions, and was probably in the form of an exchange of
letters.

Jane Austen's own tongue-in-cheek opinion of her work, in a
letter to her sister Cassandra immediately after its publication,
was: "Upon the whole... I am well satisfied enough. The work is
rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants [i.e.
needs] 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
Buonapart?, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the
reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general
epigrammatism of the general style". In 1809 Jane Austen, her
mother, sister Cassandra, and Martha Lloyd moved to Chawton, near
Alton and Winchester, where her brother Edward provided a small
house on one of his estates. This was in Hampshire, not far from
her childhood home of Steventon. Before leaving Southampton, she
corresponded with the dilatory publisher to whom she had sold
Susan (i.e. Northanger Abbey), but without receiving any
satisfaction.

She resumed her literary activities soon after returning into
Hampshire, and revised Sense and Sensibility, which was accepted
in late 1810 or early 1811 by a publisher, for publication at her
own risk. It appeared anonymously ("By a Lady") in October 1811,
and at first only her immediate family knew of her authorship:
Fanny Knight's diary for September 28, 1811 records a "Letter
from Aunt Cass. to beg we would not mention that Aunt Jane wrote
Sense and Sensibility"; and one day in 1812 when Jane Austen and
Cassandra and their niece Anna were in a "circulating library" at
Alton, Anna threw down a copy of Sense and Sensibility on offer
there, "exclaiming to the great amusement of her Aunts who stood
by, "Oh that must be rubbish, I am sure from the title."" There
were at least two fairly favorable reviews, and the first edition
eventually turned a profit of ?140 for her.

Encouraged by this success, Jane Austen turned to revising First
Impressions, a.k.a. Pride and Prejudice. She sold it in November
1812, and her "own darling child" (as she called it in a letter)
was published in late January 1813. She had already started work
on Mansfield Park by 1812, and worked on it during 1813. It was
during 1813 that knowledge of her authorship started to spread
outside her family; as Jane Austen wrote in a letter of September
25th 1813:
"Henry heard P. & P. warmly praised in Scotland, by Lady Robert
Kerr & another Lady; -- & and what does he do in the warmth of
his brotherly vanity and Love, but immediately tell them who
wrote it!".

Since she had sold the copyright of Pride and Prejudice outright
for ?110 (presumably in order to receive a convenient payment up
front, rather than having to wait for the profits on sales to
trickle in), she did not receive anything more when a second
edition was published later in 1813. A second edition of Sense
and Sensibility was also published in October 1813. In May 1814,
Mansfield Park appeared, and was sold out in six months; she had
already started work on Emma. Her brother Henry, who then
conveniently lived in London, often acted as Jane Austen's go-
between with publishers, and on several occasions she stayed with
him in London to revise proof-sheets. In October 1813, one of the
Prince Regent's physicians was brought in to treat an illness
that Henry was suffering from; it was through this connection
that Jane Austen was brought into contact with Mr. Clarke. James
Stanier Clarke was the Prince Regent's librarian, and transmitted
to her the Prince's request that she dedicate her next work
(Emma) to him, an honour that Jane Austen would probably rather
have done without (see her letter on the infidelities of the
Prince and his wife). Some of Mr. Clarke's "helpful" suggestions
showed up in the Plan for a Novel. [More complete versions of
these letters, as printed in Austen-Leigh's Memoir, are also
available on-line.]


Pride and Prejudice

First published in 1813, Pride