Jane Austen's long road to stratospheric success

by Grace Cassidy

Last year, Jane Austen’s Emma was adapted for the billionth time. Director Autumn de Wilde traded in the warm, staticky nostalgia of BBC’s Austen adaptations for ornate costumes, pastel pink walls, and off-beat comedy. The film debuted to near universal acclaim. Wilde’s Emma is an Austen story for the modern day. It’s a well-trodden tale, once again made new.

In addition to the six novels, the collection up for
auction (pictured above) includes an 1879 edition
James Edward Austen-Leigh’s, A Memoir of
Jane Austen

More than two centuries have passed since her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published and Jane Austen has yet to go out of style. Just recently, American broadcaster PBS announced they would be hosting a virtual tour of Austen’s house. In 2020, sales of Pride and Prejudice skyrocketed. While Austen’s enduring popularity may not be news to us, for the author herself, it would have been astounding.

In November 1797, George Austen penned a letter to London publisher Thomas Cadell, asking if Cadell would publish a manuscript written by George’s 21-year-old daughter. The letter was returned, marked Declined by Return of Post. The manuscript that Cadell turned down was titled First Impressions, an early iteration of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen’s talent was obvious from a very young age—she famously spent most of her youth either writing stories or reading them aloud to her family and friends—but getting published was complicated. In Austen’s lifetime, women didn’t have the legal authority to sign contracts. They were forced to publish anonymously or under male pseudonyms and they always needed a man to sign on their behalf.

In 1803, Austen’s brother Henry approached Benjamin Crosby, another London publisher, to see if he would be interested in publishing one of his sister’s novels. Crosby paid £10 for copyright of Susan (an early version of Northanger Abbey), promised publication and even went to far as to start advertising the novel’s release. They never published.

Finally, fourteen years after their father initially approached Thomas Cadell, Henry was able to get Sense and Sensibility published by Thomas Edgerton. The novel was released anonymously in 1811. Where the cover would usually have the author’s name, it simply read, “By a Lady.”

Sense and Sensibility sold well and received two favourable reviews. Although she was not yet a best-seller, Austen quickly became a favourite among the British aristocracy. Princess Charlotte, the teenage daughter of the Prince Regent (George IV), remarked in a letter that the book made her feel like one of the Dashwood sisters. “I think Marianne and me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good,” she wrote. “I must say it interested me much.”

Over the next few years, Austen published three more novels: Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Richard Sheridan, a famous Irish satirist and playwright, told one of his friends to buy Pride and Prejudice immediately, calling it one of the cleverest things he’d ever read. The Prince Regent enjoyed Austen’s novels so much that he had copies of them at each of his residences. Even though Austen disliked the Prince Regent, at the insistence of the prince’s librarian, she dedicated Emma to him.

Despite her popularity among the elite, Jane Austen was rarely reviewed and never earned enough to make a living from her novels. Six years after Sense and Sensibility was published, she died of a mysterious illness at just 41 years old. Because she had been published anonymously, her death went unremarked; none but her family knew that one of Britain’s greatest minds had been extinguished. By the 1820s, her novels went out of print.

That might have been the end of the story.

After her death, Austen’s siblings arranged for Persuasion and Northanger Abbey to be published as a set, including a biographical note that, at last, identified Jane as the author. Her novels were republished in the 1830s and while they sold, they went largely unnoticed. Mainstream success continued to evade Austen, but her works quietly began to gain the attention of the literati. In the decades following Austen’s death, Richard Whately, Thomas Macaulay and George Henry Lewis slowly emerged as her loudest fans, publishing a series of reviews expressing their avid admiration of her work. Macaulay wrote,

“Shakespeare has had neither equal or second. But among the writers who, in the point which we have noticed, have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud.”

All three critics compared Austen to Shakespeare. This spurred Charlotte Brontë to share her own opinion; she praised Austen for bring shrewd and observant but criticised her work for lacking passion. In the mid-19th Century, admirers of Jane Austen considered themselves a discerning, cultured few. They were discriminating readers who saw a value in her work that the average person did not.

These leather-bound editions of Mansfield Park,
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published
in 1880. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1881.
Emma and Sense and Sensibility were published in

This changed dramatically in 1869, when Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a book, A Memoir of Jane Austen. The memoir gained wide-spread attention, introducing the broader public to the works of Jane Austen. Gradually, this led to her novels being reissued. The first popular editions of Austen’s works were published in 1883, followed by collector’s and illustrated editions. By the 1880s, her popularity had exploded. The literary elite were so distressed that the “uncultured masses” shared their love for Austen that they made a concerted effort to put their appreciation in a separate category – they called themselves Janeites.

Fifty years after the publication of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s novels finally became as ridiculously popular as they are today. Which is why it’s so exciting that a rare and complete set of her novels, published in the early 1880s, will be up for auction at the 2021 UQ Alumni Book Fair. Join me at the Rare Book Auction, to be held at the UQ Centre Auditorium on Friday, April 30 at 6.30pm. If you’re lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of one of the first editions that helped make Jane Austen a stratospheric success.

Find out more about the UQ Alumni Book Fair and Rare Book Auction