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Jane Austen’s Fame and Fortune, Now and Then

Jane Austen

 

By Caroline Kerr Taylor

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen continues to grow in popularity as an author even as her novels turn 200 years old. After Shakespeare, many would pronounce Austen the most popular and widely acclaimed literary figure in history. Her six novels are some of the most widely read literature in the world often outselling the books of top contemporary authors. According to Nielsen BookScan research, for example, in 2002 U.S. book stores sold 110,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice while John Grisham’s, The Runaway Jury, (a #1 best seller in 1996) sold 73,337 copies. Further, in recent years there have been numerous new editions of her books, various translations, dozens of TV adaptations and feature films, in addition to prequels, sequels and spin-offs, as well as, new biographies and articles on Austen herself.

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Austen is unquestionably a literary star today, but how was she received in her own day? Did she enjoy similar adulation? Other 19th century literary stars such as Dickens or Scott did enjoy a great deal of celebrity in their lifetimes. Austen’s reception was more low key. It is important to note that her name was not attached to any of her novels. Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, was signed “By A Lady”. All her other books were attributed “to the author” of her previously published books. This practice was not uncommon. Even Walter Scott, well known for his poetry, initially did not use his name when he branched out into historical novels.

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Jane’s notoriety was gained essentially by word of mouth. While she did not promote herself, her brother, Henry, did. Henry, along with her sister, Cassandra, were her biggest supporters. Cassandra was the first person privy to each novel as it was developed. Henry played several roles. At the time of the publishing of her novels he was a successful London banker. Because her first novel Sense and Sensibility was published on commission Austen needed to come up with the money to have it published. Having no money of her own she depended on Henry’s financial support to bring her books into the reading world. He not only provided financial support where needed but also acted as a liaison with her publishers. In the early 1800’s it was very much a man’s world. Henry assisted his sister by helping her navigate the professional world. He also mixed with influential people who could afford to buy books for pleasure and would share their reading experiences with others. In letters to her family Austen asked them not to share the fact that she was the author of her books, but her brother Henry couldn’t help himself. Bursting with pride Henry often let it slip that his sister Jane was, indeed, the author. Before long the word was circulating at dinner parties, afternoon teas, in letters, etc.

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In 2016 Austen’s fourth novel, Emma (released in December 1815 but dated 1816), turns 200 years old. The first editions of her books: Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park had sold out. Looking back over Austen’s life she had a lot to celebrate with the publication of this fourth novel. Thomas Egerton, who printed her first three books, was a publisher of military themes primarily. He was not known for novels. After a disagreement over a second edition of Mansfield Park, Austen sought out a new publisher. With the help of Henry she was taken on by prominent London publisher John Murray. It was a significant step forward. Murray’s publishing house included the very popular Lord Byron as well as the famous Walter Scott as clients.

Frances Talbot, by Thomas Phillips, 1802. Frances would later become Countess Morley, receiving a personal copy of Emma as well as mistaken credit for penning Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.
Frances Talbot, by Thomas Phillips, 1802. Frances would later become Countess Morley, receiving a personal copy of Emma, from Jane Austen, as well as mistaken credit for penning Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

It is interesting that Austen’s novels about everyday country life found her largest admirers from what Claire Tomalin calls the “beau monde” influential people whose tastes and judgments were important. The playwright Richard Sheridan was a fan. The sister of the Duchess of Devonshire enjoyed her novels. Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, identified with Marianne in Sense & Sensibility. The Countess of Morley in her letter to Austen in December of 1815 writes, “I am already become intimate in the Woodhouse family & feel that they will not amuse or interest me less than the Bennetts, Bertrams, Norriss & all their admirable predecessors. I can give them no higher praise.” Austen’s brother, Charles, wrote from Sicily in May of 1815: “Books became the subject of conversation, and I praised “Waverly” highly, when a young man present observed that nothing had come out for years to be compared with Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility…” The speaker of this praise was the eldest son of Lord Holland.

Jane’s esteem was also growing beyond the boundaries of England. She learned through her brother Henry that Lady Robert Kerr from Scotland had sung her praises and a Mrs. Fletcher, a wife of a judge in Ireland, was eager to learn about her. These accolades would have been thrilling.

The inscription dedicating the novel Emma to the Prince Regent.
The inscription dedicating the novel Emma to the Prince Regent.

The ultimate endorsement took place in l815. First, Austen learned that the Prince Regent (heir to the throne) had read and admired her novels. His librarian, Mr. Clarke, was instructed to invite her to visit the Prince Regent’s Carleton House library. While perusing the library together Mr. Clarke invited Austen to dedicate any future work to the Prince Regent. Truth be told, Jane was not a particular fan of the Prince Regent. She abhorred his decadent lifestyle and the ill-treatment of his wife. However, realizing that this was more than a suggestion but rather a command Jane alerted Murray that Emma would be dedicated by permission to the Prince Regent. Murray was delighted and helped her with the appropriate dedication as well as printing 2,000 copies of Emma which was her largest edition yet.

Second, Sir Walter Scott, the most popular writer of the day, wrote a positive review of Emma in the Quarterly Review. It must have been quite heady for Austen, someone who read and admired Scott’s writing, to be reviewed by the great man himself. Over the years Scott’s regard for Austen continued to grow. Years later he paid her the highest compliment, “That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with”. It is interesting to note that in Persuasion the heroine, Anne Elliot, speaks of her admiration for both Byron and Scott.

Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen shared a mutual admiration for the other's work.
Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen shared a mutual admiration for each other’s work.

Besides having a prominent publisher and getting recognition from the “beau monde”, including the Prince Regent, Austen was now earning her own money. As a single woman living in 18th century England, she was entirely dependent on her family for her finances. Women of her class didn’t work outside the home. She had been given a 20£ yearly allowance while her father was living. Her father died in 1805 leaving his wife and daughters with an annual income of 160£. Jane’s brothers contributed as best they could but contributions were limited as they had families of their own. It wasn’t until Edward, one of Jane’s brothers, who had inherited large properties, offered them a cottage on his Chawton estate in l809 that their lives found a degree of stability and comfort. In letters to her oldest niece, Fanny, Austen writes about this difficulty: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor….”, and “…tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls pewter, too”. Writing to her brother Frank Jane says, “I have written myself into 250£ which only makes me long for more”.

What would Jane have thought to find herself featured on the ten pound note?
What would Jane have thought to find herself recently featured on the ten pound note?

From the accounts rendered at the time of her death it appears that income from the publishing of her first four novels earned her more than 600£. This was not a lot of money but for an unmarried woman in her social standing it was significant. The author Paula Byrne equates the 300£ Austen made from the first edition of Mansfield Park to approximately 20,000£ or 30,000 U.S. dollars in today’s values (600£ would therefore be approximately 40,000£ or 60,000 U.S. dollars). Upon Jane’s death she left the majority of her money and her manuscripts to her sister Cassandra. Murray bought Northanger Abbey and Persuasion from Cassandra for 500£. Jane was already working on another book at the time of her death. Had she lived she would have continued to write and make a comfortable living. In 1832, fifteen years after his sister’s death, Henry negotiated with the publisher, Richard Bentley, for a new edition of Austen’s six novels. Bentley bought the five publishing rights owned by Cassandra for 210£. Bentley had to pay Egerton’s heirs for Pride and Prejudice to complete the collection.

Today Austen is a super star among literary figures. She could not have imagined such acclaim during her lifetime. As an ardent Jane Austen fan it is satisfying to know that during her short life (she died at the age of 41) and limited literary career (six and a half years) she did in fact enjoy a degree of fulfillment, affirmation, and financial success. The clergyman’s daughter from a small country village in Hampshire had done well…quite well indeed.


Caroline Kerr Taylor authored many educational work books as an editor at Creative Teaching Press, Cypress, California. After some years living abroad, in New Zealand, she now lives in Newport Beach, California, and enjoys freelance writing. Her most recent article, “A Visit to Harper Lee’s Monroeville” was published in online magazine, Literary Traveler, October 8, 2012. In New Zealand she had a feature story in NZ House & Garden, May 2009.

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How I Fell in Love With Georgette Heyer

georgette heyerI stumbled upon Georgette Heyer during a golden time of my life after college graduation when I had three precious free months before I began school again. Bursting with youthful energy, I didn’t know what to do with my time. And so I hit the books, but this time for pleasure. In those days, I could gobble up a book a day if I was so inclined, and I sped through Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Rebecca. Father and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev, one of my favorite authors, and Pride and Prejudice (for the second time in my life). That last novel with its sparkling wit and clear view of village life seemed like a breath of fresh air after the heightened emotions of the Victorian authors.

To me, Mr. Bennet was the image of my father, whose wry statements always made me pause before I could figure out if he was making sport of me, himself, or some other unwitting target. Mrs. Bennet reminded me of my crazy Dutch grandmothers – both of whom were slightly hysterical and VERY demanding. I read Pride and Prejudice twice that summer (and began a tradition of reading it every summer for the next twenty years). Greedily I reached for more Jane Austen novels until there were none left. I railed against the illness that carried Jane off before she could produce enough novels to assuage my addiction. Where to turn?

The library, of course.

I looked up Regency novels and found … Clare Darcy. Ok, I thought. I’ll give her a try and picked up a copy of Victoire, a most logical choice given my given name, and read the book in one long sitting. How to state it nicely: Clare Darcy is to Jane Austen what a sputtering candle is to the sun at high noon.

My quest was not over.

My apartment roommie, also a Janeite, discovered the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser. She LOVED them. But budding little feminist me wanted books written by humorous females, not a man with no interest in the goings on of small town families and their courtship rituals, and silly clergy, and strong heroines who were able to learn a thing or two. And so I continued my search.

One day I found a Barbara Cartland novel. Hahahahahahahaha! Tossing aside her cheesy book about a 16-year-old-heroine with a heart-shaped face, I wondered if I could charge her for wasting my precious life.

I continued my search.

And there it was. On the bottom shelf at the library. Arabella. It was a pathetic excuse of a book – dog-eared, blemished, and torn partially in the spine. I read the front cover – Arabella by Georgette Heyer – then sat on the floor and began to read. Witty words leapt from the pages. I laughed with delight. Before long I checked out the book and proceeded to read it in one long sitting. My roommie, who had started her new job two weeks after college, came home from work to find me engrossed. “I found a new author,” I said, telling her she could read the book when I was done. I gave it to her that night.

We were both instantly hooked on Georgette Heyer.

I returned to the library and checked out all the Georgette Heyers I could find. My roommie and I fell in love with Arabella, but we became die-hard fans when we encountered Venetia, The Grand Sophie, Sylvester, and Frederica. By summer’s end we had read ALL the GHs we could lay our hands on, even the mysteries and histories. (Thankfully, Georgette was prolific.)

My roommie and I were two young and hopeless romantics. We loved the glittering, detailed descriptions of the characters, the clothes they wore from expensive shops, and the houses, towns, and cities they inhabited. We learned about Regency London and the manners and mores of the Ton. Georgette Heyer characters spoke in cant, and thus we affected British accents and used cant-speech at every opportunity. Our boyfriends, while a bit mystified, played along, even debating which weapon was more effective in a fight – the epee or the sword.

But then life intruded and my intense love affair with Georgette Heyer had to take a back seat. I returned to school and began to read academic books again. I left my obsession behind, except for my yearly date with Pride and Prejudice.

Flash forward a number of decades when Sourcebooks began to republish Georgette Heyer novels. Once more I began to read them regularly, only this time I reviewed them as well.  I discovered that my tastes had changed and that I was more attracted to other novels like The Reluctant Widow and The Convenient Marriage. I never reread Arabella, for I did not want to revisit my first love only to discover that she had flaws.

I savor my memory of first discovering Georgette Heyer and thank Sourcebooks for the opportunity to relive that Golden Summer. I keep about 10 GH books on my Nook and Kindle (yes, I have both) so I am not ever very far from one of my favorite authors. If you are intrigued, all of GH s novels are available at Sourcebook’s Discover a New Love Website at www.discoveranewlove.com.

georgette heyer


Vic Sanborn oversees two blogs: Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today. Before 2006 she merely adored Jane Austen and read Pride and Prejudice faithfully every year. These days, she is immersed in reading and writing about the author’s life and the Regency era. Co-founder of her local (and very small) book group, Janeites on the James, she began her blogs as a way to share her research on the Regency era for her novel, which sits unpublished on a dusty shelf. In her working life, Vic provides resources and professional development for teachers and administrators of Virginia’s adult education and literacy programs. This article was written for Jane Austen’s World and is used here with permission.

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A Cameo Appearance by Jane Austen

 

When you write again to Catherine, thank her on my part for her very kind and welcome mark of friendship; I shall value such a brooch very much.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
October 7, 1808

For the past month, Miriam and I have paid homages—big and small—to that loveliest of authors.  We have tried to incorporate the sensibilities, tastes, styles, and customs of Jane Austen’s era and her works into our lives and into this blog.  We wish we could say that we now speak with British accents, and that our children are pictures of propriety, and that our husbands have taken to wearing long cloaks and cravats, but we can’t.  What we can say is that we have felt a little prettier, a little girlier, and a little more refined this month.  (And by refined, I mean that I plugged in an iron and used the word “wretched” recently.)

As I pondered what to do for our final day of Jane Austen month, I decided it would only be fitting if we had an appearance by the author herself—a silhouette appearance.  And what better way to keep “all-things-Austen” close to our hearts than putting her silhouette on a necklace?  (A small disclaimer here:  I haven’t made a necklace since I was five-years-old and enthralled with the multimedia potential of Fruit Loops and macaroni.)

Jane Austen Cameo:

jane austen cameo

To begin my Jane Austen cameo, I started by printing out Miss Austen’s silhouette on regular computer paper.  I then selected the most clear and uniform flat glass marbles I could find in my collection of craft odds-and-ends.  (If you don’t have these lying about, you can find them in the wedding and/or floral section of your local craft store.  The marbles I used were about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter).

After centering the marble on her image, I traced around the outside of the marble and cut the circle out with scissors.

I then put a thin layer of modge podge glue on the back of the marble and placed the paper silhouette on top with the image face down.  (And don’t worry.  You don’t see the glue after it dries.)

I then cut out a piece of black felt the size of the marble.  I held the marble against the felt as my template and cut around it.

Then, to gussy the pendant up, I glued some black lace around the edge of the felt using a glue gun.  When I flipped the felt over, this is what the backside looked like.

On the lace side of the felt, I glued on a pendant back with a chain hook at the top.  I then glued down my silhouette marble on top of that.  After letting the necklace dry for a few hours, I strung my favorite black ribbon through the clasp.

jane austen cameo

I had so much fun making this one, that I decided to do another, except with a little more bling and a little less lace.  Before I glued down the glass marble silhouette, I strung a teardrop pendant on some fishing line and laid the fishing line across the felt backing.  When I glued the marble down, it set the fishing line in the glue and the necklace was good to go.

jane austen cameo

Just a note: the final products are being modeled by my friend’s beautiful neck.  Had I done the modeling myself, I would have had to do it hanging upside-down so you didn’t see my second (and third) chin.

jane austen cameo

It is nice to know that with this necklace on, I can take a little bit of Jane with me wherever I go, even when our experiment is through.  May we all save a place for “everything Austen” in our days ahead (or on our necks).  Here’s to you, Jane . . .

Miriam and I are sisters who live 700 miles apart from each other in the southwestern United States.  Despite the distance that separates us, we share a love for good food, good fun, good decorating, and especially good books.  We began a blog to share all of the ways that literature inspires us in our daily lives, beginning with our favorite female author, Miss Jane Austen.  For 30 days, we tried to incorporate one “Austenesque” thing into our day, from picnics and paper quilling, to scones and silhouettes.  Our “30-Day Austen Experiment” was so enjoyable that we’ve continued the trend with other authors like Lucy Maud Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and William Shakespeare.  As “bookbound” sisters, we’ve never been closer, and as women, we’ve never been happier.