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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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”.
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.
Who was Sir Walter Scott?
Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!
Sir Walter Scott
Journal entry, March 14th 1826
Sir Walter Scott, Bart. (August 14, 1771 – September 21, 1832) was a prolific Scottish historical novelist and poet popular throughout Europe. In some ways he was the first author to have a truly international career in his lifetime, with many contemporary readers all over Great Britain, Ireland, Europe, Australia, and North America. He is sometimes known as the “Great Magician.”
His novels and poetry are still read, but with nothing like the popularity he once enjoyed. But many of his works remain in current lists of classical works in English literature. Famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Lady of the Lake and Talisman.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1771, the son of a Scottish solicitor of limited means, the young Walter Scott survived a childhood bout of polio that would leave him lame in his right leg for the rest of his life. To restore his health he was sent to live for some years in the rural Scottish Borders district with his grandparents. Here he learned the speech patterns and many of the tales and legends which characterized much of his work. Also, for his health, he spent a year in Bath, England.
He also learned by heart James Macpherson’s Ossian poems, which it was claimed at the time were translations dating back to the Dark Ages, but later discredited when this was found to be untrue.
After studying law at Edinburgh University, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer in his native Scotland. In 1799 he was appointed sheriff depute of the county of Selkirk. After an unsuccessful love affair with Williamina Belsches of Fettercairn – she married Sir William Forbes – Scott married in 1797 Margaret Charlotte Charpentier (or Charpenter), daughter of Jean Charpentier of Lyon in France. They had five children.
In his earlier married days, Scott had a decent living from the monies he earned at the law, his salary as deputy sheriff, his wife’s income, some revenue from his writing, and his share of his father’s rather meagre estate.
Beginning at age 25 he started dabbling in writing, first translating works from German then moving on to poetry. In between these two phases of his literary career, he published a three-volume set of collected Scottish ballads, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. This was the first sign of his interest in Scotland and history from a literary standpoint.
After Scott had founded a printing press, his poetry, beginning with The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805, brought him fame. He published a number of other poems over the next ten years, including in 1810 the popular Lady of the Lake set in the Trossachs, portions of which (translated into German) were set to music by Franz Schubert. One of these songs, Ellens dritter Gesang, is popularly called “Schubert’s Ave Maria”.
Another work from this time period, Marmion, produced some of his most quoted (and most often mis-attributed) lines. Canto VI. Stanza 17 reads:
Yet Clare’s sharp questions must I shun, Must separate Constance from the nun Oh! what a tangled web we weave When first we practise to deceive! A Palmer too! No wonder why I felt rebuked beneath his eye;
When the press became embroiled in pecuniary difficulties, Scott set out, in 1814, to write a cash-cow. The result was Waverley, a novel which did not name its author. It was a tale of the last Jacobite rebellion in the United Kingdom, the “Forty-Five”, and the novel met with considerable success. There followed a large set of novels in next five years, each the same general vein. Mindful of his reputation as a poet, he maintained the anonymous habit he had begun with Waverley, always publishing the novels under the name “Author of Waverley” or attributed as “Tales of…” with no author. Even when it was clear that there would be no harm in coming out into the open he maintained the façade, apparently out of a sense of fun. During this time the nickname “The Wizard of the North” was popularly applied to the mysterious best-selling writer. His identity as the author of the novels was widely rumoured, and in 1815 Scott was given the honour of dining with George, Prince Regent, who wanted to meet “the author of Waverley”.
Despite being a success himself, Scott also read extensively and published reviews of current literature. In 1816, he commended Emma in the the March issue of the Quarterly Review as being one of
“a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel”, and “copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him”.
High praise, indeed.
In 1820 he broke away from writing about Scotland with Ivanhoe, a historical romance set in 12th-century England. It too was a runaway success and, as he did with his first novel, he unleashed a slew of books along the same lines. As his fame grew during this phase of his career, he was granted the title of baronet, becoming Sir Walter Scott. At this time he organised the visit of King George IV to Scotland, and when the King visited Edinburgh in 1822 the spectacular pageantry Scott had concocted to portray George as a rather tubby reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie made tartans and kilts fashionable and turned them into symbols of national identity.
Beginning in 1825 he went into dire financial straits again, as his company nearly collapsed. That he was the author of his novels became general knowledge at this time as well. Rather than declare bankruptcy he placed his home, Abbotsford House, and income into a trust belonging to his creditors, and proceeded to write his way out of debt. He kept up his prodigious output of fiction (as well as producing a non-fiction biography of Napoleon Bonaparte) until 1831. By then his health was failing, and he died at Abbotsford in 1832. Though not in the clear by then, his novels continued to sell, and he made good his debts from beyond the grave. He was buried in Dryburgh Abbey where nearby, fittingly, a large statue can be found of William Wallace—one of Scotland’s most romantic historical figures.
Scott was responsible for two major trends that carry on to this day. First, he popularized the historical novel; an enormous number of imitators (and imitators of imitators) would appear in the 19th century. It is a measure of Scott’s influence that Edinburgh’s central railway station, opened in 1854, is called Waverley Station. Second, his Scottish novels rehabilitated Highland culture after years in the shadows following the Jacobite rebellions. It is worth noting, however, that Scott was a Lowland Scot, and that his re-creations of the Highlands were more than a little fanciful. It is known that he invented many clan tartans out of whole cloth, so to speak, for the visit by George IV to Scotland in 1822. Nevertheless, even though he is less popular in these days, the echoes of Waverley and its sequels reverberate still.
Scott was also responsible, through a series of pseudonymous letters published in the Edinburgh Weekly News in 1826, for retaining the right of Scottish banks to issue their own banknotes, which is reflected to this day by his continued appearance on the front of all notes issued by the Bank of Scotland.
Many of his works were illustrated by his friend, William Allan.