Loved by modern audiences through portrayals by the likes of Keira Knightley (pictured), Elizabeth Bennet did not win publishers’ hearts at first.TWO days after receiving her copy of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra. ”I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London,” she announced with delight. She had always noted with sympathy and interest the difficult pregnancies and long, painful childbirths her female relations had undergone, but the ”gestation” of her ”own darling Child” went on far longer than any pregnancy and was infinitely less hopeful of a positive outcome than anything her sisters-in-law endured.
According to Cassandra Austen (who recorded these dates after her sister’s death and whose memory could be faulty), Jane Austen sat down at a table in Steventon parsonage, dipped her quill in the ink pot and began to write the novel that would become Pride and Prejudice some time in October 1796. She had already written the hilarious stories of her juvenilia, the tale of a ruthless adulteress called Lady Susan and an epistolary novel known then as Elinor and Marianne. Just like her heroine Elizabeth Bennet, Jane was 20 years old, the age for attending balls at the Basingstoke Assembly Rooms, the age for falling in love. Very recently she had danced and flirted with Tom Lefroy, a handsome young Irishman, and she had fallen in love with him. The excitement of her first love affair, the energy it roused in her, surged into her story. The quill flew across the pages and by August of the following year her story was complete.
It would be one of the world’s great literary ”finds” if the original manuscript of her novel were to be unearthed in a trunk in a dusty attic somewhere. But such a treasure is most unlikely ever to be discovered and all we can do is speculate about that lost version.
We do not even know if, like Elinor and Marianne (the early version of Sense and Sensibility), it was epistolary in style: that is, totally written in the form of letters sent between the various characters, as were Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Letters are certainly important in the text (44 are either given in full or referred to) and much vital information is conveyed via correspondence by Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley, Mr Collins, Lydia, Mrs Gardiner and others. Yet the structure and sparkling dialogue of the finished novel more closely resemble a play than an epistolary novel. Austen had been discussing Fielding’s Tom Jones with Tom Lefroy and that energetic novel was not epistolary. It seems more probable that this novel was her first attempt at writing in the more standard novel form.
She called her book First Impressions. It was a good title, giving an important clue to the central concerns of her story. We see Elizabeth’s first mistaken impressions of Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham, so significant within the novel, as are her first correct impressions of Mr Collins and Lady Catherine, and that first vital impression of Pemberley, which goes so far in correcting her wrong first impression of its owner. Elizabeth’s father succumbed to first impressions by marrying Miss Gardiner, and lived to regret it. Elizabeth has to learn about pre-judging and judging, to discriminate between initial impressions and true recognition.
Having written her book, Austen was naturally keen to see it published. Her family, who were her first readers, all enjoyed it and her father decided to help. Late in 1797 he wrote to a London publisher, Thomas Cadell, bringing this new literary work to his attention.
Mr Austen may have been an excellent clergyman, but he was no salesman. ”I have in my possession a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. About the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina,” he informed Cadell. He went on to enquire about the expense of publication and offered to send the manuscript to London.
Not a word about the wit and charm of his daughter’s novel, no enticing hints as to its plot. It’s hardly surprising that Cadell scrawled across the top of the letter ”declined by Return of Post”.
But Austen did not put her manuscript in a bottom drawer and forget about it. During the following years she joked in letters about family friend Martha Lloyd wanting to learn it by heart so that she could get it published herself. A young niece recalled talk between the sisters of ”Jane and Elizabeth”, accompanied by laughter over the characters. It was typical of Austen to take refuge from her disappointment in laughter, but she didn’t forget her book and clearly hoped that she might succeed in getting it printed. One wonders if Mr Austen tried other publishers for his daughter.
She continued to tinker with her novel. Probably in the early 1800s she changed its title. A Mrs Margaret Holford had got in before her and published her First Impressions, so something new had to be found. Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia uses the phrase ”pride and prejudice” (printed in capitals and used three times in a single paragraph towards the closing pages of the book) and Jane Austen was very familiar with that novel. The phrase also occurs in the contemporary History of England (in which the pride and prejudice of Henry VIII are spoken of), in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem Retaliation and in Dr Johnson’s The Idler of 1758. Lord Chesterfield used the phrase in his letters to his son, and the poet Charles Churchill used it in his satire Independence. The phrase that is so unutterably familiar today was also deeply familiar to Austen when she took it up and employed it as her title. Probably about 1803 and 1804, she made other changes to her work, possibly very considerable ones.
And then Pride and Prejudice lay dormant, known only to select friends and relations. Austen left Steventon, moved to Bath and then to Southampton. Her father died, family money decreased, her single status grew ever more confirmed.
She started a novel called The Watsons but gave it up for unknown reasons. No one wanted her writing.
While a publisher purchased her Susan (later published as Northanger Abbey) in 1803, he did not actually publish it. To a hopeful author, this was all most discouraging. Austen could so easily have shrugged her shoulders and resigned herself to giving up writing. Posterity can be eternally grateful that she did not. In 1809, Austen, her mother and her sister moved to the village of Chawton. Back in her beloved Hampshire countryside, established in a house for which no rent was due, with more time to herself and a more settled routine, Austen returned to literary composition.
Perhaps Cadell’s rejection of First Impressions still rankled, for it was not that novel she picked up. Elinor and Marianne had been drastically revised, probably in 1797, and was now Sense and Sensibility. This was sent to Thomas Egerton of Whitehall some time in late 1810 and was accepted on condition that it was published at the author’s own expense. Although sure that it would cost all her very modest savings, Austen was encouraged to make the attempt. In 1811, at long last, she saw one of her works in print when Sense and Sensibility, ”by a Lady”, appeared in October of that year.
Finally, there was encouragement. Her book sold well, was read and liked by the royal family, received good reviews, and brought its author a profit of £140. Had its reception been poor, the world would probably never have known Pride and Prejudice, as Austen would have had no money with which to risk a second unsuccessful attempt.
The comedy of Mr and Mrs John Dashwood, the passion of Marianne and the moving constancy of Elinor opened the way for the arrival of Elizabeth and Darcy, the Bennets and Mr Collins on the literary scene. Austen immediately began the ”alterations and contractions” mentioned by Cassandra Austen. In her own words, she ”lop’t and crop’t” Pride and Prejudice, fine-tuning during 1812, making whatever changes she thought necessary to her book.
At the end of that November she had good news: ”P. & P. is sold. – Egerton gives £110 for it. – I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased.”
Egerton, who, unlike Cadell, had seen the potential of her book, had secured the copyright for himself and wasted no time in publishing it.
This is an edited extract from Happily Ever After — Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Susannah Fullerton, published by Frances Lincoln, $29.99.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.