Jane Austen First Editions
"Perhaps before the end of April, Mansfield Park by the author of S & S - P & P may be in the world. - Keep the name to yourself, I should not like to have it known beforehand." Letter to Frank Austen, March 1814
Jane Austen completed six major novels in her lifetime and a number of other shorter works. During her life she was able to personally oversee the publication of Sense & Sensibility in 1811, Pride & Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815. An impressive achievement for a country lady writing secretly from the front parlour at Chawton Cottage.
Her first successful attempt at publication, against the advice of her sister and close confidante Cassandra, had to be at her own expense. Jane may have been encouraged to take this risk after hearing of the financial success of her brother Frank after an eventful voyage to China. His boldness and the resulting financial reward may have spurred her on and in 1811 with the support of her elder brother Henry "Sense & Sensibility" was accepted by Thomas Egerton of London. The understanding was that it would be published "upon commission" that is, at the author's own expense and Jane though obviously excited about the prospect of finally seeing her work in print was also aware of the financial risk she was taking, she therefore set aside a sum from her income to cover the possible loss. This type of contract however, meant that Jane would keep the copyright to the novel. There was also a more practical undertaking in this project as it meant Jane had to travel to London in March 1811 and stay with her brother Henry and his family while correcting the publisher's proofs of her novel, which forced her to stay for the summer. However by 30th October Jane Austen's first novel "Sense & Sensibility" by A Lady was published. The novel was published in three volumes for a price of fifteen shillings. It's reception was very successful, and all first edition copies were sold within a year providing Jane with a handsome profit of over one hundred pounds. This was all the encouragement she needed to try again with another story in her portfolio - "First Impressions."
This now very famous and well-loved story about Elizabeth Bennet and her eventful romance with Mr. Darcy had been written some years earlier in 1797 when Jane was only twenty-one. Her father had tried to have the novel published that same year and had written personally to the publishing house on his daughter's behalf. The actual author to remain unknown.
The reason behind this action by Jane's father may have been the result of a tragic incident to befall the Austen sisters that year. Cassandra, Jane's elder sister was engaged to be married, but this was not to be - her future husband died while abroad and she became resigned to the fact that he being her one true love, no other man would now tempt her into marriage. Jane also, seeing her sister's heartbreak may have decided that romances can be too risky. Mr. Austen began to realise that his two daughters may not marry now or any time in the future and should therefore be encouraged to try and earn some sort of living.
However on receipt of Mr. Austen's letter which described Jane's work in the same vein as a much earlier work by a Miss Burney ( a style of story no longer in vogue and in no way similar to Jane's), the London publishers Cadell immediately and abruptly turned down the offer - "declined by return of post". How often can a first impression be so wrong?
It was many years later that "First Impressions", now revised and re-titled "Pride & Prejudice" was finally published on 28th January 1813. "Mansfield Park" and "Emma" were shortly to follow.
When Jane died in 1817 her work was already widely acclaimed, she may have been at the peak of her writing, we will never know what plans and plots were yet to be revealed. Her family, aware of her talent saw no reason to hesitate in publishing her remaining novels and in December that same year "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion" were published.
Jane's lesser known works, "Lady Susan", "The Watsons" and the early chapters of "Sanditon" were published in "A Memoir of Jane Austen" by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1871. "Lady Susan" a story written through a series of letters is now owned by The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
At Chawton Cottage in Alton Hampshire, now Jane Austen's House Museum, you can view a manuscript copy of "Sanditon", written out by her sister Cassandra, the original owned by the King's College Library, Cambridge, and a first edition of "Sense and Sensibility".
A very special "first edition", is "Volume The First", this is not an actual printed or published title but a book written in her own hand. It's name "Volume The First" titled from the name Jane wrote on the front cover of this bound plain paged notebook. It consists of 'Henry & Eliza', 'The Adventures of Mr. Harley' and 'The Beautiful Cassandra'. Written when Jane was 17 it is now owned by the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford where it has undergone a series of careful restorations.
If you wish to own an early edition of Jane's work visit https://www.harringtonbooks.co.uk/ a well-established rare book seller. Many editions published in the 1800's.
If, however, you enjoy Jane's writings for her colourful characters, romantic and often humorous story lines you can always start a collection of your own without stretching the bank balance. Jane's novels are always in print, have been translated into twenty different languages and are sold worldwide. Please feel free to browse our book collection at The Jane Austen Shop.
List of Jane Austen major published works:
- Sense and Sensibility: (30 October 1811) Thomas Egerton
- Pride and Prejudice: (28 January 1813) Thomas Egerton
- Mansfield Park: (9 May 1814) Thomas Egerton
- Emma: (December 1815) John Murray
- Northanger Abbey: (December 1817) John Murray
- Persuasion: (December 1817)