Problem 1: Georgian spinsters didn’t write books
Jane Austen, an unmarried clergyman’s daughter living at the lower fringes of the Georgian gentility, shouldn’t really have been doing anything as outré as writing a novel. One of the cleverest things about Pride and Prejudice is its dialogue, and it seems that Jane intended it to be read aloud, like a play. While she was growing up in her father’s Hampshire rectory, her numerous brothers and sister were desperate for entertainment during the long, damp country evenings. Pride and Prejudice probably started out as an amusement for them, when Jane Austen was about twenty one, the same age as her heroine Lizzy. This was okay. It was acceptable for a devoted sister to write amusing playlets to entertain her brothers. But going into print? That was much more difficult.
Problem 2: Georgian publishers couldn’t see how good it was
Jane’s father was an unusual man. Kind, well-read, he loved books and especially novels much more than your typical Georgian gentleman. He realised that his daughter had worked up her comedic sketches into a brilliant novel. He decided to try to get it published, and sent it off on her behalf. But it was rejected by return of post. The problem was, Jane Austen’s book was just too unusual. Novels at that time tended to feature mountains, bandits, haunted abbeys and ghosts. ‘No dark passages?’ wrote one critic of Pride and Prejudice. ‘No wind-howlings in long galleries; no drops of blood upon a rusty dagger?’ He was joking: this guy could see that Miss Austen had created a new, utterly believable type of a social satire. But it took the publishing world a long time to agree. Jane Austen was thirty seven before Pride and Prejudice finally saw print.
Problem 3: nobody knew who’d written it
‘Much to clever to have been written by a woman’, was one literary critic’s verdict. When Jane Austen finally found a publisher for her book, in 1813, it came out anonymously. The author’s name was given as just ‘A Lady’, although in some of the advertisements, a mistake meant that the writer was given instead as the intriguingly aristocratic-sounding ‘Lady A’. But gradually the secret started to slip out. Jane Austen’s relations had to get used to the idea that they were harbouring an author in their midst. Her rich relatives began to have the chance to realise that characters such as the awful Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the distressingly snooty Mr Darcy, had much in common with themselves. Ouch!
Problem 4: what happened next is heart-breaking…
Jane Austen hardly had the chance to enjoy her eventual success. Having published Pride and Prejudice at 37, she died at the distressingly young age of 41. That was exactly two hundred years ago.
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, Lucy Worsley has released a new book all about Jane’s life; examining the rooms, spaces and possessions that mattered to her. Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley is available to buy online and in stores today.