Did you know Jane Austen loved Pride and Prejudice as her ‘own darling child’ and read it aloud at home? Biographer Paula Byrne, author of The Real Jane Austen, celebrates the bicentennial of the beloved novel.
Pride and Prejudice was published in January 1813, in three volumes by Thomas Egerton, in a print run that was probably 1,500 copies. Five copies were sent to the author, and on January 29 Jane Austen wrote that “I have got my own darling child from London.” She couldn’t have known it at the time, but selling the copyright for £110 of what would be her most popular novel was a mistake. The risk and the profit were all Egerton’s, and the novel was a success.
Austen read Pride and Prejudice aloud at home, in an all-female reading circle. On the very day that the books arrived, a local friend, Miss Benn, came to dine, and the family gave a reading to her. The idea was not to tell her that the new novel was by Jane, but Miss Benn seems to have guessed the truth from the general excitement in the household. Austen was especially pleased that “she really does seem to admire Elizabeth. I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” It went so well that Miss Benn was invited back for a second evening. Jane wrote to her elder sister, Cassandra:
I am much obliged to you for all your praise; it came at a right time, for I had had some fits of disgust; our second evening’s reading to Miss Benn had not pleased me so well, but I beleive something must be attributed to my Mother’s too rapid way of getting on—and tho’ she perfectly understands the Characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought.
For Austen, reading her own novels aloud in the correct way—in the manner of a dramatic performance—was a particular skill and a special joy. She was, though, as critical of her own literary performance as she was of her mother’s inferior recitation: “The work is rather too light and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade.” But then, as ever, she turns the self-criticism into a joke at the expense of more pedantic, digressive novels:
It wants to be stretched out here and there with a long Chapter—of sense if it could be had, if not of solemn specious nonsense—about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte—or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and Epigrammatism of the general stile.
She was anxious to hear the opinions of those who were in on the secret of her authorship: “Fanny’s praise is very gratifying … Her liking Darcy and Eliz[abeth] is enough. She might hate all the others, if she would.” Fanny’s diary for June 5, 1813, records that “A[un]t Jane spent the morning with me and read P and P to me.” The younger Knight sisters were not allowed to listen. One of them later remembered: “I and the younger ones used to hear peals of laughter through the door, and thought it very hard that we should be shut out from what was so delightful.”
Jane was brimming with pride and confidence about Pride and Prejudice: “Oh! I have more of such sweet flattery from Miss Sharp … I am read and admired in Ireland too.” To her amusement she had heard that she had an obsessive Irish fan: “There is a Mrs Fletcher, the wife of a Judge, an old Lady and very good and very clever, who is all curiosity to know about me—what I am like and so forth. I am not known to her by name however.” She was keen to know whether Mrs. Fletcher had read Sense and Sensibility as well.
Jane herself was relaxed about people discovering that she was an author. She asked Cassandra to let their niece Anna in on the secret: “if you see her and do not dislike the commission, you may tell her for me.” She also told her that the secret was not really a secret in her home of Chawton: “you must be prepared for the Neighbourhood being perhaps already informed of there being such a Work in the World, and in the Chawton World!” Now that the reviews were out and the book was such a big hit with the family, she didn’t seem to care who knew about it. She even imagined herself becoming a celebrity: “I do not despair of having my picture in the Exhibition at last—all white and red, with my Head on one Side.”
By October 1813, Egerton was advertising second editions of both novels. “I have now therefore written myself into £250,” Jane proudly told her brother Frank, who was as usual away at sea, “which only makes me long for more.—I have something in hand.”
That “something in hand” was Mansfield Park.
From the book The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne. Copyright 2013 by Paula Byrne. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins.