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18 July 2017 – Jane Austen’s Bicentenary

By Anthony Anderson

7 July 2017

Jane Austen – The Complete Novels (unabridged)During that half hour was her struggle, pour soul! She said she could not tell us what she suffered, tho’ she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death & some of her words were “God grant me patience, Pray for me oh Pray for me”. Her voice was affected but as long as she spoke she was intelligible.

Jane Austen’s final moments described by her sister, Cassandra

This year marks the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death: she died on 18 July 1817 at the relatively young age of 41. There are few writers for whom such an anniversary has any real significance outside their followers and the publishing world – Shakespeare’s 400 last year being an obvious exception – but Austen reaches further than that. This is largely due to the plethora of films and television dramatisations of her books, which have been produced over recent decades. On audiobook there are multiple versions of her longer six novels, including our own editions performed by Juliet Stevenson.

The Prince Regent was an early enthusiast of Austen’s work

Sense and Sensibility (1811) was the first of Austen’s novels to be published, although the first version, in epistolary form, had been written as early as 1795. The financial risks of publication were borne by the author, using money from one of her brothers, but the book was quickly met with great success, making the author a profit of £140. The publication of Pride and Prejudice (1813) followed shortly afterwards although, again, that novel had first been written some seventeen years earlier under the title of First Impressions, and turned down for publication as early as 1797 by the publisher, Thomas Cadell, who refused to even look at the manuscript. Astounding as this might appear to us today, taking a risk on a completely unknown author, let alone a woman, was not as odd as it seems.

Given Austen’s work was only first published six years before her death, she only enjoyed any kind of notoriety for a few years, and although she was never very wealthy (the family had often struggled financially over her lifetime), the income from her books made life more comfortable. Critics at the time were not unanimously positive in their reception of her work, although Sheridan said Sense and Sensibility was one of the cleverest things he had ever read. From the time of the publication of Mansfield Park in 1814 Austen collected the opinions of many of her readers, copied in her own hand from letters or conversations.

The Prince Regent (later King George IV) was an early enthusiast of Austen’s work and it was suggested to her publisher that her next book may be dedicated to him – the suggestion being no less than an order. Thus Emma – with the eponymous heroine whom, as Austen put it, ‘nobody except myself will much like’ – bore the royal dedication on its publication in 1815. At the time of this year’s bicentenary, the Bank of England will unveil the new Jane Austen (plastic) £10 note – £10 by coincidence being the amount for which she sold (and subsequently bought back) the copyright for Northanger Abbey.

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