As all good nerdy history folk likely already know, this week marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. Countless words are being written around the world in praise of P&P and its author in celebration, and every laudatory syllable is well-deserved. There's not much I can add in the way of literary brilliance, but I can contribute a few words of my own regarding Jane Austen as a fellow author.
Long before she posthumously became one of the most famous of authors, Jane was just one more working novelist, A Lady whose name wasn't even on her title page. The details that survive about Jane and the publication of P&P, in three volumes,sound all too familiar to 21st c. writers.
Receiving her first printed author-copies (here are first editions) was at once a glorious experience and a taxing one. There were the inevitable errors, discovered too late to be corrected. She worried about the newspaper advertisement – ah, promo! – and whether the book would sell. (The sad truth was that she never earned enough from her books to support herself, something that many modern writers will also recognize.) She worried, too, that readers wouldn't understand her characters, especially her heroine Elizabeth. In the excerpt, below, from a letter she wrote to her sister Cassandra on January 29, 1813, Jane describes anonymously sharing the new book with an unsuspecting Miss Benn, relishing every appreciative word even as she dreads hearing a critical one.
Writers understand this. To Jane, Pride and Prejudice isn't a mere book, but her "own darling Child." Those who don't write believe that professional story-telling takes perseverance, talent, ideas, inspiration, and creativity. Those who do write know that a successful writer also needs a good measure of courage, enough to be able to send her or his "own darling Child" out into the cold, cruel world of critics and readers. It's a courage that Jane clearly must have had – and we're all grateful she did.
"I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London; – on Wednesday I received one Copy, sent down by Falknor....The Advertisement is in our paper to day for the first time; – 18s–He shall ask £1-1- for my two next, & £1-8 for my stupidest of all....Miss Benn dined with us on the very day of the books coming & in the evening we set fairly at it, and read half the first vol. to her, prefacing that, having intelligence from Henry that such a work would soon appear, we had desired him to send it whenever it came out, and I believe it passed with her unsuspected. She was amused, poor soul! that she could not help, you know, with two such people to lead the way, but 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. There are a few Typical errors; and a "said he," or a "said she," would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear – but I do not write for such dull Elves."
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.