Friday, October 15, 2010

Jane Austen in (Very) First Editions

Friday, October 15, 2010
Susan reports:

Some old things are valued not for their beauty (like an Old Master painting) or their intrinsic value (like a diamond necklace), but for their sheer scarcity. Such is the case with a major sale of rare and antique books scheduled later this month at Sotheby's.

In the early nineteenth century, books were still a luxury item, and a status one at that. Gentlemen prized their libraries. It was customary to purchase a new book in "drab boards" – a nondescript pasteboard cover – from one's favorite bookseller, and then send it off to one's bookbinder to have it handsomely bound in leather and gold embossing, to match the others in one's library. As can be imagined, few of the drab board versions remain in existence today; in most cases, they would have represented the lowly "remainders" to a bookseller, the failed copies that didn't sell, and shuffled off to an ignominious end.

For collectors of rare books, a first edition in drab boards with uncut pages (in other words, a book unsullied by reader's hands) can be the holiest of holy grails, and more holy still if that first edition represents an author whose star of fame had a posthumous rise. This is certainly the case with the Sotheby's sale, which will include this three-volume first edition of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, above. If you're interested in bidding, I hope you've been saving your pennies: Sotheby's is estimating the books will sell for 75,000-100,000 GBP at auction, and very likely more.

I have to admit that I see these plain-clad books not as a collector would, but as a fellow writer. Was this the version that Jane first saw of her new "baby"?  When the package arrived from the London printer, did she open it with the same trepidation that modern authors do, worrying that sentences might have been transposed or signatures inadvertently omitted? Did she cradle the fresh new book in its drab cover, and marvel at that personal victory of imagination and hard work now transformed into printed words for all the world to see and, with luck, to buy?

I wonder....

Many thanks to Michael Robinson for suggesting the idea for this blog.

Above: [Austen, Jane] Pride and Prejudice: A Novel in Three Volumes. By the Author of "Sense and Sensibility." London: G. Sidney for T. Egerton, 1813.


Svea Love said...

To own such a thing as this would most definitely be a prized possession! I love your thoughts as a writer upon the matter; to know that excitement must be a wonderful thing!

Sylvan Lady said...

Fascinating! Wouldn't you love to find these at your local Sunday flea market, LOL?

Alexa Adams said...

Oh to be fabulously wealthy! Or to just have the opportunity to hold such volumes in your hand! Thanks for the dreams...

Lexi Best said...

I love the thought of what Jane experienced when she saw her work in print for the first time. I totally get that.
I don't really get the desire for these books though, I have to say. If the pages are uncut you can't read them. They are just things to own. You can't imagine you're looking at the same pages that someone specific did in the past.
I think they are interesting from a historical perspective in terms of manufacture but they don't get me trembling.
Look after 'em, put 'em in a museum but that's not where my pennies would go.

MrsT said...

what a coincidence, I am reading Pride & Prejudice right now! Hard to believe it was rejected by the publisher the first time Miss Austen sent it out.

Sarsaparilla said...

In my next life I'm sure that I will be fabulously wealthy - and then I plan to buy these books back from the winner of the upcoming Sotheby's auction. :-)

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