Monday, November 1, 2010

More Jane Austen: The Price of Drab Boards, Wedgewood, & Posthumous Fame

Monday, November 1, 2010
"A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of."
        – Mansfield Park
          Jane Austen, 1814

Recently we posted about an important auction of first editions by Jane Austen, all the more remarkable (and apparently collectible) for being still fresh from the bookseller, with pages uncut and in drab boards. That sale took place at Sotheby's last Friday, and thanks to reader Michael Robinson, we can now report that the three humble volumes sold for 139,250 GBP (that's $221,380): surely an excellent "recipe for happiness" for the seller.

If you were so unfortunate as to have missed this auction, take heart: there's another coming up, again at Sotheby's, and on the anniversary of Jane Austen's birth (16 December). Included in the sale will be not only a copy of Emma that was originally presented to Maria Edgeworth, but also the set of Wedgewood china, right, purchased by Jane's brother Edward Knight and his daughter Fanny.

Jane herself was along for this shopping junket, and described the new china in a letter to Cassandra Austen, dated 16 September 1813: "We then went to Wedgewoods where my brother and Fanny chose a Dinner Set; I believe the pattern is a small Lozenge in purple, between Lines of narrow Gold; - and it is to have the Crest." (For more about Jane and Wedgewood, see this excellent post by Julie Wakefield on one of our favorite Jane Austen blogs, austenonly.) Perhaps Santa might bid for you?

Of course as grand as such sales may be, they pale in comparison to all the movies, spin-off books, action figures, and who-knows-what-else that has helped make Jane Austen into one of the biggest marketing "brands" in the world today, generating millions of dollars in income for lots of people who are not named Austen. To the country spinster whose entire writing income during her short life is generally estimated to have been around £700, this would likely have been incomprehensible – and more than a little unfair.

But a recent book does quite a good job in explaining the phenomenon. Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman is a fascinating and readable exploration of Jane-mania, in all its curious
manifestations, and a study of why her books continue to hold such favor with readers. But Ms. Harman also examines the "dark side" of such fame: how Austen's name now bears "such a weight of signification as to mean almost nothing at all....To many people, Pride and Prejudice, and even 'Jane Austen', simply evoke the actor Colin Firth in a wet shirt."

Well, not to us, and probably not to you reading this blog, either. But Jane's Fame is well worth a glance or two, if only to make you think again about why you love the originals.

(I obtained and read this book the old-fashioned way - from a bookstore - so no disclaimers are necessary.)


Unknown said...

Thanks for the shameless plug, Susan. Could I in turn mention Kathryn Sutherland's recent work: ‘Jane Austen's Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood’, { }
She is the Project Director and Principal Investigator for the ”Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts” web project { } you discussed in a prior post,

Sara R. said...

Goodness, that's a great deal of money for those unbound books! Especially when considered next to Jane's own total income from writing. I read somewhere that she considered herself a successful writer, but that doesn't seem like much.

Lexi Best said...

I'll admit that I hadn't read Austen before I saw Firth's wet shirt. I enjoyed Thompson's Sense & Sensibility more because I hadn't read the book.
My friend who took me to the show was disappointed as it was one of her favourite novels. She gave me a set of Austen's works.
Emma with Gwenyth Paltrow was very pretty but it disappointed me because I had read it by then.
I'm the kind of person who likes historical movies. So if they are interesting then I'll read more about it -- biographies, novels in Austen's case, social history. This often leads me to have a really enriched understanding of a time and place.
So I don't have a problem with people who only know her through Mr Darcy, look what else we got from that - zombies, Bridget Jones' Diary and Lost in Austen and more. And give people time, some of them at least will make their way to the books who wouldn't necessarily have been drawn to a 200 year old work.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

Now I would much rather have the china than the unread books. To know that Jane Austen herself ate from the same plates would be magic.

Lexi Best said...

Mme Tresbeau I agree! I once had tea from a very nice 1805 pot and I couldn't help but wonder about all the gossip that had been shared over it.

Anonymous said...

Hey! What's so wrong with Colin Firth in a wet shirt? ;)

Unknown said...

Didn't Becky Sharp say something quite parallel in Vanity Fair?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Michael, thanks for the links.

Sara R., I've also read that Jane Austen considered herself a successful professional writer, and for a woman writing at that time, the seven hundred pounds was probably pretty good.

Lexi, I agree - whatever leads you to the original books is just fine. I'm shallow enough to admit that I have in fact bought a book for the sole reason that the guy on the cover was hot. However, I do regret that there are people out there who've seen the movies and read the zombies,but never have read JA's originals. Their loss....:(

Mme Tresbeau & Lexi - yes, sharing the same china would definitely be chill-worthy! Though somehow I doubt that if you'd paid whatever outrageous sum that china will fetch, you'd be willing to actually USE it. *g*

Anonymous, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with Colin Firth in a wet shirt. Nothing at all. Though I do have serious misgivings about the most recent P&P with Miss Elizabeth Bennet's full-blown smokey eye makeup....

Penny, I'm sure Becky Sharp said something similar about money. It sounds very like her, doesn't it?

Lexi Best said...

It WAS a $5000 tea pot, a quarter of a century ago. I was terrified of it slipping (I poured) as the table top was glass to boot.
The owner was a serious collector.

Lexi Best said...

The famous Virginia Woolf saying about a room of one's own actually finishes with "and 500 pounds a year." When you think about it these women were far more pragmatic than we are.
One cannot live on love alone, after all.

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