First Impressions: Early Editions of 'Pride and Prejudice' (Sarah Ogar '13)

Happy 200th Anniversary to Pride & Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen has a definite seat in the western literary canon.  Her work has remained in print ever since her first publication and spawned numerous sequels, film adaptations, literary sub-genres and zombie fan fiction  (Pucci, 8).  It is difficult to imagine a world without Jane Austen.  Most readers of British literature and chick lit now take her for granted and accept her as a pop culture staple. Her third published novel, and arguably most famous work Pride & Prejudice recently celebrated its two-hundredth anniversary on January 28th, 2013 with much rejoicing.

 In light of Pride and Prejudice’s loyal modern following, I wanted to find out what kind of effort was required to get Pride and Prejudice in print and how the work was initially received.   

What were the first impressions of Austen’s audience when they first laid eyes on her novel?  And what kind of publishing world gave birth to Austen’s work?  These are the questions I asked for my final project and provided the springboard for my inquiries into the publishing and literary history of Pride and Prejudice.  What I found has helped me unearth a wealth of information that can help all of us understand the book’s initial reception in light of its current popularity.  By examining some early editions of Pride and Prejudice, and researching the publishing world at the time of Jane Austen, I plan to prove that Jane Austen was not nearly as far-reaching as she is today due to a lack of supportive publishers, poor marketing, and a literary culture that thrived on emotionally-driven stories that had little to do with Austen’s high wit, irony, and social commentary.

The Budding Writer

            Born in 1775 as the seventh child of George and Cassandra Austen, young Jane grew up surrounded by bright minds and a burgeoning literary scene.  George Austen curated a varied personal library that he encouraged all of his children to peruse and critique as they grew in stature and maturity.  He was especially supportive of his two daughters, Cassandra and Jane, who wrote stories, plays, and short satirical essays that had a profound influence on Jane’s novels that she would write later in her life.

            From her early teen years until her death, Jane Austen was always writing (Lane, 13). Before writing the stories she is most famous for (Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Pride & Prejudice), the teenage Austen wrote many nonsensical fragments of stories, most of which poked fun at the popular fiction genres of the day, which were the sentimental novel and the gothic novel (Lane 14).  Austen found both genres to be exaggerated, absurd forms of fiction which she promptly satirized in her early works (Lane, 14).  As Austen progressed through womanhood and grew in mind and spirit, her satire became more pointed and she left the far-flung fancies of her juvenilia in favor of a more subtle, yet still sparkling form of wit.

            Between 1805 and 1809, Austen’s family moved a number of times and experienced the death of her father (Lane, 15).  This was the only period of her life where she wrote next to nothing (Lane, 15).  But upon moving to Hampshire in 1809, Jane’s literary vigor was renewed and her usual productivity restored (Lane, 15).  After a failed attempt to publish a novel entitled Susan, Jane took it upon herself to publish her first novel at her own expense, which unfortunately would not happen until six years before her death.

The Literary World

            The novels of Austen’s time were very often overblown, overly dramatic works that had little to do with everyday people (Lane, 92).  The content of the novel had evolved since its inception, but few authors had risen to both popular and critical fame.  Some authors found success in either the public or academic spheres, while some found success in neither.  Over a span of roughly one hundred years from 1680-1780, England had been introduced to the four great literary authors Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Lawrence Sterne, who would all contribute to the British literary canon (Mitton, 85).  But after this period of profound literary production, came what literary critic Lord Jeffrey called, “A greater mass of trash and rubbish [that] never disgraced the press of any country” (Mitton, 85).  Literature gave way to the popular genre novels of Austen’s time that flooded the book market (Mitton, 85).

The two most popular (and also most criticized) genres in Jane Austen’s era were the gothic and sentimental novels, both of which featured emotional people thrust into far-flung places and far-fetched situations (Lane, 92).  The gothic novel was often set in other countries, in old castles, cathedrals, or other ruins of some sort (Lane, 92).  Gothic stories featured terrible villains, terrifying ghosts, and trembling heroines that bore no resemblance to the sensible figures that populate the halls of Pemberley or Whitehall in Austen’s novels (Lane, 92).  The sentimental novel also featured far-fetched aspects, mostly reflected in characters that felt things much more strongly than others (Lane, 92).  They often experienced powerful bouts of grief and improbable situations such as deathbed repentance, sorrowful goodbyes, and many cases of deus ex machina that readers of Austen’s time gobbled up by the truckload (Lane, 92).  A bookseller from the Regency era remarked “a crying volume brings me more money in six months than a heavy merry thing will do in six years” (Lane, 93).  In addition to containing plots that were far removed from the events of reality, many books were also toeing the lines of morality.  Their heroines often plunged themselves into socially unacceptable relationships and altogether unbecoming behaviors for women of good stature.  Sir Anthony Absolute deemed travelling libraries an ‘evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge’ (Mitton, 86).  When the infamously stuffy character of Mr. Collins is asked to read aloud from a book garnered from a travelling library, he shudders at the thought of reading something so potentially uncensored and insensible (Todd, 402).  The threat of travelling libraries to the Edwardian family lay in the fact that unlike family libraries, which were carefully curated collections, one never knew what kind of fictional fodder would fall from the tree of the travelling library (Todd, 403).  However, there were also Evangelical books that landed on the opposite end of the spectrum, that were often overly pedantic and that even Austen herself found to be too much to handle in the realm of entertainment.

            With these two extremes comprising most of the book market, it is not surprising that Jane Austen was able to find an eager audience that was searching for wit, sparkle, and a degree of normalcy in literary characters.  But before audiences got a dose of Austen, another female author, Fanny Burney, produced three widely successful novels between 1778 and 1796 (Lane, 93).  Her works Evelina, Cecilia, and Camilla were full of high spirits and acute character studies that entertained eighteenth-century readers and still entertain readers today (Lane, 93).  Burney’s novels were not as poignant or practical as Austen’s but they were arguably the closest literary efforts to what Jane Austen would eventually bring to the world of literature.

The Publishing World of Jane Austen

            If the literary world of Jane Austen seems polarized or lacking in diversity compared to the realms of subgenres today, the publishing world is even more limited compared the endless routes that self-published and commercially backed authors can take today. 

            The book market of Jane Austen was broad with a strong base in London (where all of Austen’s novels were initially published) and various smaller booksellers in provincial settings.  Similar to the book market of today, it was competitive and always expanding, but mostly comprised of male authors and publishers.  Writers found niche genres and audiences for their works, but getting from manuscript to print was a Herculean task that often took longer than getting from ideas to a completed manuscript. 

            The printing press was alive and well, but it was not until the end of Austen’s life that the steam press (capable of printing one thousand impressions per hour) would enter the publishing world and greatly increase hourly production.  Because of the limitations of printing and the uncertainty of the market, most books were granted limited print runs of five hundred to seven hundred and fifty copies, with more to come if the book sold well.  This is why for successful books, it was not uncommon for second and third editions to be printed in the same year as the first.

Publishers were savvy businessmen who were not about to throw their money and machines behind any manuscript that came their way.  For writers, there were four paths to getting published: sale of copyright, profit-sharing with the publisher, subscription, and publication for oneself (on commission) (Todd, 9).  To earn quick money and avoid legal battles down the road, authors often sold the copyright of their works to publishers, who would reap the vast majority of the profits from them.  Fanny Burney had sold Camilla for £250 and Evelina for a mere £30, while her publishers made £1500 off of Camilla in the first year.

With no inheritance, no viable prospects of marriage, and a meager £20 per year for clothes, charity, and all personal and emergency expenses, Jane Austen found herself in the fiscally precarious spot that many of her heroines occupied.  On the fringes of gentility, but also on the fringes of poverty, Austen was in need of money and was willing to forego steady financial support through an unsuitable marriage in favor of launching a literary career.  The first female author and career woman who had successfully supported herself through her written work was Aphra Behn (?1640-1689), who was followed by several others including Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth.  When Jane Austen wrote her novels, it was certainly to entertain herself, but also to entertain a wide audience that would buy her books.

Getting ‘Pride & Prejudice’ Into Print

            Austen began writing Pride and Prejudice in October of 1796 and had a finished work one year later.  Her father had sent a letter of inquiry in November of 1797 to publisher Thomas Cadell, with hopes of publishing Pride & Prejudice (then titled First Impressions) ‘at the expense of publishing at the Author’s risk; and what you will advance for the Property of it’ (Todd, 200).  This publishing at the author’s expense made the author responsible for any losses that may be incurred after printing.  Unfortunately, the Austens’ lack of social and financial influence meant that the package was tossed out and never opened. Undeterred, Jane continued writing and revising First Impressions until it became Pride and Prejudice.  Years passed and by the time ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was revised and ready for printing in 1812, Austen had already learned from previous mistakes with two of her other novels in the publishing world.  In 1803, Austen eagerly sold the copyright of her first manuscript Northanger Abbey (then entitled Susan) for £10 to publisher Benjamin Crosby, who had advertised for the book, but never set it in type.  A few years later, Jane would write to Crosby and attempt to buy the rights back.  This was in vain until after Austen’s death when her brother Henry bought back the unpublished manuscript for the same sum that Jane had received for it.  In 1811, Austen invested 180 to print 750 copies of Sense and Sensibility through the publisher Thomas Egerton.  Any production losses would be paid by Austen if the book did not sell well.  Within the year Sense and Sensibility had sold out and was getting ready for its second print run.

            In 1812, before she knew how successful Sense and Sensibility had been Austen sold the copyright of Pride and Prejudice to publisher Thomas Egerton for £110, (Todd, 200).  Jane had accepted Crosby’s first offer, even though she expressed to family members that she would have preferred £150.  Pride and Prejudice would turn out to be Austen’s most popular novel in her lifetime, going through three print editions, but because she sold the copyright to Egerton, it was her least profitable endeavor.  Lucky for Jane, Thomas Egerton did at least uphold his end of the bargain by publishing both of her novels as advertised as three-volume sets.  For the mechanical process, Egerton used printers Charles Roworth and George Sidney of the Strand (with Roworth and Sidney each taking responsibility for different volumes in the set) (Todd 199). 

Nowadays, anything stamped with ‘Austen’ conveys immediate cultural cachet; however, Austen’s first novel Sense and Sensibility, is labeled as being written ‘By a Lady’ and all first editions of her subsequent novels are labeled as ‘By the author of...’ (Todd, 198).  This appears to have been a trend during Austen’s time, instead of being humility on her part.  Yet, it also speaks to the author-publisher relationship, revealing just how much control the publisher, binder, and printer had over what was being printed. 

The first edition of Pride and Prejudice sold for 18s, which was a high cost at the time, but reflected an overall trend in the rise of book production (Todd, 197).  This price increase stemmed from the cost of labor rising by thirty-three percent between 1785 and 1810 along with the cost of paper rising as well (Todd, 197).  From 1802 the price of a novel had risen from 12s to 18s, and unfortunately, for its relatively high cost, the book suffered from poor quality printing, which was a common occurrence during this time and another result of the publisher-author dynamic (Todd, 197).  The editor William Gifford of The Quarterly Review found that the book’s contents were very good, but that it was “wretchedly printed in some places, and so pointed as to be unintelligible” (Sutherland, 21). 

            No matter how “unintelligible” the first edition of Pride and Prejudice was, it sold out within the year and was on its second edition in October of 1813 with a third edition printed in 1817 (both of which were printed without Austen’s involvement, since she had sold the copyright to Egerton).  Pride and Prejudice was Austen’s most popular novel of her lifetime, going through three editions before her death; however, it was also the least profitable to her (Todd, 9).  After learning another lesson in the harsh world of book publishing, Austen would never sell her copyrights again (Todd, 9). 

Initial Responses and Lasting Impressions

            Early responses to Austen’s work were mixed, but generally positive.  When she first read her novel in print, Austen herself expressed in a letter to her sister that she feared her book might be a bit “too light and bright and sparkling” (Lane, 132).  Despite Austen’s expressed trepidation, most critics did find Austen’s accurate conveyance of character to be uplifting, but not overblown.  A broad audience adored her work for being moralistic without being parochial (Mitton, 177).  And on the whole, her works were initially praised more for their moral content than their stylistic merits (Lane, 133).    However, it would take almost one hundred years until her works entered the good graces of higher education.  And they never seemed to win over Charlotte Bronte who believed that “the passions [were] perfectly unknown to [Austen]” (Todd, 300).  But after several serious essays on Austen’s work in the twentieth century, followed by several highly popular film adaptations, and a few chick lit books to boot, Jane Austen has risen to a level of fame that far oustrips her contemporaries. 

            Though she never made more than £700 from her four books she published (Todd, 200) and no more than £1100 collective during her lifetime, Austen’s work fetches a high price today.   A single copy of the first edition of Pride & Prejudice recently sold in a Christie’s auction in December of 2012 for the hefty sum of $68,500.  Though it took a great deal of persistence and faith in her creative competence, Austen’s work stood out for being a clear mirror of society’s morals and fallacies.  Although she suffered from negligent publishers and a poor marketing scheme, Jane Austen’s written work continues to reflect a woman of great importance, whose influence today is unquestioned.  Whether her fans are reading her books, watching five-episode television adaptions of her books, or writing sequels to her books, only time will determine what other forms of media will be impacted by this gifted writer from Steventon.


1817 Presentation

1833 Presentation

1845 Edition



Cavendish, Richard. "Publication of Sense and Sensibility ˜By A Lady'." History Today 61, no.

10 (2011):.

%98-lady%E2%80%99 (accessed Feb 17, 2013).


Harman, Claire Jane's fame : how Jane Austen conquered the world. New York, N.Y. 2009.


Hensher, Phillip. "Pride and Prejudice: a love story centuries old, but eternally fresh."

The Telegraph, 29 Dec 2012, (accessed Feb 25, 2013).


Mitton, Geraldine E. Jane Austen and Her Times. Port Washington, N.Y., London: Kennikat

Press. 1905, 1970.


Pucci, Suzanne R. and James Thompson. Jane Austen and Co. : remaking the past in

contemporary culture. Albany. 2003.


Sutherland, Kathryn. "Jane Austen's Dealings with John Murray and his Firm."The Review of

English Studies: Oxford University Press 64, no. 2 (2012): 2-22..


Todd, Janet M. Jane Austen in context. Cambridge, UK: University Press. 2005.