Austen’s first patron? Likely a prince she hated

July 25, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 05:02 am IST

Historians say they have chanced upon the receipt for the oldest documented sale of the novelist’s Sense and Sensibility



Jane Austen’s novels may epitomize Regency England, but she did not think much of the man for whom the period was named.

Like many of her compatriots, Austen loathed the Prince Regent, once railing in an 1813 letter against the man whose gluttony, profligacy and infidelities scandalized the nation. In 1815, when she was strong-armed into dedicating her fourth novel, Emma , to the future George IV, she produced a tribute so strained that a scholar called it “one of the worst sentences she ever committed to print”.

But now, in a delicious irony that Austen herself might have appreciated, it turns out that the man who was counted among her most reviled readers might also have been one of her very first. This month a graduate student working in the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle came across an 1811 bill of sale from a London bookseller, charging the Prince Regent 15 shillings for a copy of Sense and Sensibility , Austen’s first novel.

Oddly, the transaction took place two days before the first public advertisement — making it what scholars believe to be the first documented sale of an Austen book.

“It’s quite exciting,” said Oliver Walton, a curator who is leading an effort to increase access to voluminous holdings relating to the reign of George III, the Prince Regent’s father. “This is something that highlights the collection while also tapping into the enormous interest in Jane Austen.” The bill of sale for Sense and Sensibility was discovered by Nicholas Foretek, a first-year Ph.D student in history at the University of Pennsylvania, who was combing through the Prince Regent’s papers as part of his research into connections between late 18th-century political figures and the publishing world. The Prince Regent was known to have literary interests, if not necessarily of the high-minded sort.

In 1788, the same year his father became incapacitated by mental illness, the prince secretly bought the newspaper The Morning Post , to stop it from publishing embarrassing information about his love life.

Big spender

He also spent profligately on books for his grand library at Carlton House, his opulent home on Pall Mall in London. “Debt is really great for historians,” Mr. Foretek said. “It generates a lot of bills.” It was in receipts relating to the library that Mr. Foretek noticed the bill of sale listing the purchase of Sense and Sensibility on October 28, 1811.

The discovery highlights the potential of the Georgian Papers Programme, an effort to open up — and ultimately post freely online — more than 3,50,000 pages of largely uncatalogued documents relating to George III and his household.

When Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811, Austen was a nobody, identified on the title page only as “A Lady”.

In October 1815, a few months after finishing Emma , she was visiting her brother in London, when word came through a chance encounter with the Prince Regent’s doctor that His Highness was a great admirer. An invitation for a visit to his library at Carlton House followed, during which his librarian, James Stanier Clarke, conveyed that the Prince Regent (who was not present) would not object if she dedicated her next book to him — the royal equivalent of an offer you can’t refuse.

This posed a dilemma for Austen, who in an 1813 letter had expressed her sympathies for the Prince Regent’s wife, Caroline of Brunswick. “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her husband,” Austen wrote. When she proposed a terse dedication, her publisher insisted she punch it up. She eventually landed on this respectable but wooden tribute: “To his Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s Permission, most Respectfully Dedicated by his Royal Highness’s Dutiful and Obedient Humble Servant.”NY TIMES

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