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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1815. . .

Fifty-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Although Jane Austen was a professional writer who spent six years working with two different publishers, little of her surviving correspondence concerns business affairs; she left most such matters to her brother Henry.

Among the handful of exceptions, however, is the letter Austen wrote to publisher John Murray exactly 205 years ago today (#126 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) – and that letter exists precisely because Henry, several weeks into a serious illness, was still too compromised to act on his sister's behalf.

Austen had been visiting Henry in London that autumn when he fell ill; as Janeites will recall, it was Henry’s doctor who facilitated Austen’s introduction to the Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, who passed along to Austen the offer-she-couldn’t-refuse: permission to dedicate her forthcoming novel, Emma, to her most powerful fan, the future George IV.

By late November, more than a month into her London stay, Austen, like so many writers before and since, was dismayed at what seemed to be unaccountable delays in publishing her latest book. In an effort to speed along the process – and at Henry’s suggestion, as she explained a few days later in a letter to her sister, Cassandra -- she decided to pull the only string at her disposal.

“Is it likely that the Printers will be influenced to greater Dispatch & Punctuality by knowing that the Work is to be dedicated, by Permission, to the Prince Regent?” Austen asked Murray. “If you can make that circumstance operate, I shall be very glad.”

It seems unlikely that this royal news alert had much effect – as Austen told Cassandra soon after, the delay was apparently attributable not to dilatory printers but to a delayed paper delivery – but in any case, the story had a happy ending. On December 23, 1815, exactly one month after Austen’s letter to Murray, the novel finally appeared, and it was – well, it was Emma.

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