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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe


Today, it’s called the slush pile: the tottering heap of unsolicited manuscripts that clog the mailboxes—these days, the email boxes—of literary agents and publishers.

Presumably, they called it something else back in 1797, when Rev. George Austen wrote to the publisher Thomas Cadell, offering to send along a three-volume novel in manuscript for his consideration. As every Janeite knows, Cadell passed up the opportunity to look at the twenty-one-year-old Jane Austen’s work, and another sixteen years went by before Pride and Prejudice made it into print.

Now Rev. Austen’s letter to Cadell—with the notation “declined by Return of Post” scrawled across the top—is on display at the library of Oxford University’s St. John’s College, as part of an exhibition of letters and manuscripts dating from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

The exhibition, “Life stories from St. John’s: the famous & the forgotten,” runs until December 9, but luckily for those of us who can’t make it to Oxford in person, the documents are also viewable online.

Jane Austen’s father was a student at St. John’s and later taught classics there, before marrying and leaving for his own parish. The letter to Cadell, which takes up a single page of neat clerical handwriting, is far from unknown: Rev. Austen’s fruitless early effort to find a publisher for one of the world’s greatest novels is mentioned in the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, written by the author’s nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Rev. Austen, who seems to have delighted in his brilliant daughter’s artistic pursuits, at a time when plenty of fathers would have squelched a girl’s aspirations to anything beyond marriage. We don’t know if Jane Austen asked her father to approach a publisher on her behalf, or if his letter was a stealthy effort by a doting parent hoping to engineer a joyful surprise.

Either way, it’s not hard to understand why Cadell passed: When a no-name country clergyman offers to send you a lengthy manuscript, what are the odds that the book in question will be a deathless masterpiece, rather than a turgid, amateurish slog? Unlike today’s publishers, Cadell probably didn’t have any bright-eyed interns eager to tackle his slush pile.

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