Issue 21: Getting Jane published - observations of a book collector


We know from both writings and recollections within the family that Jane Austen started her creative writing career at around the age of 12 in 1788.

She clearly started by writing short, clever, often irreverent pieces that were designed to be read aloud within the family. Those that have survived were written out by Jane as fair copies in 1793 in the three famous notebooks that became Volume the First, Volume the Second and Volume the Third, which were preserved and passed down within the family.

These three volumes were eventually published by Oxford Clarendon Press between 1933 and 1963, due to the diligent research and editorial acumen of Robert Chapman and Brian Southern. Volume the First is now held in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the other two Volumes are in the British Library in London. They represent first editions of Jane Austen that are affordable by mere mortals.

However, we know that even with these early writings, Jane was at least in jest, thinking about publication for profit, as, in 1790, she followed her dedication to her brother Henry Austen on one of these juvenile pieces, Lesley Castle, with:

Messrs. Demand & Co. – please pay Jane Austen, spinster, the sum of one hundred guineas on account of your Humble Servant

H T Austen.

As she matured, she continued to write, and by 1799 had completed at least the first drafts of manuscripts which were to become Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.

On 1st November 1797, her father unsuccessfully offered one of these manuscripts, albeit sight unseen, to the London publisher Thomas Cadell, of the firm Cadell and Davies, describing it in his letter as “a Manuscript Novel, comprised of three Vols. about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina”. We know this because Rev. George Austen’s letter to Cadell was preserved in the publisher’s archives and was discovered in 1840 at the sale of the firm’s papers, marked “declined by return of post”. Thomas Cadell has thus become immortalised as the publisher who rejected Pride and Prejudice, one of the world’s most beloved novels, which has now been printed and sold in more than 20 million books!

In 1803, Rev. George Austen was successful in selling the manuscript of Northanger Abbey, then called Susan, not to be confused with Lady Susan, to another London bookseller/publisher, Crosby & Co., for £10. However, for some reason, Crosby decided not to publish the book, and when challenged about this by a letter from Jane Austen, using the pseudonym of Mr. Ashton Dennis, in 1809, Richard Crosby told the author that she could buy back her manuscript for £10. She could not afford this sum. Eventually, her brother Henry repurchased the copyright from Crosby in 1816 for £10, and had great delight in then informing Crosby that he had just given up an unpublished manuscript by the author of four famous successful novels, including Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense and Sensibility, which was famously published as "BY A LADY" on 30th October 1811 by Thomas Egerton, in three volumes for 15 shillings. The first edition was 750 copies and was sold out by the middle of 1813. Jane Austen had taken the financial risk in this publication herself, and ended up making £140 profit from the first edition, equivalent to about A$15,000 today.

You can see that on the title page, the publisher describes the book as being “Printed for the author by...”, which indicates that the author was taking the financial risk herself, but did at least retain her copyright. 

Title pages of first editions of  Sense and Sensibility  and  Pride and Prejudice . 

Title pages of first editions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice

On the strength of the success of Sense and Sensibility, Egerton agreed to purchase the copyright of Pride and Prejudice, and duly published it as a three-volume edition of 1000 copies for 18 shillings in January 1813. Jane Austen had wanted £150 for the copyright of Pride and Prejudice, but eventually agreed to Egerton’s offer of £110. Note that Pride and Prejudice is described as printed for T. Egerton, as he owned the copyright.

A nice copy of that 18-shilling first edition would now cost you between A$100,000 and $200,000 depending upon its condition and binding, if you can find one for sale. About 50-60 copies are thought to still exist. Two copies sold in that price range in early 2017, but as of August 2017, there are no copies currently available for sale.

The first edition of Pride and Prejudice sold more rapidly than Sense and Sensibility had, and was sold out by August 1813. In November 1813, second editions of both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were published, both in three volume editions of 750 copies. Both the first and second editions of Pride and Prejudice were described on the title page as “by the author of Sense and Sensibility”, and the second edition of Sense and Sensibility was described as by “the author of Pride and Prejudice.” A triumph of early 19th century marketing!

Jane Austen published two more novels in her lifetime, Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1816, which were followed by the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in December 1817, although they were dated 1818 on the title pages.

On none of these books did the author’s name appear on the title page. The first time that was to occur was with the first French edition of Persuasion, called La Famille Elliot, published in 1821 in two volumes. This was also the first edition of any Jane Austen title to be published with any illustrations. There are only four known surviving copies of this book, three in European institutional libraries and one in private hands, making it an astonishing scarcity, and very difficult to value. 

Frontispiece and title page of  La Famille Elliot , 1821 

Frontispiece and title page of La Famille Elliot, 1821 

So, if you want to start collecting some of these very early editions of Jane Austen, I would suggest that either a trip to a very understanding bank manager or a huge win at the lottery would be essential! 

© Emeritus Professor Chris Browne - Program Director of Melbourne Rare Book Week and Secretary of Rare Books Melbourne Inc. 


The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation works with the Jane Austen community and industry to provide literacy resources for communities in need across the world. Reading and writing skills empower individuals to participate in society and achieve their dreams. Literacy gives a child pride and opens up a world of possibilities.

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