Persuasions #4, 1982 Pages 16-17
JANE AUSTEN’S HIDDEN MESSAGE
Jane’s introduction to the world of book publishers would discourage any young writer. Her father, the Reverend George Austen, having read First Impressions, (Pride and Prejudice) thought it good enough for publication. Accordingly on Nov. 1, 1797, he wrote to Thomas Cadell, a London publisher, who rejected his invitation to see the work by return of post.
In 1803, Jane Austen took the manuscript Susan (Northanger Abbey) to her banker brother Henry in London to enlist his help in its publication. Mr. Seymour, his man of business, took it to Richard Crosby & Co. The publisher paid ten pounds for the copyright and promised early publication.
To the young woman who, according to Cassandra, wrote three books – First Impressions, Sense and Sensibility and Susan by 1798, this confirmation of her ability must have been deeply satisfying.
Susan was advertised once, however, and then dropped. The slow realization that nothing was to be done about publication could not be anything but painful. Jane began writing The Watsons, but abandoned it. Disappointment at her treatment by publishers may have affected her desire to write.
On April 5, 1809, before leaving Southampton for the more pleasing life of Chawton, Jane made a personal effort to jog Crosby (she spelt it Crosbie) into publishing Susan. She sent a very business-like, even chill letter:
In the spring of the year of 1808, a MS Novel in 2 vol. entitled Susan was sold to you by a Gentleman of the name of Seymour, & the purchase money £10 rec’d at the same time. Six years have since passed, & this work of which I am myself the Authoress, has never to the best of my knowledge, appeared in print, tho’ an early publication was stipulated for at the time of sale. I can only account for such an extraordinary circumstance by supposing the MS by some carelessness to have been lost; & if that was the case, am willing to supply you with another copy if you are disposed to avail yourselves of it, & will engage for no farther delay when it comes into your hands. It will not be in my power from particular circumstances to command this copy before the Month of August, but then, if you accept my proposal, you may depend on receiving it. Be so good as to send me a Line in answer as soon as possible, as my stay in this place will not exceed a few days. Should no notice be taken of this address, I shall feel myself at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere. I am Gentleman &c. &c.
April 5, 1809. M.A.D.
Direct to Mrs Ashton Dennis
Post Office, Southampton
Richard Crosby replied in kind, threatening the law if she attempted publication and offering the manuscript back on receipt of the £10 he had paid.
To a 28-year-old woman with an allowance of £20 a year, such an offer meant she could not regain her manuscript.
Writing the letter had given her a chance to vent her feelings, however. Likely, the publisher did not notice – he couldn’t be expected to. As Jane observed,
I do not write for such dull elves
The name she used in the letter, Mrs Ashton Dennis, is one she employed nowhere else. It was created solely to give her the hidden delight of writing: I AM GENTLEMEN, MAD.
In December, 1816, before leaving London to take up his duties as a country clergyman Henry acted for his sister once more.
At the offices of Messrs Crosby he paid £10 and retrieved the manuscript. Family tradition has it that he then informed the firm that the manuscript ignored on their shelves for 13 years was written by the author of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma.
Which we like to think made the Gentlemen MAD in turn.
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Letter No. 67 from R. W. Chapman’s Jane Austen’s Letters is reprinted with permission of the Oxford University Press.
Note: “Mad” is a word that J. A. frequently uses. Readers will remember Frank Churchill’s letter of apology to Mrs. Weston in which he writes, “But when I recollect all the uneasiness I occasioned her, and how little I deserve to be forgiven, I am mad with anger.” – Ed.
Note: The color image has replaced the original black and white image for the on-line edition of this essay. – C. Moss, JASNA Web Site Manager