“Pride & Prejudice” Forever


So widely admired is Pride and Prejudice today that it’s impossible to imagine our literary landscape without it. And yet, nothing about the novel’s genesis pointed to such a remarkable future. Its early publishing history was in fact downright unpromising. According to the records of Cassandra, Austen at age 20 began drafting the book in October 1796, possibly in epistolary form, under the original title First Impressions. She finished it in August 1797. In November 1797, Austen’s father, always one of his daughter’s greatest fans, wrote a letter inviting the prominent London publisher Thomas Cadell to look at a “Manuscript Novel,” probably First Impressions. Cadell declined the offer, and a few years later the title “First Impressions” appeared on a novel by Margaret Holford. More than 15 years later Thomas Egerton, the publisher of Sense and Sensibility, published Austen’s revised version of Pride and Prejudice, “lop’t and crop’t” as she put it in a letter to Cassandra, and sporting the new title, most likely borrowed from a passage in Cecilia by Frances Burney, the most famous female novelist of the late 18th century. As a market-savvy author, Austen no doubt also favored the alliterative cadence of “pride and prejudice,” something she had employed to good effect in the title of her first published book. Egerton bought the rights to Pride and Prejudice (the only time Austen allowed this) and paid Austen £110 for her labors, £40 short of what she had asked. Details about Pride and Prejudice’s early print runs are imprecise — the scholar Jan Fergus estimates that there were roughly 1,000 first editions and 750 second editions before the end of the year; a third edition was published in 1817.

more from Audrey Bilger and Susan Celia Greenfield at the LA Review of Books here.