First published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice has consistently been Jane Austen’s most popular novel. It portrays life in the genteel rural society of the day, and tells of the initial misunderstandings and later mutual enlightenment between Elizabeth Bennet (whose liveliness and quick wit have often attracted readers) and the haughty Darcy. The title Pride and Prejudice refers (among other things) to the ways in which Elizabeth and Darcy first view each other.
The original version of the novel was written in 1796-1797 under the title First Impressions, and was probably in the form of an exchange of letters. Jane Austen’s own tongue-in-cheek opinion of her work, in a letter to her sister Cassandra immediately after its publication, was: “Upon the whole… I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants [i. e. eds] shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style”. In 1809 Jane Austen, her mother, sister Cassandra, and Martha Lloyd moved to Chawton, near Alton and Winchester, where her brother Edward provided a small house on one of his estates.
This was in Hampshire, not far from her childhood home of Steventon. Before leaving Southampton, she corresponded with the dilatory publisher to whom she had sold Susan (i. e. Northanger Abbey), but without receiving any satisfaction. She resumed her literary activities soon after returning into Hampshire, and revised Sense and Sensibility, which was accepted in late 1810 or early 1811 by a publisher, for publication at her own risk.
It appeared anonymously (“By a Lady”) in October 1811, and at first only her immediate family knew of her authorship: Fanny Knight’s diary for September 28, 1811 records a “Letter from Aunt Cass. to beg we would not mention that Aunt Jane wrote Sense and Sensibility”; and one day in 1812 when Jane Austen and Cassandra and their niece Anna were in a “circulating library” at Alton, Anna threw down a copy of Sense and Sensibility on offer there, “exclaiming to the great amusement of her Aunts who stood by, “Oh that must be rubbish, I am sure from the title. There were at least two fairly favorable reviews, and the first edition eventually turned a profit of 140 for her.
Encouraged by this success, Jane Austen turned to revising First Impressions, a. k. a. Pride and Prejudice. She sold it in November 1812, and her “own darling child” (as she called it in a letter) was published in late January 1813. She had already started work on Mansfield Park by 1812, and worked on it during 1813. It was during 1813 that knowledge of her authorship started to spread outside her family; as Jane Austen wrote in a letter of September 25th 1813: Henry heard P. P. warmly praised in Scotland, by Lady Robert Kerr & another Lady; — & and what does he do in the warmth of his brotherly vanity and Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it! “.
Since she had sold the copyright of Pride and Prejudice outright for 110 (presumably in order to receive a convenient payment up front, rather than having to wait for the profits on sales to trickle in), she did not receive anything more when a second edition was published later in 1813. A second edition of Sense and Sensibility was also published in October 1813.
In May 1814, Mansfield Park appeared, and was sold out in six months; she had already started work on Emma. Her brother Henry, who then conveniently lived in London, often acted as Jane Austen’s go-between with publishers, and on several occasions she stayed with him in London to revise proof-sheets. In October 1813, one of the Prince Regent’s physicians was brought in to treat an illness that Henry was suffering from; it was through this connection that Jane Austen was brought into contact with Mr. Clarke.
James Stanier Clarke was the Prince Regent’s librarian, and transmitted to her the Prince’s request that she dedicate her next work (Emma) to him, an honour that Jane Austen would probably rather have done without (see her letter on the infidelities of the Prince and his wife). Some of Mr. Clarke’s “helpful” suggestions showed up in the Plan for a Novel. [More complete versions of these letters, as printed in Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, are also available on-line. ]