Two Saturdays ago (March 14th, to be exact) I ventured up to Bishop’s University (Lennoxville, Quebec) for a Pride & Prejudice Weekend – a symposium, thanks to English department professor Claire Grogan; a delicious ‘Jane Austen’s Cream Tea’ at Uplands; a Pride & Prejudice play, adapted by drama professor George Rideout; and an Austen-era Sunday Service in the university’s beautiful chapel. Sure the footlights have dimmed, the curtain has dropped, and the weekend’s events have faded into memory – but readers should know what they missed; and why they should keep an eye out for a production of this well-thought-out new play.
Saturday afternoon’s symposium featured three speakers; a full-hall (a good 70 people) had gathered to hear them.
Prof. Peter Sabor
McGill University, Montreal
“Portraying Jane Austen: How Anonymous became a Celebrity”.
Illustrated by images, Dr. Sabor brought the audience along Austen’s circuitous route to celebrity – beginning with the original “BY A LADY” title page of Sense and Sensibility and showing near the end a publicity photo that made everyone chuckle: Jane Austen Hollywood-ized, complete with cell phone (the giant, 1980s version), conducting business while lounging on a poolside chaise.
In between these humble beginnings and the 20th-century hype lay a lot of Austen territory to be explored. Austen, of course, sold the copyright to Pride & Prejudice – her most popular novel – for ₤110. In 1813, the three volumes sold for 18 shilling (“about $2 Canadian today”).
Austen’s name has been located on a few subscription lists (Burney’s Camilla; the 1808 sermons of the Rev. Thomas Jefferson). Dr. Sabor explained that it was costly to purchase books by subscription. Such lists, however, can be invaluable to the researcher (I have located many Goslings and Smiths on subscription lists; it gives a thrill to realize they knew the author or valued the work enough to purchase a copy – or more than one – before the presses rolled).
The anonymous review (in reality Walter Scott) of Emma highlights Austen’s soon-acknowledged authorship a few years later: Although the title page of Northanger Abbey cited “By the author of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Mansfield Park,’ &c,” the first volume included brother Henry’s biographical notice – thereby naming in print for the first time exactly who authored all six of these novels. [See also Henry’s updated version in the Bentley edition (1833) of S&S.] Beginning in 1818, we see reviews that mention Austen by name. (In an aside: Emma Smith, the future Mrs James-Edward Austen, was in 1817 already citing her as the author, specifically, of Mansfield Park; though Emma spelled the last name, as many did and often still do, Austin.)
A French translation of Austen’s last completed novel – published under the title La famille Elliot – becomes the first book in which Austen’s name appears as author on a title page. The year is 1821. [For information on the translator, see Ellen Moody.]
When discussion of the known and purported Austen portraits began, the audience was given a truly informative lesson on the pitfalls, as well as hopes and shattered dreams, of claimants to “authentic Janes”. Even the 1804 sketch: Is it a depiction of Jane by her sister Cassandra?? Anna Lefroy (half-sister to James-Edward Austen) inherited it, and to this day it resides within the family. (It was first presented by Chapman in his volume of Letters.)
The illustrations of Austen grow more wild as the publicity picks up – paper dolls, figures made for ‘action,’ plush and bobble-headed dolls, even an Austen Powers ‘superhero’. From recreations to fantasy depictions, Austen’s ‘anonymity’ has certainly turned a complete 360-degrees.
ADDENDUM: for an observation on the so-called ‘wedding ring portrait’ of Jane Austen (which Dr. Sabor called “bizarre”, see SEPARATED AT BIRTH?)
next: Prof. Robert Morrison (Queen’s), “Getting Around Pride & Prejudice: Gothicism, Fairy Tales & the Very World of All Us”
Waiting in the Wings: read insights into the character of Miss Bingley by actress Stephanie Izsak.