Emma, or ‘the proper place for a dedication’

17 May 2016


Emma is the fourth and last of her novels published in Jane Austen’s lifetime and the one for which we have most evidence of her involvement in the business side of its production.  It appeared in late December 1815, with a standard 1816 date on its title page.  Jane Austen was working with a new London publisher, John Murray.  Her brother Henry, who acted as unofficial agent, was ill and more of the negotiations than was usual fell to her; both she and Murray were looking to make a social and critical splash with this new novel and were actively concerned to market it well.  Thanks to the completeness of the John Murray Archive, now housed in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, details survive for the cost of paper, typesetting and binding, for the enhanced production values contributed by Murray’s editor William Gifford, and for the favourable review Murray and Gifford between them commissioned from Walter Scott, the leading novelist of the day.  Jane Austen’s letters to Cassandra, written from Henry’s London home in Hans Pace, Chelsea, offer glimpses of how she proof read the printed sheets as they came from the press, making corrections to the three volumes simultaneously (two different print shops were carrying out the work), before dispatching them the short distance to Murray’s Mayfair premises in Albemarle Street.  (See, for example, her letters of 24 and 26 November 1815.)


With Lord Byron on his list, Murray was the fashionable publisher of the age.  Coincidentally, Austen learned that another notorious celebrity, the Prince Regent, had read and admired her novels and would be pleased to offer his patronage.  This unsought honour, too, seems to have been a consequence of Henry Austen’s illness: his physician, Dr Matthew Baillie, attended members of the royal family and may have informed the Prince Regent, an admirer of her novels, of Jane Austen’s presence in London.  What followed is well known: an invitation to visit Carlton House, issued by the Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, and permission to ‘dedicate any future Work to HRH the P. R. without the necessity of any Solicitation on my part’ (Jane Austen to Clarke, 15 November 1815).


From this moment, worlds collide.  It is unlikely that Jane Austen had changed her opinion of the Regent since 16 February 1813 when she wrote to Martha Lloyd of his very public rupture with his wife, Caroline of Brunswick: ‘Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband’.  But there are other no less disturbing collisions: ‘3 or 4 Families in a Country Village’, the neighbourhood of Emma and the provincial subject-matter recommended to her novel-writing niece Anna in September 1814 as ‘the very thing to work on’, sits oddly with an appeal to the interest of the leader of London high society; the crafted realism, which was for Jane Austen a kind of moral necessity in fiction, shares nothing with the ‘thorough novel slang’ she associated with voyeuristic depictions of the aristocracy.  Not since such teenage squibs as ‘Jack & Alice’, where an ambitious young girl inveigles an elderly Duke into marriage, and where her equally calculating sister aspires ‘to the affections of some Prince’ , had the aristocracy (as distinct from the graduated ranks of the gentry) figured so openly in the Austen landscape.  The Prince Regent is as much an intruder into Emma as the turkey thief into Mrs Weston’s poultry-house.


With the dedication, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Austen sacrificed scruples, artistic and political, in the hope that regal lustre might afford her commercial advantage.  What rescues the situation is humour.  Readers have not failed to note how the vacuous and repetitive terms of the dedication to ‘HRH the P. R.’ recall the comic contortions performed in pursuit of patronage by the young Jane Austen in her teenage notebooks.  Not since then had she openly solicited favour in this way – Emma is her only published novel to contain a dedication – and it is clear that those early dedications remain her point of reference.  There too, on occasion, the dedication was squeezed in as an afterthought. Dedications are written in a different mode from the texts they usher in; but, if they lie outside the fictions to which they are attached, they nonetheless perform a kind of gatekeeping function, influencing how we read what follows.  Possibly as young as 11 or 12, Jane Austen understood this, and set herself not simply to write but to puff her fictions by linking authorship to celebrity. 



Informing Murray of the Prince’s thanks, passed on to her by Clarke, for the ‘handsome’ copy of her novel, Austen joked: ‘Whatever he may think of my share of the work, yours seems to have been quite right’ (1 April 1816).  Among Murray’s ‘right’ contributions was his advice on the proper placing of the dedication.  She had written to him on 11 December: ‘As I find that Emma is advertized for publication as early as Saturday next, I think it best to lose no time in settling all that remains to be settled … The Title page must be, Emma, dedicated by Permission to H. R. H. The Prince Regent.’  Within hours she received his reply, to which she sent this further note: ‘As to my direction about the title-page, it was arising from my ignorance only, and from my having never noticed the proper place for a dedication.  I thank you for putting me right.’  Murray had pointed out that the convention is to distinguish the dedication from the title and for it to fill a separate page, after the title page; this is indeed where it appeared when Emma was published.  A small mistake, but why had she, such an avid and attentive book reader, made it?  The answer again lies with those teenage spoofs, where dedication and title flow seamlessly together, and all on the same page.  The Regent’s patronage, it would seem, transported her back not simply to the humour of her teenage years but to her mock-solemn impersonation of the protocols of the professional writer.  


Kathryn Sutherland, trustee, Jane Austen’s House Museum






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