Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Jane Austen and the Rev Edward Smedley

I have just bought a copy of Paula Byrne's book about Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things which promises to be a good read.

The cover shows an image of the photo that she would like to prove is a drawing of Jane Austen and which caused quite a stir last year. An excellent round up of the debate surrounding the controversy is posted on the excellent Austenonly site here.

A few weeks ago my daughter and I had a lovely time visiting Jane Austen's House at Chawton.

Making a lavender bag

While we were there we had a look at the portrait owned by Dr. Byrne and which is currently on show at the museum.

The portrait shows a view which is likely to be from the window of a property in Westminster known as the Sanctuary which was owned by one Rev. Edward Smedley, an Usher at Westminster School. His second son, Edward, was a clergyman who, like Jane Austen, was published by John Murray. My previous speculations about the provenance of this portrait turned out to be entirely  - well wrong. Undaunted, and never one to let ignorance of a subject put me off,  I have been musing on the possible links between Jane Austen and the Smedleys.

I decided to look a little more closely at Edward Smedley Junior (1788-1836). Wikepedia has some information about him here. Edward Smedley wrote poetry and prose and as Paula Byrne has pointed out, Edward Smedley and Jane Austen had the same publisher, John Murray II. Might there be a link here? We know from the letters included in Poems by the late Rev Edward Smedley published by his wife shortly after his death that Smedley was familiar with Jane Austen's work.

Smedley was published by Murray from 1814 onwards and also appears to have contributed to Murray's periodical: The Quarterly Review. Whilst in Edinburgh last week I went to the National Library of Scotland and took a look at Smedley's letters held in the John Murray Archive.

In August 1816 Smedley writes to Murray:

Dear Sir,

I have been laughing very heartily at a book which I think would furnish a more amusing review – Deverell’s Heiroglyphics – I should feel much obliged to you if you would ask Mr Gifford to permit me to attempt it for the next number of the Quarterly and let me know the answer when you get it.
Yours very faithfully,

E Smedley

The tone is familiar and suggests that Edward Smedley and John Murray had a fairly good working relationship.

In 1818 there is this:

Dear Sir

If you are not terrified at the very sight of a MS from me pray give this one I now send you consideration and take what counsel you think proper of those learned in rhyme – I am inclined to think (but you must not  take a father’s opinion of his own child) that if it once can be made known it would sell pretty well-  but I shall like to hear what G says. Let me know if you can in the course of the present week whether you will have any thing to do with it. Many thanks for your symbolical but satisfactory answer to my question about Hertford (?) College.

You are kind enough to reproach me for not having called lately in Albermarle Street – for the last three months my mornings only, and these are fully occupied, have been spent in town but when I become stationary again, which will be the case shortly, I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you more frequently.

Yours most faithfully

Edward Smedley

G obviously refers to Gifford. William Gifford was Murray's editor of Quarterly Review. He also read manuscripts and advised Murray on potential publications. In her excellent article on Jane Austen's dealings with John Murray's firm, Kathryn Sutherland explores in detail the relationship between the author and her publisher and his editor, and notes that as early as 1814 William Gifford is reading and commenting on Jane Austen's work including Pride and Prejudice, despite the fact that she did not change to Murray as a publisher until the following year. John Murray went on to publish a second edition of Mansfield Park, as well as Emma, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, the latter two posthumously. (Incidentally the name Jane Austen chose for her heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, also happens to be the maiden name of John Murray's wife, whom Murray married in 1807. Anne was the daughter of Charles Elliot, a well-known Edinburgh bookseller and publisher.)

In her article Dr. Sutherland examines what is known of the circumstances of the re-publication of Austen's novels by Richard Bentley in 1832. She writes: 'as early as May 1831 John Murray was considering a re-issue of all the novels, possibly as a collected edition.'

This is inferred from the letter from Cassandra Austen to John Murray dated 20 May 1831 which is also in the Murray archive and which refers to the copyright of Jane Austen' works:


In answer to your letter received the 14th, I beg to inform you that I am not disposed to part with the Copy-right of my late Sister's works, but I feel inclined to accept your proposal for the publishing of another Edition.

As Professor Sutherland notes, we do not have Murray's reply to Cassandra's letter or the reason why in the end Murray did not publish. She suggests that Murray may have been considering publishing Austen as companion to his inexpensive series of non-fiction works under the auspices of his Family Library project.

Edward Smedley was one of the writers engaged on this project. In August 1830 he writes:

Dear Sir,

I find from Mr Dartsen that the sheets of Venice which have been sent to me for correction are going down to Edinburgh for revision by Mr Lockhart. When this ordeal is past it is really important to me that I should receive some distinct and precise communication from you or I may be uselessly expending a great deal of time (to me an invaluable commodity) in constructing the words on a scale not adapted to the general purpose of the Family Library.

I found only one reference to Jane Austen in the Smedley letters - it's in a letter from Edward Smedley to John Murray dated February 28, 1831. At the end of the letter he writes: 'Are you not about to republish Miss Austin's Novels in a pocket form?'

Edward Smedley's letter to John Murray referring to Jane Austen

This letter shows that Murray was considering a re-issue of Austen's work some considerable time prior to Cassandra's letter of May 1831. From this snippet we can surmise that as early as February 1831 John Murray had conceived the idea to republish Jane Austen's work. 'About to republish' suggests that the project had gone beyond an initial idea, it sounds fairly far advanced. Were there then negotiations between February and May between John Murray and Cassandra Austen over the copyright to Jane's earlier works? Were the failure of these negotiations the reason why Murray in the end didn't republish Austen's works? Or did Murray pull out?

Smedley also provides some information about the intended format of the republished books - 'a pocket form'.

John Murray launched the Family Library series in 1829. His announcement in the Literary Gazette read: Of the Family Library which has been some time in preparation, at least one volume will be published monthly, printed in a pocket size but in very legible type, and Embellished with Engravings in Wood and Steel by the best Artists.

The Family Library, aimed at a new, less affluent audience, ran from 1829 until 1834 but was not a huge success. It consisted of a series of non-fiction books on a variety of topics. Alongside the Family Library, Murray launched the Dramatic Series. Only six volumes were ever published: three volumes of the plays of Philip Massinger in 1830/31, Popular Specimens of the Great Dramatic Poets and the Dramatic Works of John Ford in two volumes, published in 1831. None of the volumes published in the Dramatic Series covered their costs. According to Scott Bennett, in his essay on John Murray and the Family Series (contained in his Studies in Bibliography), by 1833 Murray had spent over £10,000 acquiring copyrights for the two series, several hundred of which was for books that were never published.

It seems likely that Smedley's reference to 'pocket form' was referring to Murray's Dramatic Series and inclusion in this series was what Murray had in mind for the republished Jane Austen novels.

Edward Smedley and the verso of the portrait

Like John Murray, Smedley spells Austen's name with an 'i' rather than an 'e'. This is also the spelling of the name on the back of the portrait in question:

The handwriting on the back of the portrait also has a distinctive 'e'. When I looked at Edward Smedley's letters it struck me immediately:

Letter from Edward Smedley addressed to John Murray

It has the same distinctive 'e'.

Whether or not it is Edward Smedley's hand, his letters cast an interesting light on John Murray's publishing house and the literary world in the early nineteenth century and Smedley's reference to Austen also reveals a little bit more about the publishing history of Jane Austen's works.

If anyone has any thoughts I would love to hear them.

Example of Edward Smedley's handwriting

Images and transcripts of the letters of Edward Smedley reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland.