Monday, 23 December 2013

A New Find – Jane Austen’s publisher and his letter to Cassandra Austen

It has long been known that on May 20, 1831 Jane’s sister Cassandra Austen wrote to John Murray, Jane Austen’s publisher, regarding the possibility of republishing Austen’s novels.  We know she wrote in reply to a letter from him because her letter opens with ‘In answer to your letter received the 14th’.

Cassandra goes on to say that she is ‘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 another edition.’ She then goes on to list a number of queries she has with regard to Murray’s proposal: how large an edition, at what price and when did he propose to publish, all reasonable enough enquiries. Murray never did republish Austen's novels. In the absence of this letter from Murray, Austen scholars have only been able to speculate as to its contents. Did Murray insist on the copyright? Is that why in the end he did not republish Jane Austen’s novels? Or were there other financial reasons why he did not, in the end, go ahead?

The letter to which Cassandra was replying, Murray’s original letter that she received on 14 May 1831 has not been found. Presumably it was not retained by Cassandra. 

But after hours spent trawling through the John Murray Archive I have now found a transcript of that letter from John Murray to Cassandra Austen.

The Archive contains ‘letter books’ – copies of letters written by John Murray. Important letters were transcribed into the letter book – the precursor of keeping a photocopy.  In one of these books was a transcription of a letter John Murray wrote to Cassandra Austen on 12 May 1831.

I have long entertained a great desire of being the means of trying to induce the public to become far more generally acquainted with the admirable novels of your late estimable sister.
I should be glad therefore if you would be so good as to inform me whether you approve this plan by which I would undertake at my own cost & risque to bring them forward, in a new & attractive form, & engage to give you half the profits , or if you should prefer disposing of the copyright at once, if you would do me the favour of naming the sum which you would be disposed to part with them for.
I am Madam
Your obedient servant
(signed) John Murray

Here is a copy of the transcript held by the John Murray Archive:

Transcript of letter from John Murray to Cassandra Austen
Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

I have consulted Austen authority Professor Kathryn Sutherland and she has confirmed she believes this to be the letter Cassandra is referring to in her letter of 20 May 1831.

This letter sheds a different light on Cassandra’s response. It seems Murray was not fixed on gaining the copyright at all. He offers it as an option but he does not appear to be set on it. Furthermore he is offering to publish ‘at my own cost and risqué’.

‘I have long entertained a great desire of being the means of trying to induce the public to become far more generally acquainted with the admirable novels of your late estimable sister.’  I love Murray’s opening sentence. He clearly has a high opinion of Austen, but as he hints, Austen’s work is not generally well known at this point. ‘I have long entertained a great desire’, he says. No passing whim then, soon deterred by Cassandra’s reluctance to part with the copyright. The reissue was clearly Murray’s idea not Cassandra’s and I see nothing in her reply to deter him.

As I have previously posted, Edward Smedley wrote to John Murray as early as  28 February 1831 enquiring about Murray’s plan to republish Austen. (See here for my case for Edward’s brother Henry Smedley being the artist responsible for  the drawing owned by Paula Byrne.) In that letter he says ‘are you not about to republish Miss Austin’s novels in a pocket book form?’ He does not state where he heard this, but it suggests that the plan had been forming for at least the last three months.

Excerpt from Edward Smedley's letter to Murray dated 28 Feb 1831
Reproduced with kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

Murray declares he has a wish that the public may be ‘more generally acquainted’ with Austen and that they will appear in a ‘new & attractive form’. Coupled with Smedley’s comment above, it seems likely that Murray is thinking about including Austen in his recent project – the Family Library and the sister volumes of the Dramatic Series. The Family Library had been launched in 1829, as a venture to bring books to a wider audience.

But by August 1831 it was becoming clear that the venture was losing money. Murray had been extravagant in his expenditure on copyrights and the volumes were not achieving the success that he had hoped. In the light of the new information provided above, it would seem Murray’s finances, rather than Cassandra’s reluctance to part with the copyright was the most likely reason he failed to republish Austen’s novels, leaving it to Richard Bentley to do so the following year.

Merry Christmas all,


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