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How Do You Define Success?

By Diane Jane Ball.


Most of us strive to be successful writers, but what does that actually mean? Let me tell you the publishing history of Jane Austen, then perhaps you can decide if she would have considered herself a success or not.


The Jane Austen Centre, Bath

Jane spent her teenage years writing outrageous and irreverent short stories. Epistolary novels were popular in her day, and at the age of 19 she drafted her first full length romantic novel, Elinor and Marianne, in this form.


In 1796, aged 20, she wrote another. This one was structured as a traditional novel with the title First Impressions. Her proud father approached a London publisher, offering to sell it for publication, but it was rejected by return of post.


In 1797 Jane went to Bath. She had never been there before, and her eyes were opened to an entirely new world.  This inspiration went straight into her writing and a character called Susan was born, her third full-length novel.  



Most of Jane’s family never really expected anything to come from this hobby and her manuscripts lay dormant in her writing desk. Girls in those days were raised for only one purpose, to marry and have lots of children and she did come very close. But fortunately for her, an older brother had connections.


In 1802, Henry Austen negotiated a deal with the publishers Crosby and Co. They bought the copyright of Susan for £10 which must have been a very exciting time for Jane. Unfortunately, Crosby never put Susan into print.


Six years later, and still unpublished, Jane never forgot this disappointment. She wrote an angry letter to Mr Crosby offering to send the manuscript again or take it elsewhere. He replied with an equally irate response, threatening he would put a stop to any other publication as, in fairness, he did still own the copyright. He conceded to sell it back to her for the same sum of £10, but Jane could not afford to buy it.  

  

Jane Austen's House, Chawton.

She continued to edit her earlier epistolary manuscript of Elinor and Marianne, revamping it now into a traditional novel with a new title, Sense and Sensibility. Henry took this to the publisher, Thomas Egerton, who accepted it on commission; Jane would keep the copyright in exchange for 10% of every sale and be liable to reimburse Mr Egerton for any copies left unsold. It published in 1811 under the pseudonym, ‘A Lady’, and proved to be the lucky break Jane Austen needed at the age of 35. Sense and Sensibility sold out within two years and earned a profit of £140 plus a second print run.


Flushed with success, she next reworked First Impressions. Since she had originally written it, another book was out in circulation with the same title, so Jane was forced to change its name. She went for Pride and Prejudice. Mr Egerton offered her a lucrative £110 for the copyright and accredited it to ‘The Author of Sense and Sensibility’. It was big success but having given up her copyright, Jane saw none of this extra money. When two more print runs were released due to high demand, Mr Egerton kept the entire £465 profit.


Jane’s next work was longer and more serious. This was Mansfield Park which Mr Egerton did not like. He still agreed to publish it but was not interested in buying the copyright. It published in 1814 and sold out within six months, but still Mr Egerton refused a second run.


Jane Austen's Writing Table, Chawton

Jane Austen was on the crest of a wave at this point and ignored Mr Egerton’s professional advice. In 1815, she took her next novel Emma, to John Murray instead. On commencing business relations, Murray offered to buy the copyrights of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma together for £450. Jane refused, choosing to publish Emma on commission and insisting upon a second print run of Mansfield Park.





This turned out to be another bad decision. Emma sold very well, but Mansfield Park did not. By the time she had covered her liabilities for the unsold books, she made only £39 on the whole project. Sadly, this was also her last experience of putting her novels into print. None of the four titles she had released had been credited to her name, and Mansfield Park had flopped. 


She must have felt some consolation in 1816 when she finally bought back the £10 copyright of Susan from Mr Crosby, but even that was not without its problems. Similar to what had happened with First Impressions, another author now had the title Susan in circulation. Jane’s eponymous heroine needed a new name and thus became Catherine


Original script of 'Sanditon' taken from www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts

At 39 years old, Jane’s health began to fail. She persevered with her quill to complete one final manuscript, Persuasion, in 1816, and wrote the opening chapters to another story set in the fictional seaside resort of Sanditon. But none of these pages ever passed beyond her front door and in 1817 aged 41, she died.


In tribute to their sister, Henry and Cassandra Austen released Jane’s two unpublished novels soon after her death. Catherine was published with the new title Northanger Abbey, whilst Persuasion remained as it was. Henry took this opportunity to reveal his sister’s true identity as the author, but no mention of her literary achievements was ever made on her tombstone.


The copyrights to all six of her novels were sold off to a low-cost publisher in 1832, who marketed the outstanding copies still in circulation at rock bottom price. After that they went out of print altogether.


Over subsequent years, Jane’s manuscripts passed down through her family and the rest, as they say, is history.


But for me this story serves as a reminder to us all. Success and failure can come in many forms and is dependent on how they are perceived at the time. Not even the greatest and most famous of authors are immune from disappointment.


FOOTNOTE: If you would like to see the value of what Jane’s earnings were worth at the time, The National Archives has a currency convertor to show how many animals, stones of wool or quarters of wheat she could have bought with her money. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/

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13 Comments


A very interesting read Diane. Thank you for this amazing blog.

Success I believe is finding your purpose in life and pursuing it, not giving up whatever the obstacles. It is about doing what you were born to do, something that makes you feel fulfilled.

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That is a lovely way of putting it. Fulfilment and happiness top sales figures any day.

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Thank you so much for this, Diane. How incredibly interesting. I wonder if Jane would have been better treated if she'd been male? Didn't some female writers actually use a male pseudonym back then? One of the Bronte sisters I believe had to do this. At least the sexes are on an equal footing now. Our fight is with the sheer volume of competition. But, to answer your question: What is success? I think it is simply being happy with where we are and enjoying what we do.

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I am sure you are right that Jane Austen would have been more successful during her lifetime is she were male and I think the fact that she did not publish under her own name shows there was a real sense of shame about writing romantic novels in those days that she did not want to draw attention to. And yes, the Brontes used pseudonyms, as did George Elliot, of course. I wonder how accepting they really were of having to do that? I am pleased that we have more control over our own creations these days.

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Thank you, both informative and encouraging, for if Jane Austen had problems mine seem proportionally smaller.

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That's what I thought too. At least the future generations of our families may benefit, even if we don't!

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Thank you, I found that very informative, I had no idea that she had those problems

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Yes - I was surprised too that the life of an author two centuries ago had so many similarities to today.

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A great loss to the World. If she had lived twice as long, we would have such riches.

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Indeed!

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