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October 23, 2017

Austen, Emma, and the Prince

On this day in 1815, Jane Austen completed Emma, her fourth novel in five years, and the last to appear in her lifetime. Though Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park had been popular, anonymously-written novels by provincial women on domestic themes were risky business for publishers, and Austen was offered such poor terms for Emma that she decided to publish it at her own expense. That it appeared with a dedication to the Prince Regent, a person whose debauched lifestyle Austen had condemned, and a type she would normally satirize, is a story that might itself have stepped from one of her books.

His Royal Highness admired Austen's novels, and "had a set in each of his residences"; having learned that the author was in London to attend her ill brother, the Prince instructed his Mr. Clarke -- former clergyman, now the Prince's official librarian -- to "speedily wait on her." Austen accepted a personal tour of Carlton House palace, during which Mr. Clarke let it be known "that if Miss Austen had any other novel forthcoming, she was quite at liberty to dedicate it to the Prince." As a sampler, and as evidence of his own talents, Mr. Clarke exhibited the three-page dedication he had written to HRH for his book, The Progress of Maritime Discovery.

Although bent on declining the dedication offer, Austen received arguments from her brother and sister to the contrary, and to the effect that being "at liberty" to dedicate to the Prince was tantamount to being commanded to do so. Austen immediately wrote to Mr. Clarke on the question, asking "whether it is incumbent on me to shew my sense of the Honour, by inscribing the Work now in the Press, to H. R. H." Mr. Clarke replied that Austen should not feel bound to dedicate to the Prince, but that "if you wish to do the Regent that honour either now or at any future period I am happy to send you that permission." Feeling the matter resolved, Mr. Clarke's letter then continued writer-to-writer, if not man-to-woman: might not Miss Austen feature in one of her future novels "the Habits of Life and Character and enthusiasm of a Clergyman," one who liked to "pass his time between the metropolis & the Country," one "Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature," one "affectionate tho' shy" and "no man's Enemy but his own"?

For marketing reasons, Austen decided to dedicate to the Prince, though her publisher had to expand her one sentence version to a polite page. On the question of the clergyman-librarian-hero, Austen wrote to Mr. Clarke that she felt incompetent to do justice to such a type -- though "the comic part of the character I might be equal to." Undiscouraged, and recently promoted to additional new duties as chaplain and private English secretary to Prince Leopold, Mr. Clarke wrote back suggesting that "an historical romance illustrative of the august House of Cobourg would just now be very interesting," and that such a book might very well be dedicated to Prince Leopold. In her reply, Austen informed Mr. Clarke that such a book would be as beyond her as the one on an affectionate-shy clergyman-librarian:
    I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe-Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem . . . and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I finished the first chapter.

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