Jane Austen Society of North America, Southwest Region
Liz Philosophos Cooper
Brand Library and Art Center
Excerpts from Austen letters
Jane Austen: Working Woman
February 23, 2019
Brand Library and Art Center, Glendale
Liz Philosophos Cooper — Jane Austen: Working Woman
JASNA Southwest kicked off 2019 by expanding to four meetings per year with its first-ever February meeting, with 108 members and guests registering for the sold-out event at the Brand Library and Art Center in Glendale. JASNA’s Immediate Past President Claire Bellanti introduced her successor, Liz Philosophos Cooper, who was making her first official speaking engagement as JASNA’s new national president.
Cooper became a second-generation JASNA member in 1992 and has since dedicated many years of service to the organization, most recently as vice president for regions. Her witty lecture focused on Jane Austen as the dedicated professional writer whose work continues to delight and inspire new generations.
In her presentation, Jane Austen: Working Woman, Cooper brought to light an often-overlooked aspect of Austen’s life — her efforts negotiating the publishing of her novels. Cooper made clear that “although more women were writing, there existed a belief that only severe financial hardship such as the need to support one’s family could excuse a woman from the humiliation of publishing a book for profit.” Thus, most women who published in that era did so anonymously.
Cooper posited that, in addition to being committed to her craft, Austen “had high ambitions” — contradicting Austen’s brother Henry’s assertion that “neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives’’ as an author. Cooper relied on several of Austen’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, as evidence.
In 1799 Austen wrote: “I am tolerably glad to hear that Edward’s income is so good a one. As glad as I can at anyone being rich besides you and me.” Cooper also pointed out that Austen ate goose on Michaelmas in 1813 to boost the chances of increasing her “financial good luck” in order to secure a “good sale” of the second edition of Sense and Sensibility and enthusiastically hoped that “many would feel themselves obliged to buy it.” Austen lamented that readers would prefer to borrow than purchase a book. She also was sorry that Sir Walter Scott did not find Mansfield Park worthy of mention in his review of Emma, as his endorsement might have increased sales.
Cooper described the four publishing options available to Austen: subscription, profit-sharing, purchasing the copyright outright from the author or publishing on commission.
While she said many authors considered outright purchase the most prestigious and desirable method, Cooper explained Austen’s preferred method was publishing on commission. “The money-making potential was high but so, too, were the risks,” Cooper noted. While the author took on the larger costs of printing, the publisher, in turn, paid for advertising and received a 10 percent on commission for each book sold.
Jan Fergus wrote in Jane Austen: A Literary Life that Austen would have had to have sold at least two-thirds of a novel’s print run to break even, with profits only coming with sale of the remaining third. Selling out an edition also was critical to the potential for future editions.
Cooper noted that Austen’s first attempt at becoming a published author came in 1803, shortly after accepting then declining Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal of marriage, when the manuscript for Susan was sold to publisher Richard Crosby for £10. The work was advertised but not published.
After her father’s death in 1805, Austen faced the very real possibility of homelessness. Cooper said the Austen women were left with a paltry income of £210 a year, later increased to £460 with contributions from Austen’s brothers. The profits from the publication and sale of Susan would have been welcome at this time.
Cooper added that, just before the Austen women moved to Chawton Cottage, Austen sent “a very businesslike letter on April 5, 1809, using the name Mrs. Ashton Dennis” to the negligent publishers of Susan and “offered to provide another manuscript if the first had been lost by some carelessness,” warning that she might have the novel published elsewhere if she didn’t hear from them. She signed the letter “I am Gentleman &c &c MAD.” The publisher offered the manuscript back for £10, the “same as we paid for it.” Unfortunately, Austen was unable to re-purchase Susan until 1816.
The years at Chawton between 1809 and 1817 proved to be the most productive for Austen, though the family faced many hardships in those years. By October 1811 she successfully published Sense and Sensibility on commission and made a total profit of £250 on the sold-out first edition. Cooper explained that these “strong sales prompted Egerton to buy the copyright of Pride and Prejudice in autumn 1812 outright for £100,” and pointed out that in Fergus’ estimation, if Austen had printed on commission, she would have earned £475 on the first two editions. Austen later printed a second edition of Sense and Sensibility but missed out on the profits from a second edition of Pride and Prejudice.
Mansfield Park was published in 1814 and brought Austen a generous profit of £310, the most she received during her lifetime from any novel. But despite its success, the publisher was reluctant to print a second edition. Subsequently, Austen offered her next novel Emma to John Murray, the premier publisher of the time. He in turn offered to pay £450 for the copyrights to Emma, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility. Austen declined and opted to publish on commission. Although the first edition of Emma sold out, the poor sales of the second edition of Mansfield Park offset her profits and her final net pay was a mere £38.
This financial loss came at a time when a lawsuit against Edward threatened to displace the Austen women from Chawton, while the financial hardships caused by the failure of Henry’s bank decreased the Austen women’s annual income to £360. By August 1816, with her health in decline, Austen completed The Elliots and, in early 1817, began to write Sanditon but died before completing the novel. Her two remaining novels, Susan and The Elliots, were published posthumously as Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and together earned a generous £518 profit. While her letters demonstrate she was proud of her writing and very interested in the profits associated with publishing, she still would likely have been shocked in 2011 when The Watsons sold for nearly £1 million.