Thanet Writers Spotlight Jane Austen
We lost a great writer in Jane Austen when she died in 1817; she was just 41 years old, and six of her titles had already been published. She engendered a loyal readership, who were deeply saddened by her death in what should have been her prime.
It barely needs to be said that women were by no means equal back in the 17th & 18th centuries, so for Jane to become such a popular writer is a testament to her talent and skill. Women often had to use male pseudonyms in order to be published—most ‘respectable’ publishing houses wouldn’t consider publishing a woman under her own name. At the time, women couldn’t even sign contracts; they simply didn’t have the legal standing.
Five of Jane’s books were published on commission (only Pride and Prejudice wasn’t); this meant that the publisher would pay for the book’s publication, claim back the costs from the sales, add a 10% commission on top, and then pay everything else to the writer, who would then be responsible for any other costs that came up.
Sense and Sensibility came first, published by Thomas Egerton on this commission basis. Records don’t show if he knew the true gender of its author, but he took a chance on a previously-unknown writer and was rewarded when reviews started to come in favourably. I have an image of the publisher rubbing his hands in glee (my fevered imagination, I hope you’ll accept) as the first edition sold out. An indication of his pleasure lies in the fact he reprinted the book in batches of 750—which, it’s fair to say, was virtually unprecedented and 500 was the usual maximum ever printed.
We are fortunate to have a connection between her and Thanet; her brother—to whom she was close—was a Royal Navy Admiral stationed at Ramsgate and married a local. Jane would come and visit her brother in the town; her feelings towards seeing him are unknown (although since they were close, we can assume it was a positive experience), but it’s said she rather disliked the town. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, seaside towns were often thought of as “socially dangerous” places—although I can’t be precisely clear what that actually means, there is a reference to seaside resorts being places where “immoral types performed immoral acts.” How intriguing. I want to know more, but there isn’t much more to tell; the information is rather sparse.
A couple of sources speculate that her dislike of Ramsgate was down to jealousy—her brother’s local bride had “taken him” away from the Austen family. The truth of that claim can’t be confirmed, especially as Jane was disparaging about other seaside towns as well. If you’re an Austen fan, you’ll know that Ramsgate was mentioned in both Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, as well as in some of her poetry, including ‘See They Come, Post Haste From Thanet,’ which was written to celebrate her uncle’s wedding.
Being a respected writer, it’s great to know she was a visitor to our fair isle. It would be nice to know that she didn’t necessarily dislike the all of it—one can hope—and she’s a welcome addition to our shores.
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© 2018 Matthew Munson
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.