Feature of the Month: Jane Austen at 200

Mansfield Park
Jane Austen; ill. by Hugh Thomson
London: Macmillan, 1897
[A.D.C.] C.083

Does she remain England’s most famous novelist? Whether she is or not, Jane Austen’s name requires no glossing. On the 200th anniversary of her death, we are featuring Austen’s most controversial novel, Mansfield Park. Written between February 1811 and summer 1813, this was Austen’s third novel to be published (following Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) and was the first to be composed and published exclusively in Austen’s adulthood. It is perhaps the least favourite among readers, breaking from the sparkling wit of Austen’s earlier publications, set largely in the home of a baronet who profited from the slave trade, and featuring in the person of Fanny Price a passive heroine. But Austen herself, whilst describing it as ‘not half so entertaining’ as her previous works, liked it. She was confident that it would sell well, as indeed the first edition, published by Thomas Egerton in 1814 did: the 1,500 copies, priced at 18 shillings each in boards, sold out in six months. Egerton’s decision not to reprint, however, proved to be a good business decision, for the second edition, revised sparingly by Austen and published in 1816 by John Murray, barely sold at all, and Austen had to fund the publication from profits made through Emma.

Later, the novel fared better. It appeared in French translation in 1816, and the first American edition came out in 1832. By the time Macmillan published the book in 1897, it had been printed by Chapman and Hall (1870), Groombridge (1875), Ward, Lock & Co. (1881), John Dicks (1885), Walter Scott (1889) and Dent (1892), as well as several times by Simms & McIntyre (Belfast), Routledge, and especially by Richard Bentley. With forty line drawings, the Macmillan edition shown was the most copiously illustrated to date. There had been illustrated editions before—an anonymous wood-engraved frontispiece in the editions produced by Ticknor & Fields of Boston (1863) and by Routledge (1876); eight wood engravings by F. Gilbert in the Dicks edition of 1885; six sepia plates by William C. Cooke in Reginald Brimley Johnson’s edition of 1892—but nothing using this method, by a man so popular or influential in his time, or so extensive. Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) had already illustrated Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility before turning his hand to Mansfield Park, and subsequently illustrated Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Together with Charles E. Brock (1870-1938), who was illustrating the novels contemporaneously with Thomson, he is probably Austen’s main illustrator, whose work has been described as providing a charming and accessible gloss to Austen’s work with his light touch and feeling for the period (Olivia Fitzpatrick, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

This edition includes a nine-page introduction by the poet, critic and author Austin Dobson (1840-1821), who between 1895 and 1897 introduced all the Austen novels for Macmillan—and who, coincidentally, was a lifelong friend of the illustrator, Hugh Thomson. It is through the Dobson connection that the book entered Senate House Library. Austin Dobson’s youngest son, Alban, collected his father’s work (texts, editions, works with contributions by Austin Dobson, and manuscript material) and donated it to Senate House Library in 1946. Other members of the Dobson family and library purchases augmented the collection. As an aside, the copy is a testament to an unknown friendship. The copy had been purchased in the year of its publication, being inscribed: ‘To Grace from Florence, Christmas, 1897’, and later passed on to a bosom friend: ‘Grace’s keepsake to Kitty Hayward August 1901’.

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