Jane Austen’s “Emma”

A favorite book of visitors to L. Tom Perry Special Collections is a first edition copy of Jane Austen’s last novel, Emma. Austen began writing Emma in January of 1814 and finished the novel in March of the following year. Emma was published anonymously, as were Austen’s other novels, but knowledge of her identity was an open secret among aristocratic circles.  Among her admirers was the Prince Regent, to whom the first edition of Emma was dedicated by request.  Austen contracted to have Emma issued by London publisher John Murray.  Murray printed 2,000 copies — a large print run for a novel in the Regency period, when the work of lesser-known novelists like Austen were published in editions of 750 on average.  Emma was published in a system known as “publishing on commission,” whereby the author assumed the financial risk for the book.  The publisher initially paid for the production of the book, but charged the author for the production costs plus a 10 percent commission for each copy sold. If the book sold enough copies to recoup these costs, the author would earn a profit; otherwise, the author had to pay the publisher to make up the difference.  The first edition of Emma did not sell out (even four years after its first appearance, fewer than 1,500 copies had been sold).  Because Austen died a year and a half after Emma was published, she earned less than 40 pounds from the novel during her lifetime.

Special Collections does not actively collect early nineteenth-century literature, apart from the Edward M. Rowe Collection of William Wordsworth, but it does own a large body of material by Austen’s contemporaries, including Sir Walter Scott and the Romantic poets.

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