Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jane Austen's First Publisher

Jane Austen's First Publisher? Patrick Byrne Of Dublin by Margaret Rogers of Hessay Books

In January 1789 James Austen, Jane's undergraduate elder brother, started a weekly literary magazine 'The Loiterer'. It ran until March 1790, with the essays and short stories being written by James, his brother Henry, and college friends.

A humorous fake letter appeared in issue IX of Saturday, March 28, 1789. In it 'Sophia Sentiment', complains that the last issue of 'The Loiterer', written by her brother Henry, is dull and contains no subjects which could be of interest to young ladies.


I write this to inform you that you are very much out of my good graces, and that, if you do not amend your manners, I shall soon drop your acquaintance. You must know, Sir, I am a great reader, and, not to mention some hundred volumes of novels and plays, have, in the two last summers, actually got through all the entertaining papers of our most celebrated periodical writers, from the Tatler and Spectator to the Microcosm and the Olla Podrida. Indeed I love a periodical work beyond any thing, especially those in which one meets with a great many stories, and where the papers are not too long. I assure you my heart beat with joy when I heard of your publication, which I immediately sent for and have taken in ever since.

I am sorry, however, to say it, but really, Sir, I think it is the stupidest work of the kind I ever saw: not but that some of the papers are well written; but then your subjects are so badly chosen, that they never interest one. Only conceive, in eight papers, not one sentimental story about love and honour, and all that. - Not one Eastern Tale full of Bashas and Hermits, Pyramids and Mosques - no, not even an allegory or dream have yet made their appearance in the Loiterer. Why, my dear Sir - what do you think we care about in the way in which Oxford-men spend there (sic) time and money - we who have enough to do to spend our own. For my part, I never, but once, was at Oxford in my life, and I am sure I never wish to go there again - They dragged me through so many dismal chapels, dusty libraries, and greasy halls, that it gave me the vapours for two days afterwards. As for your last paper, indeed the story was good enough, but there was no love, and no lady in it, at least no young lady; and I wonder how you could be guilty of such an omission, especially when it could have been so easily avoided. Instead of retiring to Yorkshire, he might have fled into France, and there, you know, you might have made him fall in love with a French Paysanne, who might have turned out to be some great person. Or you might have let him set fire to a convent, and carry off a nun, whom he might afterwards have converted, or any thing of that kind, just to have created a little bustle, and made the story more interesting.

In short, you have never yet dedicated any one number to the amusement of our sex, and have taken no more notice of us, than if you thought, like the Turks, we had no souls. From all which I do conclude, that you are neither more nor less than some old fellow of a college, who never saw any thing of the world beyond the limits of the university, and never conversed with a female, except your bed-maker and laundress. I therefore give you this advice, which you will follow as you value our favour, or your own reputation -- Let us hear no more of your Oxford Journals, your Homelys and Cockney: but send them about their business, and get a new set of correspondents, from among the young of both sexes, but particularly ours; and let us see some nice affecting stories, relating the misfortunes of two lovers, who died suddenly, just as they were going to church. Let the lover be killed in a duel, or lost at sea, or you may make him shoot himself, just as you please; and as for his mistress, she will of course go mad; or if you will, you may kill the lady, and let the lover run mad; only remember, whatever you do, that your hero and heroine must possess a great deal of feeling, and have very pretty names. If you think fit to comply with this my injunction, you may expect to hear from me again, and perhaps I may even give you a little assistance; - but if not - may your work be condemned to the pastry-cook's shop, and you may always continue a bachelor, and be plagued with a maiden sister to keep house for you.

Your's, as you behave,

In the 'The Book Collector' in Summer 1966, Sir Zachary Cope first proposed that this letter was written by the 13 year old Jane and this theory (discussed in The Report of the Jane Austen Society of 1966) is now generally accepted. The letter is lively, witty and inventive, and typical of Jane's style.

If Jane really was 'Sophia Sentiment', it may be that her first ever appearance in printed book form was at the hands of a Dublin 'pirate'.

When weekly publication ceased, James Austen had published the bound-up remaining sheets of 'The Loiterer' in Oxford but in 1792 an edition was printed in book form by P. Byrne and W. Jones of Dublin. It seems unlikely that James Austen would have agreed to publish such a modest looking edition, so this was almost certainly an unauthorised 'pirate' edition, intended only for sale in Ireland.

At that time, the lead publisher, Patrick Byrne, was around 50 years of age and the biggest publisher in Dublin with over 150 titles to his credit. As a Catholic, his business was hampered by discrimination, and he became involved in work for parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation.

His subsequent career was dramatic. In 1793 his house and shop, weakened by a neighbouring fire, suddenly collapsed into rubble, which may be why this little book is so rare. He was forced into a long court battle with his insurer to receive any compensation and in 1798, almost as soon as his business had recovered, he was accused of involvement in a plot against King George III instigated by Edward Fitzgerald.

He was arrested, accused of high treason and consigned to Newgate gaol, where he became ill. It was only in June 1800 that his petitions for release were finally successful and later that year he left Ireland for ever, for Philadelphia, which had been one of the main centres of the American Revolution. He ran a successful printing business there until his death in 1814, in the middle of the Anglo-American War.

Patrick Byrne's dramatic life seems a long way from the serene and orderly existence of Miss Austen of Chawton Cottage but it seems that Jane Austen's first appearance in book form may have been at the hands of a 'treasonous rebel'.

Ibooknet sellers stock many books on Jane Austen: you can view her works, as well as books about Jane Austen including literary criticism and biography.


Jane Badger said...

Thank you Margaret - that was fascinating.

Val said...

Csn I second that fascinating please!

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