Literary Daybook, March 29

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 29, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 29, 1867, Charles discovers Sarah sleeping in the Undercliff.
-- "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969)
by John Fowles

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1815, Jane Austen completed "Emma," her fourth novel in five years, and the last to appear in her lifetime. Though "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Mansfield Park" had been popular, anonymously written novels by provincial women on domestic themes were risky business for publishers, and Austen was offered such poor terms for "Emma" that she decided to publish it at her own expense. That it appeared with a dedication to the Prince Regent, a person whose debauched lifestyle she had condemned, and a type she would normally satirize, is a story that might itself have stepped from one of her books.

His Royal Highness admired Austen's novels, and "had a set in each of his residences"; having learned that she was in London to attend her ill brother, the prince instructed his Mr. Clarke -- former clergyman, now the prince's official librarian -- to "speedily wait on her." Austen accepted a personal tour of Carlton House palace, during which Mr. Clarke let it be known "that if Miss Austen had any other novel forthcoming, she was quite at liberty to dedicate it to the Prince." As a sampler, and as evidence of his own talents, Mr. Clarke exhibited the three-page dedication he had written to H.R.H in his book "The Progress of Maritime Discovery."

Although bent on declining the dedication offer, Austen received arguments from her brother and sister to the contrary, and to the effect that the offer was, in any case, more of a command. Austen immediately wrote Mr. Clarke: "I intreat you to have the goodness to inform me how such a Permission is to be understood, & whether it is incumbent on me to shew my sense of the Honour, by inscribing the Work now in the Press, to H. R. H." Mr. Clarke replied that, though not indeed "incumbent," permission to dedicate was hereby officially granted. Mr. Clarke's letter then continued writer-to-writer, if not man-to-woman: Might not one of Miss Austen's future novels feature "the Habits of Life and Character and enthusiasm of a Clergyman," one who liked to "pass his time between the metropolis & the Country," one "Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature," one "affectionate tho' shy" and "no man's Enemy but his own"? For marketing reasons, Austen decided to dedicate to the prince, though her publisher had to expand her one sentence version to a polite page; for other reasons, Austen wrote to Mr. Clarke that she felt incompetent to create in fiction the clergyman-librarian he had imagined -- though "the comic part of the character I might be equal to."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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