23 December: On this day in history
What events happened on 23 December in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…
23 December 1815: A headstrong heroine makes her debut
Jane Austen’s Emma, a novel about “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, is an instant hit
In spring 1815, not long before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, a 39-year-old Hampshire writer was hard at work completing her latest novel. Having enjoyed great success with Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, Jane Austen had decided to write about “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, whom she describes in the very first line as “handsome, clever and rich”. The book was called Emma.
At first, Austen offered her new book to the London publisher John Murray, but his proposal – £450 for the rights to Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park – was less than she had hoped. Instead she struck a deal whereby she would pay for the publication of 2,000 copies, with Murray getting a 10 per cent commission, while she kept the copyright.
By this stage, Austen had acquired a famous fan, the Prince Regent, who kept a set of her books at each of his houses. The future George IV got his private librarian to give her a tour of his collection, and it was the librarian who suggested that Austen dedicate the new book to the prince himself.
Emma was published in three volumes, each set costing one guinea. It was an instant success. Sir Walter Scott thought Austen’s characters were “finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader”. “Let me entreat you to read Emma,” the poet Thomas Moore told a friend, “it is the very perfection of novel-writing.” He was right.