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23 December: On this day in history

What events happened on 23 December in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: December 23, 2021 at 6:06 am
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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 SensibilityPride 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 EmmaSense 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.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

23 December 1621
Edmund Berry Godfrey, the magistrate whose mysterious death in 1678 heightened anti-Catholic paranoia in England, was born in Sellinge, Kent.
23 December 1732 
Richard Arkwright, the pioneer of the modern factory system and developer of the cotton spinning frame, was born in Preston, Lancashire. He was the youngest of 13 children.
23 December 1879
Captain James Dundas of the Royal Engineers was killed at Sherpur near Kabul in Afghanistan when a mine he was setting to blow up an enemy fort exploded prematurely. In 1865 he had served on the Bhutan expedition and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery when, along with a Major T Trevor, he stormed a blockhouse at Dewangiri with a party of Sikh soldiers. The Dundas Bridge, built by the Royal Engineers in 2002 on a key road between Kabul and Bagram, is named in his honour.
23 December 1888
While staying in the southern French town of Arles, artist Vincent Van Gogh cuts off the lower part of his left ear, takes it to a local brothel and presents it to one of the women working there.
23 December 1910
Birth in Brunswick, Germany, of Waffen SS officer Kurt Meyer. Shortly after D-Day Meyer became the youngest divisional commander in the German armed forces when he took over the 12th Hitler Youth SS Panzer Division following the death of its original commander in an Allied air raid. After the war he was sentenced to death for his involvement in the murder of Canadian prisoners of war near Caen, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Released in 1954, he died seven years later on his 51st birthday.

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Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine


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