I have some exciting news! My first book of fiction is coming out in July. It’s a chapbook, which is a small volume often seen for shorter works and poetry. It’s a collection of 11 flash fiction pieces (very short stories), but it’s a real accomplishment.
Warning: Shameless self-promotion to follow. If you’d like to support this particular writer’s endeavors, you can place your order here: Where we are going to next by Amy Foster Myer
Back to Austen.
So, the day pre-order sales began, I received no less than 8 emails from two separate people at the publishing house. Book covers. Promotional post-cards to order from a print shop. Press Release. Radio Interviews. Media Kits. And Promotional Packets. Just to clarify, the publisher was not preparing any of these items themselves, but was giving me information and resources so that I could do that on my own. This is the state publishing in the modern era – DIY.
The excitement of seeing my book on the website, ready to be purchased, was slightly dampened. Suddenly, I could not just sit back and rake in the wealth (har har). Suddenly, I have become not only an author, but also a publicist, a personal assistant, a salesman, and probably more that I haven’t even wrapped my head around.
And I immediately thought of Jane Austen, my hero and inspiration. I imagined how vastly different the experience of first publication would have been and how her birth and station would have necessitated that difference.
When Austen’s first book was published, the only acknowledgement to Austen herself was the phrase “By A Lady.” Subsequent novels were identified as “By the author of Sense & Sensibility” and so on, adding on titles as they were published. Her final two novels were published posthumously and even there, the title page identified them as “By the author of “Pride & Prejudice,” “Mansfield Park,” etc.” However, in a Biographical Statement which her brother Henry wrote for the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, he identified her by name, the first time anyone knew with certainty who had published these works.
What an experience it all must have been for Jane! To be the celebrated author of four successful novels and yet to have been forbidden – by herself and family – from taking credit. Although the Austen family, particularly Jane’s father, have been applauded for their support of Jane and her endeavors, it’s clear that their support only went so far. It was unseemly to have a sister novelist. However, it would be unfair to Austen herself to assume that she would have even wanted her name to appear on the title page. It’s entirely possible that Austen, like many authors today, preferred to compartmentalize that aspect of her life.
Interestingly, there’s a wide variation amongst writers of her time as to whether works were published anonymously and whether those authors attempted to remain anonymous. Most female authors published their first works anonymously. Indeed, even male authors occassionally made that choice, such as Sir Walter Scott, who gave Austen one of her reviews during her lifetime. For those who published anonymously on a first manuscript, subsequent novels were either identified as “By the author of…” or included their actual names. One imagines the first novel must have been a toe in the water. If the work wasn’t well-received, the writer could walk away from it fairly unscathed. If it was a success, I’m sure the motivation to identify one’s self as the author was much more appealing. Fanny Burney’s novels were published anonymously, though everyone seemed to have known who their author was. Anne Radcliffe and Maria Edgeworth published their first works anonymously, but they were quickly identified as the authors and subsequent titles pages included their names alongside past publications.
What’s interesting is that Austen seems to have maintained a unique blend of anonymity and quiet popularity. We know from Austen’s own words that on the day Pride & Prejudice arrived from the printer, a neighbor had come to dine, after which they began reading Austen’s novel out loud. Austen wrote, “Miss B. dined with us on the very day of the book’s coming, and in the evening we fairly set at it, and read half the first vol. to her, prefacing that, having intelligence from Henry that such a work would soon appear, we had desired him to send it whenever it came out, and I believe it passed with her unsuspected.” Here, Austen is actively lying about the provenance of the novel in order to maintain her anonymity! About a week later, she had this to say about it, ” Our second evening’s reading to Miss B. had not pleased me so well, but I believe something must be attributed to my mother’s too rapid way of getting on: though she perfectly understands the characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought. Upon the whole, however, I am quite vain enough and well satisfied enough.”
What I enjoy about this glimpse into Austen is how she sat – one imagines in the deep shadows, the dance of the flames playing over her avid face – as Henry and her mother read aloud, perhaps observing “Miss B’s” face most ardently of all, looking for places where her writing entertained or left her listener wanting.
There are others of her letters that speak of her experience on receiving her novels from the publisher, of hearing them read aloud, of hearing neighbors speak of them, or of being told about their praise, such as when Austen writes to say, “Thank you for mentioning her praise of “Emma.”” One has to wonder, was this praise offered to Cassandra because the speaker, identified as “Mrs. —-” in Austen’s letter, knew Austen to be its author or because she had simply been reading it and, as we often do, shared a book which she was excited about?? We cannot know.
Austen achieved enough fame in her life to receive a solicitation from the Prince Regent to dedicate Emma to him, and from this, we must assume that the name of Jane Austen was in circulation. In fact, it’s fairly well known that her best-loved brother Henry frequently revealed to his friends and colleagues that the novel everyone was reading was written by his own dear sister. Had she been alive today, it would have taken no time for that information to circulate on Facebook, Twitter, Jitter, Bitter and whatever other social media outlets people are engaging with these days. In her own time, her name remained an open secret. A few knew who the author of these novels was, but her name circulated in drawing rooms and at dinner parties. Austen never received the kind of massive wealth and acclaim she has achieved in the two centuries since her death, a state I have to imagine was preferable to her. However, she was also wildly excited and proud of the money she did make, as well as with her astute business dealings with her publishers, which has to make us wonder.
But what I am envious of is that Jane was allowed, through a combination of the happy circumstance of her birth and her own choices, to dedicate her life to writing. She did not have to spend her writing hours developing her promotional materials or determining how and where to advertise her book. I imagine there was some freedom to that, if also limitation.
So off I go, back to the emails, back to the planning and strategizing. And back, eventually, to the page.
If you’d like to see some blurbs or sample some of my writing, please visit me at amyfostermyer.com.