Jane Austen was barely older than her 20-year-old heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, when she attempted to publish her novel, First Impressions, in 1797. After its initial rejection, Austen spent the next 15 years editing the manuscript, eventually re-naming it Pride and Prejudice, a phrase taken from the novel Cecilia by Fanny Burney, an author Austen admired. Despite some success with her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, Austen sold all rights and profits of Pride and Prejudice to publisher Thomas Egerton. Upon its release on January 18, 1813, the book gained a wide readership, and Egerton printed a second edition later that year.
Of the 1,500 first-edition volumes Egerton printed, only a few complete versions are known to exist, including this copy from the Newberry's collection. The first-edition Pride and Prejudice was printed in 1813 in London as a set of three volumes, a common practice of the day. Austen published her works anonymously; she is identified on the title page only as "the author of Sense and Sensibility." The name "Abby Tallmadge" is inscribed inside the front cover, indicating the book was likely donated to the Newberry in 1957 by Abby Louise Tallmadge, who wrote her dissertation on Austen.
Despite the novel's favorable public reception, critics and scholars did not distinguish it until the late nineteenth century. The story follows the romantic mishaps of the Bennet family and the English landed gentry, but it is Austen's captivating, often humorous depictions of human nature, as well as her exploration of moral and social themes, that have earned this classic marriage plot its position in the Western literary canon.
Jane Austen herself never wed, but enjoyed the affection of her large, close-knit family, who encouraged her intellectual and artistic development. From the obscurity of the English countryside, she created six novels that would become universal standards of literature. She was writing a seventh book when she died on July 18, 1817.
Pride and Prejudice continues to engage modern readers 200 years after it first appeared on bookstore shelves. The book has sold more than twenty million copies to date and has inspired numerous adaptations for page, stage, and screen. The characters and themes Austen penned with a nineteenth-century quill have even found expression in concept albums, graphic novels, and online webisodes.
Celebrate Austen's most popular novel by signing up for the Newberry's upcoming fall seminar, "200 Years of Pride and Prejudice: An Exploration of Jane Austen's Novel," or join us for this year's Book Fair, July 25 – 28, and pick up your own set of Austen's works.