When You Can’t Afford a Jane Austen Original

Over the last 25 years, amid the releases of various screen adaptations imagining new lives for her novels, the critical conversation around Jane Austen has been much occupied with the diverse responses of her diverse reading communities: academic and popular, elite and fan-based. Janine Barchas’s exuberantly illustrated study, “The Lost Books of Jane Austen,” rides this wave with panache.

Austen too tried to understand and take some control of the market for her fiction — conning sales figures, aggregating reader opinions and pushing for reissues. She learned these tricks the hard way, from her own lost books. Having sold the copyright on her most popular novel, “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), she watched the profits from its second and third editions go straight into the pocket of her publisher, Thomas Egerton. The contemporary publishing model did not work in Austen’s favor. With the price of a new book higher than the average weekly wage, readership was not matched by ownership: “People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy,” she wrote in an 1814 letter, “which I cannot wonder at.”

But between the education acts of 1870 and 1902, a vigorous reprint industry had a remarkable impact on generations of British readers. Innovations in printing and marketing, such as stereotype plates and image branding, democratized literature. Barchas cites Austen’s mass popularity in Britain and America at this time to argue that literary canons rested, in this period, on the lowest material conditions: the worn plates traded across New England between 1855 and 1904; the novels exchanged for soap wrappers in Lever Brothers’ “Sunlight Library”; the halfpenny weekly serializations in Dicks’ English Library of Standard Works; and the free copies of “Pride and Prejudice” distributed at New York’s Taft Hotel. Reproduced in these pages in vivid detail, these cheap editions are the neglected workhorses that underwrote Austen’s enduring legacy.

Where pricing is no longer an obstacle to ownership, a new kind of engagement is born. The short biographies, or “vignettes,” dropped between chapters sketch a relationship between a physical book and its owner. Barchas writes, “I simply chose these stray copies for their capacity to humanize my more general arguments.” But they also challenge these arguments. Certain features, like stereotype plates, editions, impressions and reprints, belong to the history of books; others, like ownership marks and annotations, belong to the history of copies, and as such they are singular, nontransferable pieces of evidence.

Barchas highlights David Gilson’s indispensable 1982 “A Bibliography of Jane Austen,” one of the records that she says glossed over “Austen’s early diversity” in an effort to bring “order and discipline … to a chaotic landscape,” as nevertheless a “monumental” starting point for research. Inevitably, Gilson missed things; his listings are synoptic and dry. Barchas releases the compelling narratives inside his unyielding entries and supplements them with further hidden gems.

One of the most provocative questions to emerge is: Who exactly owned those lost, cheap, tattered Austens? If some copies direct us, as Barchas supposes, to the daughter of an English sea captain, a Harvard law student, a Scottish immigrant to America, others point to Leonard and Virginia Woolf. It turns out that you both can and cannot judge a book, or its reader, by its cover. A vignette I am tempted to add to Barchas’s collection would describe the presentation copy of “Emma,” bound in red morocco gilt, that Austen reluctantly sent to the Prince Regent in 1815. Now held in Windsor Castle, it bears a pressmark that reveals it was at one time consigned to the servants’ library, though its good condition suggests it may not have been much read upstairs or down. Thanks to Barchas’s smart detective work, we now know that by the 1850s all at the castle were probably reading cheap Routledge reprints.

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