READERS who watched the recent BBC drama Miss Austen Regrets will recall the scene in which a startled, bemused but not overly enthusiastic Jane is told by the Prince Regent’s librarian that his royal master is a great admirer and that she should feel quite at liberty to dedicate any new novel to the Prince.
Jane, who deplored George's conduct and profligacy, was
nevertheless rational enough to recognise the potential benefit and
was persuaded by her brother Henry and sister Cassandra that this
was more a royal command, or an obligation than suggestion.
John Murray, who had not so far been exactly rushing into print,
agreed and the book was indeed dedicated to the Prince Regent. One
of the dozen presentation copies that she was allowed by her
publishers was handsomely bound and duly sent to him.
According to one of Jane's recent biographers, David Nokes, Jane
had one copy sent to Maria Edgworth (who failed to acknowledge the
gift and in private conversation was disparaging about Jane's
writing) and another went to Countess Morley, a new friend and
someone who had once been widely rumoured to be the true author of
Pride and Prejudice. The remainder were earmarked for
members of her family but one was reserved for an older and
This was Anne Sharp, whom she had first met in 1805 at her
brother Edward's house at Godmersham. At the time Anne was employed
there as a governess, but though she moved to the north of England
the following year, eventually setting up her own boarding school
in Everton, the two women had taken to each other at once and kept
up a regular correspondence for the rest of Jane's life.
Claire Tomalin, in her Austen biography, writes of a truly
compatible spirit and of Anne's unique position as "...the
necessary, intelligent friend". One of Jane's last letters was
addressed affectionately to Anne and, following her death, her
devoted sister Cassandra sent Anne a lock of Jane's hair.
Jane always took seriously Anne's reactions to her novels and
commented in her record of reviews and suchlike, "she liked it
better than M.P. - but not as well as P.&P. - pleased with the
heroine for her originality, delighted by Mr K. - & called Mrs
Elton beyond praise - dissatisfield with Jane Fairfax".
No presentation copies of Emma have ever come to
auction and it is not entirely clear how many survive, but on June
24 Bonhams will sell the copy that she asked John
Murray to send to Anne.
In contemporary half calf, it is inscribed From the
author (by the publisher) to the flyleaf of the first volume
and all three bear Anne Sharp's ownership signature.
The anonymous British vendor of the book said, "The novel had
been sitting in my family library for at least three generations
and it remains a mystery as to how the book first got there", but
that mysterious arrival is now expected to sell for something in
the region of £50,000-70,000.
By Ian McKay