Earlier this month, I went to a party at the publishers John Murray to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's novel, Emma. Many of you will have read and many, I suspect, love the meddling and matchmaking of clever Emma Woodhouse. But when the book was first published in December 1815, it did not immediately find its audience. More than a quarter of the 2,000 copies printed remained unsold after four years.
The room where the party was held displayed the books and portraits of some of the other eminent writers published by John Murray. Byron, Darwin, George Crabbe and Sir Walter Scott to name but a few. Did Jane herself ever visit the publisher's office in Albemarle Street? One person cited a letter which suggested she had while an academic I talked to insisted Jane would have sent a servant to return books lent to her. It was not acceptable for a lady to venture out on her own into the wild streets of London.
It's so very difficult to get a novel published these days which is why I howled with delight when Urbane Publications offered a contract to do just that for my novel, The Huntingfield Paintress. But it must have been an incredible challenge for a woman in the 19th century to find and persuade a publisher, inevitably a man, to recognise and acknowledge that her words could be of interest to readers. The would-be female author had to overcome not only entrenched societal discrimination but also familial ones. What would have happened if Jane's brother Henry had not failed at banking and then determined to help his sister find a publisher? Would her work have remained in a drawer in the Chawton cottage where she lived, never to be seen by the millions of readers who love her work today?
The Emma party was also hosted by Chawton House Library. This internationally renown research and learning centre contains books by Jane Austen as well as over 200 other women writers, poets and thinkers from 1600 to 1830. Even a brief exploration of the collection there shows how the talents of women has shone through despite the battles they faced to make their voices heard. Jane Austen is in a long line of women who, against the odds, got their words into print.