January 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. What you might not know is that Austen wrote the book, to which she first gave the apt but much less memorable title First Impressions, nearly two decades before it was published.
In other words, Pride and Prejudice, a seminal work of literature that has influenced nearly every romantic comedy ever published or filmed, was Jane Austen’s trunk novel. We authors could wish that our own literary trunks contain such a gem.
Cassandra Austen, Jane’s older sister and her literary executor, left a note with the dates of composition for each novel. She indicated that First Impressions was begun in October 1796 and finished in August 1797. In November 1797, Jane’s father wrote a letter to the London publisher Thomas Cadell, offering First Impressions for publication. It’s not the most compelling query letter ever written by any means, but no doubt Mr. Austen’s heart was in the right place. We do not know if he wrote the letter of his own volition or at the bidding of his daughter, as it was the usual practice for a male relative to act for a woman in business matters; nor do we know if any other publishers were approached. We only know that the offer was “declined by return of post,” as indicated on the letter.
Despite this early failure, First Impressions was extremely popular among Austen’s friends and family. In her letters, Austen mentions requests to read the manuscript from her sister Cassandra and her friend Martha Lloyd, and even teases Cassandra (knowing the teasing will be passed on to her friend) that Martha only wanted to read the novel again so that she might commit it to memory and publish it herself.