Reading Austen in America by Juliette Wells

Cover of Reading Austen in America by Juliette Wells

Cover of Reading Austen in America by Juliette Wells.

Reading Austen in America by Juliette Wells, Professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore, is an in-depth study of Jane Austen's earliest readers in America.  In the first part of her book, Wells discusses the history of the first Austen novel to be published in the United States: the 1816 Philadelphia edition of Emma, published by Mathew Carey.  This was the only edition of an Austen novel to be published in the United States in her lifetime.  Carey did not obtain permission to publish it, and it is very unlikely that Austen even knew about it, much less made money from it.  There was no international copyright law at that time, so the edition was legal, although unauthorized.

Wells discusses in detail how the 1816 Emma came to be published.  The British edition was in a shipment of books that Carey received from England, and he sold it along with his own edition.  Sir Walter Scott's favorable review of Emma also contributed to Carey's decision.  Scott's poetry and novels were enormously popular at the time.  Carey included Scott's review in his publicity material for the book.  Wells writes about the printing of the book, and how a paper shortage delayed printing.  The printing was not finished until December, and then Carey was concerned about shipping the book to booksellers, because the river might freeze.  Wells explains that shipping by river was much easier than by land at that time, before railroads.  Then she discusses how the book was distributed to various booksellers.  Only 500 copies of the Philadelphia Emma were printed, in contrast to 2000 of the British edition.  Wells also explains bookbinding practices of the time.  Of the 500 copies, 50 were fully bound in leather, and the others were more cheaply bound in boards, which the owners could replace with their own personal bindings, some of which could be quite elaborate.  Wells writes about the differences between the British and American editions of Emma.  The British edition was in three volumes, while the American edition was in two volumes, with smaller print and narrower margins.  Also, the American edition contained many typographical errors.

Unfortunately, the 1816 American edition of Emma did not sell well, and many copies were returned to the publisher.  But Carey and his son Henry did not give up on Austen.  In 1832-1833, the firm of Carey and Lea--Henry Carey and his business partner Isaac Lea--published the first complete American edition of Austen's works.  Unlike the 1816 Emma, these editions were slightly bowdlerized, with the few instances of swearing removed.  Also, Pride and Prejudice was inexplicably retitled Elizabeth Bennet.  These editions appear to have sold better than the 1816 Emma, even though Wells does not discuss their publication history in as much detail.

Of the 500 copies of the 1816 Emma, only six are known to survive.  Austen bibliographer David Gilson mentions four, and Wells recently rediscovered two others.  In an appendix, Wells includes a catalog of the six surviving copies, with details about ownership and the copies' current location.  The copies survive in various conditions, from practically unread to severely damaged.  She says that other copies may still exist in private libraries.

Wells goes on to write about the lives of the original owners of the existing copies of the 1816 Emma.  For two of the copies, the original owner is unknown.  The copy that is in the best condition was owned by the daughters of E.I. du Pont, one of the founders of the du Pont chemical dynasty.  The du Pont sisters read extensively, and they frequently discussed their reading in their letters, but there is only one mention of an Austen novel in their correspondence.  The eldest sister, Victorine, read Mansfield Park in the 1850s.  There is no mention of Emma in the sisters' correspondence, and their copy shows very little sign of use.  So it is possible that they never read it.  In fact, Victorine had rather a prudish attitude toward novel reading.  In letters to her younger sister at boarding school, she expresses concern over her sister's morals if she is allowed to read novels too early in life.

By contrast, Jeremiah Smith, a judge who became chief justice of New Hampshire, was an enthusiastic reader of his copy of Emma.  He made notes on the endpapers and margins about Austen's life and works, and he bought copies of Austen's other novels in the more expensive British editions.  Smith remarked on all the typographical errors in the 1816 Emma.  Interestingly, his own notes contain an error, since he believed Persuasion was an early work of Austen's, when in fact it was a late work.

A third copy was owned by a circulating library in Rhode Island, and this copy is in the worst condition of all, with missing and damaged pages.  Two anonymous readers made notes inside the book, expressing their frequently negative opinions on the novel and its characters.  These are amusing to read today.  One reader wrote "Silly book" inside the copy, and there are also notes on the characters, with Mr. Knightley being called only "tolerable" and Emma "intolerable."  The characters the readers seem to like the best are Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.  Wells contrasts these comments with the ones that Austen collected from friends and family members, who had a much more favorable opinion of Mr. Knightley and, for the most part, of Emma.

One chapter is an in-depth discussion of the life of Christian, Countess of Dalhousie, a Scottish noblewoman living in Nova Scotia, who owned a fourth copy of the 1816 Emma.  The Countess of Dalhousie's husband was lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia.  Her copy is the most elaborately bound of the surviving copies of the 1816 Emma.  She was an amateur botanist and an extensive reader, who kept a detailed diary of her reading.  Unfortunately, her diary is very difficult to read because, to save paper, when she finished a page she would write vertically, or even diagonally, across the same page.  She also placed botanical specimens between the pages of her diary.  Wells explains that it is not clear exactly when the Countess of Dalhousie read Emma, but she narrows it down to a period of a few months.  We know that the Countess was a great admirer of Austen, from her comments on the other novels.  The first Austen novel she read was Persuasion.  Appropriately, she read it on a sea voyage, and she appears to have identified with the character of Mrs. Croft, who traveled the world with her husband, the admiral.

Wells' last two chapters tell the fascinating story of two transatlantic friendships based on mutual love of Austen's novels.  The first was between the Quincy sisters of Boston and Austen's brother Admiral Francis Austen, who was still alive in the 1850s.  The Quincy sisters had loved Austen's novels from a very early age, and often identified Austen's characters with people they knew.  When she heard that Austen's brother was still alive, the older sister, Eliza, wrote to him to ask for a sample of Austen's handwriting.  Francis Austen was very pleased to hear that his sister's novels had found such an enthusiastic reader in the United States, and he sent her a whole letter of Austen's.  Later, the younger Quincy sister, Anna, traveled to England to visit the sites Austen lived in and wrote about, and she met Francis Austen and his family.  Francis was very happy to meet her, and he continued to correspond with the Quincy sisters until shortly before his death.  As Wells says, Anna Quincy's visit to Austen sites in England is one of the earliest examples of Austen tourism, which increased greatly after the publication of the memoir by Austen's nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in the 1870s.

The final chapter discusses the friendship between Austen collector Alberta H. Burke of Baltimore and bibliographer David Gilson of Oxford.  Burke assembled an enormous collection of Austen materials, including first and early editions of her novels.  She acquired the Countess of Dalhousie's copy of the 1816 Emma, which went to Goucher College along with most of her collection, after her death in 1975.  The Austen letters she owned, which she valued most of all the items in her collection, went to the Morgan Library in New York.  She and Gilson, a librarian and bibliographer living in Oxford, corresponded for years and discovered that they had similar views on Austen.  Both were among the first to show an interest in the American editions of Austen's novels, as well as in translations of her works.  Gilson also owned a copy of the 1816 Emma.  Burke visited Gilson in Oxford, and, sadly, he came to visit her in Baltimore and saw her collection very shortly before she died.

Wells' book makes a significant contribution towards the study of Austen readership.  There have been similar studies of her British readers, but this is the first in-depth study of her American readers.  The history of the 1816 Emma is fascinating, and Wells says at the end that she hopes others will continue the study of Austen's American readership.

I encourage you to visit the exhibit "The Life and Times of Lizzy Bennet" in the Audubon Room in the Hatcher Graduate Library, which runs through March 30.  The exhibit includes a copy of Carey and Lea's first American edition of Persuasion.

Reading Austen in America is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.