First edition: Pride and PrejudiceText by Annalie Talent, Learning Officer at Jane Austen's House
When Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813 one early (male) reader declared it was ‘much too clever to have been written by a woman.’ Published anonymously, the identity of the author became the subject of much speculation. What was not in doubt was the quality of the work. It received favourable reviews; The British Critic stated that the novel was ‘far superior’ to other recently published works and was written with ‘great spirit and vigour’. The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan acknowledged it to be ‘one of the cleverest things he had ever read’ while Annabella Milbanke understood that the author (whoever he or she was) had written a new type of novel; lacking the action-packed plot of fashionable novels of the day, it was ‘the most probable fiction’ she had ever read.
Jane Austen wrote a version of Pride and Prejudice whilst still in her early twenties (she was 37 when it was finally published). Then called First Impressions, this early work was circulated amongst, and much enjoyed by family members and close friends. It so impressed Austen’s father that he wrote to a London publisher offering to send him the manuscript with a view to publication; the offer was rejected. It was not until several years later, whilst living at Chawton, that Austen revised her early work; we do not know to what extent as no manuscripts survive.
What we do know is who originally owned this first edition of Pride and Prejudice. Caroline Lamb must have read it with great interest; a woman with literary ambition herself, she went on to become the author of four novels. Perhaps, on a more personal level, she also recognised in the character of the unscrupulous but extremely charming Mr Wickham something of her former lover, the poet Lord Byron.