Jane Austen thought of her books as her children. Pride and Prejudice, which she called “my own darling Child,” was sold to Thomas Egerton in November 1812. Two hundred years ago today, Jane wrote to her friend Martha Lloyd that “P. & P. is sold.—Egerton gives £110 for it.—I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard, so much.”
Egerton had published Sense and Sensibility in October 1811, and Jane spoke of her first novel as if it were her first child. While she was correcting the proofs for Sense and Sensibility, she wrote to her sister Cassandra about her devotion to the novel: “No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child.”
Three sentences earlier, Jane had written about the birth of a new nephew, Henry Edgar Austen, the second son of their brother Frank and his wife Mary. The newest “sucking child” in the family was four days old, and in one sentence Jane combines congratulations and satire: “I give you joy of our new nephew, & hope if he ever comes to be hanged, it will not be till we are too old to care about it.”
In a more serious tone, she adds, “It is a great comfort to have it so safely & speedily over.” Neither she nor Cassandra ever married, but they knew a good deal about the dangers of childbirth. It was only three years since their sister-in-law Elizabeth had died after giving birth to her eleventh child.
Jon Spence writes in Becoming Jane Austen (2003) that “when we look back at the earlier novels we see that the prospect of physical danger does not belong to the men’s lives but to those of their wives. By getting married Elinor and Marianne, Lizzy, Fanny and Emma all face in the natural course of things the prospect of putting their lives at risk every couple of years in childbirth. The men, however, only have to have moral courage.” Spence argues that in Persuasion, Austen does something different with Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliot, and makes “her hero the equal of her heroine in a new particular: she gives Wentworth a profession in which he has to risk his life.”
Anne will be a naval wife, with all the attendant fears of that position. In the second-last line of Persuasion, we learn that “the dread of a future war [is] all that could dim her sunshine.” Spence suggests that Jane Austen “must have hoped women at least would add ‘or the prospect of another pregnancy.’”
How different Jane Austen’s world was from our own world (the developed world, that is). Austen’s six major novels all end, happily, with marriage. In her life, however, the novelist watched what happened to her sisters-in-law after they married and began to experience the effects and risks of pregnancy year after year. In speaking of her novels as her children, Jane Austen would have been well aware that writing books required moral rather than physical courage.
Austen’s letters of 29-30 November 1812 and 25 April 1811 are quoted from the fourth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre LeFaye (Oxford UP, 2011).