Jane Austen’s First Buyer? Probably a Prince She Hated

Jane Austen, left, loathed the Prince Regent, who later became George IV, but he might have been one of her first readers.

Jane Austen’s novels may epitomize Regency England, but she didn’t think much of the man for whom the period was named.

Like many of her compatriots, Austen loathed the Prince Regent, once railing in an 1813 letter against the man whose gluttony, profligacy and infidelities scandalized the nation. In 1815, when she was strong-armed into dedicating her fourth novel, “Emma,” to the future George IV, she produced a tribute so strained that a scholar called it “one of the worst sentences she ever committed to print.”

But now, in a delicious irony that Austen herself might have appreciated, it turns out that the man who was counted among her most reviled readers might also have been one of her very first.

This month a graduate student working in the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle came across a previously unknown 1811 bill of sale from a London bookseller, charging the Prince Regent 15 shillings for a copy of “Sense and Sensibility,” Austen’s first novel. Oddly, the transaction took place two days before the book’s first public advertisement — making it what scholars believe to be the first documented sale of an Austen book.

The discovery caused a stir in the Royal Archives, which are housed in the castle’s flagpole-topped medieval Round Tower (and whose contents are the private property of the Queen).

“It’s quite exciting,” said Oliver Walton, a curator who is leading an effort to increase access to voluminous holdings relating to the reign of George III, the Prince Regent’s father. “This is something that highlights the collection while also tapping into the enormous interest in Jane Austen.”

The find is also stirring interest among Austen scholars, whose eye-rolling take on the Prince Regent can seem only a few notches off the novelist’s own.

“This is a wonderful discovery that connects some literary dots,” said Devoney Looser, the author “The Making of Jane Austen,” a recent study of Austen’s path to literary celebrity. “It certainly shows that the people procuring books for him had good taste.”

Janine Barchas, an Austen scholar at the University of Texas, Austin, called the discovery “wonderfully cool,” before inquiring, “Did the Prince Regent pay full price?”

The prince — who became regent during the mental illness of George III — did, as it happens. But Professor Barchas can be forgiven for asking. The man’s reputational troubles began at birth, when a courtier in attendance announced that he was a girl. By the time of his death in 1830, he had spent so extravagantly, and entertained such a long string of mistresses, that an early biographer accused him of contributing more “to the demoralization of society than any prince recorded in the pages of history.”

The bill of sale for “Sense and Sensibility” was discovered by Nicholas Foretek, a first-year Ph.D student in history at the University of Pennsylvania, who was combing through the Prince Regent’s papers as part of his research into connections between late 18th-century political figures and the publishing world.

The Prince Regent was known to have literary interests, if not necessarily of the high-minded sort. In 1788, the same year his father became incapacitated by mental illness, the prince secretly bought the newspaper The Morning Post, to stop it from publishing embarrassing information about his love life.

He also spent profligately on books for his grand library at Carlton House, his opulent home on Pall Mall in London. “Debt is really great for historians,” Mr. Foretek said. “It generates a lot of bills.”

It was in receipts relating to the library that Mr. Foretek noticed the bill of sale listing the purchase of “Sense and Sensibility” on Oct. 28, 1811, followed by more dubious sounding fare like “Monk’s Daughter,” “Capricious Mother” and “Sicilian Mysteries.”

“Quite frankly, I was delighted that a man with as many foibles and flaws as the Prince was reading Jane Austen,” he said.

The discovery highlights the potential of the Georgian Papers Program, an effort to open up — and ultimately post freely online — more than 350,000 pages of largely uncataloged documents relating to George III and his household.

Already, researchers have turned up previously unknown documents relating to epochal events, like memorandums about the slave trade in West Africa and a cache of letters by Sir Samuel Hood, the second in command at the Battle of the Chesapeake in September 1781, which set the stage for the British defeat at Yorktown.

But for sheer archival sex appeal (and publicity), it’s hard to beat even a modest-seeming Austen find.

“There are few private archives in the world to rival this one for the depth and richness of materials on the Anglo-American 18th-century world,” said Karin Wulf, the director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William & Mary, the project’s main American partner. “To find something relating to Austen is a thrilling bonus.”

To fevered Janeites (and perhaps Hollywood screenwriters), the discovery of the Prince Regent’s early interest might be the seed of a fanciful historical romantic comedy in which the rakish royal book-stalks the tart-tongued, independent-minded (and never-married) commoner. But the real-life connection between the Prince Regent and Austen is delectably awkward social comedy enough.

When “Sense and Sensibility” appeared in 1811, Austen was a nobody, identified on the title page only as “A Lady.” She wasn’t publicly named as the author of her books until after her death, but as her reputation grew, her identity circulated in some circles.

In October 1815, a few months after finishing “Emma,” she was visiting her brother in London, when word came through a chance encounter with the Prince Regent’s doctor that His Royal Highness was a great admirer. An invitation for a visit to his library at Carlton House followed, during which his librarian, James Stanier Clarke, conveyed that the Prince Regent (who was not present) would not object if she dedicated her next book to him — the royal equivalent of an offer you can’t refuse.

This posed a dilemma for Austen, who in an 1813 letter had expressed her sympathies for the Prince Regent’s wife, Caroline of Brunswick, despite her own bad behavior. “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her husband,” Austen wrote.

When she proposed a terse dedication, her publisher insisted she punch it up. She eventually landed on this respectable but wooden tribute: “To his Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s Permission, most Respectfully Dedicated by his Royal Highness’s Dutiful and Obedient Humble Servant.”

Austen continued to correspond with Clarke, who even went so far as to suggest some ideas for a novel, including one about a curate (like himself), or perhaps even “a historical romance” about the royal family — a suggestion she delicately parried.

“I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my life,” she said, adding: “I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No — I must keep my own style & go on in my own way.”

She did, and today, in yet another Austenian irony, it’s the Prince Regent who gains by association with Austen’s chronicles of provincial life, rather than the reverse.

“Who would have thought the Prince Regent would be eclipsed by a mere novelist?” Professor Looser said.

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