Austen in Edinburgh: A Lecture at the NLS

Emma FlyerI don’t normally write about lectures and seminars that I go to, but I recently had the opportunity to attend a rather interesting lecture at the National Library of Scotland that I thought I’d share with you all. The lecture has some fun bookish connections: organised by the Edinburgh-based author Alexander McCall Smith, the Isabel Dalhousie lecture is dedicated to one of Smith’s beloved characters, Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher and amateur sleuth, and (naturally) lover of Edinburgh and Scottish culture. This year’s lecture just happened to be on a topic I’m particularly interested in. Juliette Wells, an American scholar, gave a talk on the first American edition of Jane Austen’s Emma and its significance for Austen scholarship and the study of Austen’s reception in America. I read Wells’ book, Everybody’s Jane, for Austen in August last year (I was also supposed to re-read Emma itself for that particular event, but as I mentioned in my review of the novel, that turned out to be a massive bust…) so I was curious to hear her talk.

McCall Smith got the evening off to a nice start – I saw him give a talk a few years ago in Australia and was really impressed with how entertaining and engaging he was. He was a lot briefer tonight, seeing as he wasn’t the headliner, but still managed to put the audience in a cheerful mood. Incidentally, if you’re ever playing Edinburgh Bookish Bingo, seeing McCall Smith in Edinburgh is definitely on the list, seeing as he’s become so associated with the literary life of the city.

National Library Scotland

Wells’ lecture itself focused on the first American edition of an Austen novel printed in the US, the 1816 Philadelphia Emma. So rare that there are only six known copies left in the world, very little was known about the details of its publication. Wells made a strong case for this rare book’s importance to Austen scholarship and the history of Austen appreciation in America, and described some of the research she’d done in order to trace the book’s publication history.

I must admit, when I first heard that the lecture would be about a particular book and its publication, I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly exciting. But it’s surprisingly interesting to know a little bit more about the evolution of book publishing in this era: things like the lack of copyright laws abroad (Austen was never paid anything for this American edition of her novel), and the fact that the book was bound on cheap, flimsy cardboard ‘boards’, which wealthy owners would replace with more durable leather covers, but less well-off readers would find quickly fell apart (which is why so few copies are believed to have survived).

Then there are the quirks to be found in the novels themselves. For instance, there were a few amusing typos in this American edition of Emma, the best and funniest of which is the substitution of the word ‘women’ for the word ‘woman’ in Emma’s speech about Mrs Elton. As a result, the full quotation reads: “Insufferable women!” rather than “Insufferable woman!”. Ouch. I mean, we’re not that bad, right ladies?

Emma Title Page London

Title page for the original London edition of the novel. (Image Source)

Then there were the amusing comments left by American readers of the novel, in a copy that survived in a lending library. Most of them seemed to find Emma pretty tough going, and one helpful reader made a list of the principal characters with some easy-to-remember identifiers: Emma was “intolerable” (so Austen was probably bang on the money when she said she was creating a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like”, at least when it came to her American readers); Knightley was “tolerable” (glowing praise indeed); Jane Fairfax “enchanting” (a person after Miss Bates’ own heart!); Elton was a “d–d sneak” (can’t argue with them there); and Miss Bates was “full of gab”. Needless to say, this was a fascinating glance into the minds of a few of Austen’s earlier readers. The fact that most of the comments in that copy were negative suggests Americans either weren’t all that big on Austen back in the day, or that the ones who liked her didn’t feel compelled to graffiti her novels to prove their love. At least they never came up with anything quite so appalling and insulting to Austen’s memory as the film Austenland – they left that for future generations. But I digress.

All in all, Wells’ exploration of the early world of the American Emma was a fascinating look at both the publishing history and the reception of one of Austen’s best-loved novels. It just goes to show that sometimes, the stories surrounding our favourite books are almost as fascinating as the plots themselves.

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