Shortly after my seventeenth birthday Blackadder III, set in the Regency era when Jane had been in Chawton, was screening on television and was very popular. I was still living in Chawton House with my family (it was three weeks before my grandfather died and our lives changed forever, but I didn't know that at the time). I was excited and impressed when my father told me about Jane's dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent. But I was also a little confused—why had Jane dedicated one of her precious works to such a foppish idiot as played by Hugh Laurie?
Jane had not liked the Prince at all and wrote candidly to Martha Lloyd on 16 February 1813 in support of the Prince’s estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel:
I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband—but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest—& the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad—I do not know what to do about it;—but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first—.
But the Prince Regent was a fan of Jane’s, and a couple of years later, she was invited to view the library at Carlton House, his London residence. It was early October 1815, as Emma was being prepared for publication, and Jane travelled to London to stay with her brother, Henry, in Hans Place. Henry fell ill, and Dr Baillie, who just happened to be the Prince Regent’s physician, was called in. Dr Baillie mentioned to Jane that the Prince was a great admirer of her works and that he had a set of them in each of his lodgings and read them often. Dr Baillie had therefore thought it right to inform His Royal Highness that Miss Austen was staying in London, and the Prince had instructed Reverend Clarke, the librarian of Carlton House, to show her the library.
The invitation was accepted, and Jane visited Carlton House on 13th November 1815. I was in awe—to think of Jane going to the Prince’s mansion.
While she was there, Reverend Clarke said he had been asked to convey that if Miss Austen had any other novel forthcoming, she was at liberty to dedicate it to the Prince. What a tricky position Jane must have been in! How could she possibly associate her work with a man she thought so little of? But, on the other hand, how could she refuse such as invitation from royalty. Jane must have agonised over the decision as two days later, she wrote to Reverend Clarke to ask to what extent she was obliged to comply:
SIR,—I must take the liberty of asking you a question. Among the many flattering attentions which I received from you at Carlton House on Monday last was the information of my being at liberty to dedicate any future work to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, without the necessity of any solicitation on my part. Such, at least, I believed to be your words; but as I am very anxious to be quite certain of what was intended, I entreat you to have the goodness to inform me how such a permission is to be understood, and whether it is incumbent on me to show my sense of the honour by inscribing the work now in the press to His Royal Highness; I should be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or ungrateful. (Nov 15th 2015)
Reverend Clarke responded the very next day:
DEAR MADAM,—It is certainly not incumbent on you to dedicate your work now in the press to His Royal Highness; but if you wish to do the Regent that honour either now or at any future period I am happy to send you that permission, which need not require any more trouble or solicitation on your part.
Jane eventually decided to be diplomatic and dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, adding a ‘perfectly proper’ dedication:
Her exaggerated deference would have no doubt pleased the Prince but also revealed her true feelings to those who knew her.
But, this was not the last awkward suggestion made by Reverend Clarke to Jane. More of that next week in Part 2 of Jane Austen and the Prince.
Caroline Jane Knight is Jane Austen's fifth great-niece and the last Austen to grow up at Chawton House on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote. You can read more about Caroline's extraordinary childhood in JANE & ME: MY AUSTEN HERITAGE, available in PAPERBACK, HARDBACK, E-BOOK and AUDIOBOOK at all good online retailers. 15% of any profits made are donated to the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation
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