On 13th November 1815 Jane Austen visited the Prince Regent’s London palace. In later correspondence the Prince's librarian, Reverend Clarke, suggested Jane Austen dedicate Emma to the Prince – a man she disliked. But this wasn’t the only unwelcome suggestion he made to Jane!
Despite writing anonymously Jane must have known she was a success – not many writers caught the attention of the Prince Regent, or received a personal invitation to view the royal library at Carlton House. After the visit, Jane continued a correspondence with Reverend Clarke, the Prince’s librarian, which lead to a couple of extraordinary suggestions. First, it was suggested that Jane dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent – a man she disliked – to which she eventually agreed. You can read about that here.
Jane duly forwarded a copy of Emma for inclusion in the Prince’s library and must have thought that would be the end of it. But, the royal ‘suggestions’ didn’t end there. In March, 1816, Mr Clarke wrote:
Pavilion: March 27, 1816
Dear Miss Austen, - I have to return to you the thanks of His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, for the handsome copy you sent him of your last excellent novel. Pray, dear Madam, soon write again and again. Lord St. Helens and many of the nobility, who have been staying here, paid you the just tribute of their praise.
The Prince Regent has just left us for London; and having been pleased to appoint me Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the Prince of Cobourg, I remain here with His Serene Highness and a select party until the marriage. Perhaps when you again appear in print you may chuse to dedicate your volumes to Prince Leopold: any historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.
Believe me at all times,
Dear Miss Austen,
Your obliged friend,
J. S. Clarke.
How wonderful that Jane’s writing was so well liked by the nobility, she was urged to write more. But how awkward for Jane! She has already conceded to the dedication of Emma to the Prince – an association that was not to her liking – and now they wanted to interfere with the content of her writing.
Jane faced a tricky situation. She needed to put an end to all attempts of influence from the palace, firmly and without ambiguity, but without causing offence or being disrespectful. Jane writes the most wonderful dialogue for her characters in awkward circumstances, it is fascinating to see how she dealt with such a tricky situation in her own life.
My dear Sir, - I am honoured by the Prince’s thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work. I have also to acknowledge a former letter forwarded to me from Hans Place. I assure you I felt very grateful for the friendly tenor of it, and hope my silence will have been considered, as it was truly meant, to proceed only from an unwillingness to tax your time with idle thanks. Under every existing circumstance which your own talent and literary labours have placed you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed, you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are a step to something still better. In my opinion, the service of a court can hardly be too well pail, for immense must be the sacrifice of time and feeling required by it.
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, & I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity, than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in, but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
I remain, my dear Sir,
Your very much obliged, and sincere friend,
Chawton, near Alton, April 1 1816
Jane starts with a suitable tone of thanks and deference to the Prince and Mr Clarke. It is hard not to note, with amusement, Jane’s explanation for not responding to early letter – perhaps she had made previous attempts to end the correspondence but the palace wouldn’t take the hint!
In her second paragraph, with wit and an air of self-deprecation (a polite veneer to suggest the weakness in being able to take up his suggestion is hers, rather than his for making such a suggestion in the first place!), Jane firmly stands her ground.
I have always loved this story – and have always been inspired by what is, to me, the finest example from Jane's private letters of her strength, self-determination, diplomacy and skillful use of language.
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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