In 1811, Sense and Sensibility became the first published novel of the English author Jane Austen (1775-1817). The first version of the novel was probably written in 1795 as an epistolary novel (novel in letters) entitled "Elinor and Marianne." At this point, Austen was still living in the home of her father, George Austen, a local Anglican rector and the father of eight children. She rewrote the early manuscript in 1797-98 as a narrated novel and then further revised it in 1809-10, shortly after she moved with her mother and sister Cassandra to a small house in Chawton on her brother Edward's estate. In 1811, Thomas Egerton of the Military Library in Whitehall accepted the manuscript for publication in three volumes. Austen published on commission, meaning she paid the expenses of printing the book and took the receipts, subject to a commission paid to the publisher. The cost of publication was more than a third of her household's 460-pound annual income, so the risk was substantial. Nonetheless, the novel received two favorable reviews upon its publication, and Austen made a profit of 140 pounds off the first edition.
When the first edition of Sense and Sensibility was published, it sold out all 750 copies by July 1813, and a second edition was advertised in October 1813. The first edition was said only to be "by a lady." The second edition, also anonymous, contained on the title page the inscription "by the author of Pride and Prejudice," which had been issued in January 1813 (though Austen had not been credited on the title page of this novel either). Only Austen's immediate family knew of her authorship of these novels. And although publishing anonymously prevented her from acquiring an authorial reputation, it also enabled her to preserve her privacy at a time when entering the public sphere was associated with a reprehensible loss of femininity. Indeed, Austen used to write at Chawton behind a door that creaked when visitors approached; she would avail herself of this warning to hide her manuscript before they entered. Austen may have wanted anonymity not only because of her gender and a desire for privacy, but because of the more general atmosphere of repression pervading her era: her early writing of Sense and Sensibility coincided with the treason trial of Thomas Hardy and the proliferation of government censors as the Napoleonic War progressed. Whatever the reasons behind it, Austen's anonymity would persist until her death until 1817.
Contemporary critics of Austen's novels tended to overlook Sense and Sensibility in favor of the author's later works. Mansfield Park was read for moral edification; Pride and Prejudice was read for its irony and humor; and Emma was read for its subtle craft as a novel. Sense and Sensibility did not fall neatly into any of these categories, and critics approached it less eagerly. However, although the novel did not attract much critical attention, it sold well, and helped to establish "the author of Pride and Prejudice" as a respected writer.
Only in the twentieth century have scholars and critics come to address Sense and Sensibility's great passion, its ethics, and its social vision. In recent years, the book has been adapted into feature films. Today, the three-volume novel by an anonymous lady has become a famed and timeless favorite.
To read further about the life and works of Jane Austen, see the SparkNotes on Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park.
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