On November 1st, 1797 a Hampshire clergyman, Reverend George Austen, wrote a respectful letter to the publisher Thomas Cadell in London. He stated that he had in his possession “a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina”, and politely asked about the expense of publishing it “at the Author’s risk; & what you will venture to advance for the Property of it, if on perusal, it is approved of?” The letter was sent back immediately, with a curt “Declined by Return of Post” scrawled across the top. Cadell was new to the publishing world, and understandably cautious. But “as publishing blunders go”, the biographer Claire Tomalin writes, “it was still one of the worst ever made through laziness”.
That’s putting it mildly. Since its publication in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ‑ the first version of which she had completed in 1797 ‑ has sold well over twenty million copies worldwide and inspired countless adaptations and loosely connected spin-offs, from television dramas to Bollywood romances and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Although Austen herself fretted that her novel was “rather too light & bright & sparkling; ‑ it wants shade”, it has also attracted serious attention in Eng Lit departments and elsewhere; the philosopher AC Grayling recently cited it as one of the five most important books of ideas, alongside Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.