It is no secret to the readers of Jane Austen that she had a keen eye for observation and a sharp tongue to tell us what she saw, and the topic most frequently the aim of her quick-witted put-downs was people, persons and characters. To those of you who delight in this side of Austen, you may find pleasure in knowing that she did not limit her witty jibes to the page. In fact, she aimed some of her scorn quite high up the social ladder. Perhaps shockingly high to some.
By 1815, Jane Austen was becoming well-known as an author. By this time, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park had all been published. Despite the fact that none of her books had been published under her own name in her life-time, it was becoming somewhat known that Austen was the author of these popular publications. Then, as now, people will talk, and Austen’s favourite brother Henry was fond of spilling tales about his sister the authoress.
With the popularity of her books, especially that of Pride and Prejudice, Austen had garnered many admirers. One was the Prince Regent himself, the future king George IV. When Austen went to visit her brother Henry in 1815 this perhaps astonishing fact came to her attention. Henry was ill and a physician was called for. The physician that came to treat Henry also happened to be treating the Prince Regent, who told Jane that the prince was a great fan of hers. Soon after she was contacted by the Prince Regent’s librarian who invited her to Carlton House. Upon her visit here, she was informed that she was “at liberty to dedicate any future novel to” the Prince Regent.
Unfortunately, it would be far from the truth to say that this admiration was mutual. George was known for being extravagant, scandalous and self-indulgent, largely ignoring the plight of the poorest of the land. He was known to over-indulge in food, drink and women and was portrayed as a ridiculous, frivolous character by the multitude of satirical cartoonists that were about in Georgian England. Jane Austen had stated in one of her letters that she “hated” the prince, and named herself a supporter of his estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick.
However, whatever Austen’s personal feelings were towards the prince, this ‘invitation’ to dedicate her next novel to the prince was more of a royal command than humble suggestion. And so, presumably with disgusted reluctance dripping from her fingertips, she sat down to write the dedication that would feature on the first pages of her new novel Emma. Her publisher, John Murray, thought that the first dedication-draft revealed a little too much of this personal reluctance of Austen’s and had her do it again. The second and final dedication read as follows:
Ouch. Can you feel the irritation and sarcasm drip through the page? The three whole mentions of ‘His Royal Highness’ smack of mocking irony and sardonic reverence. Austen made sure to include that the dedication was made by the Regent’s ‘permission’, the meaning of which would likely not have been lost on most Georgians. The fact that this dedication was approved by Murray is perhaps somewhat eye-brow-raising. Perhaps he liked her boldness, and perhaps he thought that there would be no danger as the sarcasm would be lost on the Prince Regent who seems to not have understood that Austen’s novels are largely dedicated to mocking frivolous, self-indulgent, witless, ridiculous characters like himself.
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Anna-Christina Rod Østergaard is 26-year-old university student, currently reading for a master’s degree in English and Philosophy at Aalborg University in Denmark. She reads every Austen novel at least once a year and rarely reads a book that is less than a century old. She is a lover of history, literature, folklore, fairy-tales and, of course, Jane Austen. If you, like Anna-Christina would like to make a contribution to the Jane Austen blog, read our instructions on how to Submit a Blog