I am currently reading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and decided to do a little bit of research into the curious inscription placed at the very beginning of the novel. The note is titled "Advertisement, by the Authoress" and was written by Austen to explain to the readers why some of the details of the novel were "obsolete". I began to wonder why Austen believed an explanation was necessary? The timeline of events indicate that the publisher who purchased her novel refused to publish it, held on to it and did nothing with it for 13 years! Austen writes, "That any bookseller should think it worth while to purchase what he did not think it worth while to publish seems extraordinary."
So what exactly happened? In 1803, Jane Austen completed the novel Northanger Abbey (originally titled Susan) which became her first novel ready for publication in a finished form. (Austen had previously composed the draft of Elinor and Marianne, later to be edited and renamed Sense and Sensibility, and also the first version of First Impressions, later edited and renamed Pride and Prejudice but they were not ready to publish at this time.) Austen sold her novel Susan (aka Northanger Abbey) for 10 pounds to Richard Crosby, a London bookseller. According to an online historical currency converter 10 pounds in 1803 would be equivalent to approximately $1420 today. The publisher purchased the novel with the understanding that he was to publish it and he then proceeded to do absolutely nothing with it... for 13 years!
Understandably, Austen became frustrated and pressed the publisher to regain the rights to the novel. She even offered to replace it if he had lost or misplaced it! The publisher threatened her with legal action if she sought to have the novel published elsewhere. The bookseller offered to sell it back to her, however, with little money available, Austen was not able to take further action.
Years later, in the spring of 1816, Austen's brother, Henry, bought the novel, still currently titled Susan, back from the bookseller for the original price of 10 pounds. It is believed that from 1816-17, Austen revised much of the novel including changing the name of its heroine to Catherine and adding the preface regarding the delay in publication. Unfortunately, Austen died on July 18, 1817. After her death, Henry organized the joint publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (now retitled for a third time).
The annotated edition of Northanger Abbey, edited by David M. Shapard states, "According to the 1869 biography by Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, upon completion of the deal, Henry 'had the satisfaction of informing [the publisher Richard Crosby] that the work which had been so lightly esteemed was the author of Pride and Prejudice,' her most successful novel." I would have enjoyed seeing Mr. Crosby’s reaction!
It is sad to consider that Jane Austen questioned her literary value and worth during the final 13 years of her life due to a single bookseller's unwillingness to print the novel he purchased to publish. Don't you wish Jane Austen (and Richard Crosby) would have known how important and influential her work would become to English Literature?!