Jane Austen and the Prince Regent
Whether or not you are aware of Jane Austen’s opinion of the Prince Regent, later to become King George IV, this dedication is sure to sound odd. Even if it is written to and for royalty, the pompous wording is entirely unlike the light and witty prose of Jane Austen’s novels and letters.
Considering, then, that only two years before the publication of Emma, Jane Austen had written of the Regent’s estranged wife, Princess Caroline, that Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest […] but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first.
(Letter to Martha Lloyd, 16 February 1813)
this dedication, by this author, to this prince, seems wholly unlikely.
There is something to be said for the fact that ‘Prinny’ liked his own way, and it was not wise for a provincial female author to cross the express wishes of so notable an admirer. However, throughout the run-up to the eventual dedication, it was very clear that Jane Austen would have much preferred to have done without the royal favour.
It was a complete coincidence that the author of his favourite novels should have crossed the Prince Regent’s path, or even his mind. Jane Austen’s brother Henry, who acted as the first literary agent of her novels, suffered indifferent health, and at one stage a second opinion was asked from the famous physician Dr Baillie, who also attended the Prince Regent. Baillie let fall that the Regent was a great admirer of Jane Austen’s novels, and not long afterwards Jane Austen was approached by the Regent’s librarian, who gave her to understand that she was at liberty to dedicate her next novel to His Royal Highness.
Jane Austen was obviously exasperated by this high-handed treatment; she was invited to look over the library at Carlton House, but never introduced to the Regent; and the pompous letters from the librarian irritated her. Thus, although she saw the unwisdom of rejecting the Prince’s offer, she got her own back by mimicking the librarian’s writing style. Furthermore, Colleen A. Sheehan points out that ‘In an 1814 scathing, personal letter to [the Prince Regent], which was afterwards made public, Princess Caroline repeatedly addressed her husband as “His Royal Highness”’, and she suggests that the frequent repetition of these words in the dedication refers to this letter.
There are also echoes in this adult dedication of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, which are often ‘Dedicated by permission’ by ‘Your most obedient and humble servant’. Thus, Jane Austen makes very clear that she certainly had no more respect for the Regent than she did for her own family.
The dedication seldom appears in modern editions of Emma.
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