The National Library of Scotland's John Murray Archive exhibition gets its first new character this week as Jane Austen takes her place alongside Byron, Scott, Livingstone and others. To mark the event, a special screening of the 1940 version of the Austen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice will be held at the Edinburgh Filmhouse this Monday (16 June) at 6pm.
Austen (1775-1817) was a pioneer of a new type of fiction. Her books created a popular and lasting image of the life and love of ordinary people. Austen challenged the social expectations of her time, developing a career as a novelist when writing was not seen as an accepted occupation for a lady. Today, Jane Austen and her novels are an international industry and are loved throughout the world. Her novels continue to inspire film makers, novelists and writers and have sold in the millions.
In her lifetime, however, she was only moderately successful with career literary earnings estimated at around £700. On display in the exhibition is a cheque for 38 pounds, 18 shillings and one pence, signed by John Murray and endorsed by Austen. Although £700 was not an insignificant sum of money, it was not enough for Austen to live on. Her literary earnings compared unfavourably to other contemporary women writers, for example Maria Edgeworth who earned more than £11,000 or Frances Burney's £4,000. These sums all rather pale into insignificance when compared with the £100,000 or more that Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott earned from writing during their lifetimes. [Note to editors: direct comparison with 'today's money' is far from an exact science, with all sorts of factors to do with cost of living distorting the true picture but, for a ballpark estimate, you could arguably place £700 in 1815 as being equivalent to roughly £45,000. By the same scale, one could put Byron's or Scott's earnings as being equivalent to in excess of £6 million].
The exhibition also shows a sales subscription book which shows how the second edition of Mansfield Park initially sold a disappointing 36 copies, and Murray later had to remainder over half the stock, despite having reduced the price.
Unusually, she was also actively involved in the publication of her books. This is reflected in the items held in the John Murray Archive, and on display will be a letter in which Austen bemoans the delays in publication of Emma. Having previously objected to Murray's suggestion that the book carry an inscription dedicating it to the then Prince Regent (later George IV) before relenting, Austen wonders now in the letter why, given this Royal endorsement, things are taking so long.
NLS Director of Collections and Research, Cate Newton, who will also introduce the screening at the Filmhouse, said: 'It is just under a year since the John Murray Archive exhibition opened to the public and so this is a wonderful time to introduce another iconic figure from the 19th century to the visiting public.'
The John Murray Archive exhibition uses 21st century technology to bring 19th century documents and stories to life. It has recently been given a national award for its innovative lighting design and the characters within it will continue to be refreshed over time. The next new character will be renowned travel writer Richard Ford, who wrote extensively about Spain in the 19th century.
The exhibition is open to the public from 10am to 8pm Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm on Saturdays and from 2pm to 5pm on Saturdays.
National Library of Scotland
George IV Bridge
Tel: 0131 623 3700
10 June 2008