The NSW State Library holds a rare first edition of Emma.

Jane Austen’s Emma arrives in Sydney

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In print for over 200 years, Jane Austen’s legendary Emma has been filmed many times and much has been written about it.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to lay your eyes on the very first edition?

Emma was the last novel written by Austen before she died at the age of 41.  The work revolutionised the shape of the novel, inspired Hollywood’s Valley Girls in Clueless and launched Gwynth Paltrow’s film career in 1996.

We’re about to see a couple of new film adaptations: one in production starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Bill Nighy, with a screenplay by Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton; and a re-boot of Clueless.

So when Rosella Room heard that Sydney’s State Library of New South Wales had recently acquired a rare first edition of the novel, published anonymously in 1816 by Lord Byron’s publisher John Murray, we were pretty excited.

Jane Austen’s novels were popular and would have been read by early residents of the colony.  This is thoughtful purchasing by the State Library, the oldest library in Australia.

In those days, novels were often published in several volumes – three volumes, in the case of Emma.  Typically published at the author’s own expense, the publisher took a ten per cent cut, with the balance of profits to the author.

According to the Library, Emma went on sale in 1816 for one pound one shilling.  With a print run of 2000 copies, 1250 copies sold in the first year.  The following year Austen was publicly revealed as the author, in the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

So where is Emma?

Sadly, not yet on display.  Emma is housed in the Library’s Rare Books Collection on Macquarie Street, one of the oldest parts of colonial Sydney.  It’s currently only available to researchers through a reader’s ticket (free, but special conditions apply).  The Library told Rosella Room that it has no current plans to exhibit the work.

Fingers crossed that the volumes, apparently in their original binding, will soon be put on public display.  Wouldn’t you love to see Emma in the flesh, so to speak?  Just how many copies of this original edition are there in the Southern Hemisphere, anyway?

In the meantime, here are some Austen-related Spotify playlists: “Music from the Jane Austen era” (ie music from the Regency period) here and select soundtracks of Jane Austen films here.*

Interested in reading more about Emma?

  • The NSW State Library has blogged about their Austen acquisition here.
  • An audio segment of Emma Thompson reading Emma is here.
  • For a contemporary take on the enduring legacy of Emma, see these recent articles in The New Yorker, The Guardian and The Conversation.
  • To stay up to date on the new film production of Emma, see for example Instagram’s @EmmaFilm.

Image credit: Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash






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