Rejected Genius

In the LRB, Deborah Friedell responds to the recent Austen rejection fiasco (someone recently submitted Austen novels to publishers with characters’ names changed and they were rejected): “Are publishers less perspicacious than they used to be? The first time a version of Pride and Prejudice, called ‘First Impressions’, was offered to a publisher, in 1797, it was rejected – no response but ‘declined by return of post’…

A few years later, Austen tried again, sending Northanger Abbey to a different publisher, Richard Crosby. He paid £10 for it, but didn’t publish it. In 1810, Thomas Egerton agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility on commission: Austen paid for her own printing and some advertising, and it found its readers. But what if Egerton had been of the same mind as Crosby? Of if Austen hadn’t been able to raise the money? Would she have kept trying – like William Golding, submitting and resubmitting Lord of the Flies 22 times? Or, what if, once Austen’s novels were published, no one noticed them? Moby-Dick sold 3180 copies in Melville’s lifetime – only two copies were bought in 1876 – and went out of print; he went to work as Deputy Inspector No. 75 of the United States Custom Service. Posterity made it up to him. But what about when it doesn’t?

I’ve often wondered about the many writers, especially women, most especially women who don’t live in the West, who may have struggled like Austen did, and whose work we don’t know about. Keep reading the article. The last paragraph is priceless. It startes with the sentence, “Many families are haunted by an unrecognised genius…”

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