In 1797, Thomas Cadell received a letter from Jane Austen’s father, George. He asked Cadell if he had any interest in seeing a new manuscript that came in three volumes and was about the same length as Fanny Burney’s Evelina. Without a peek at the work, Cadell decided he wasn’t interested; in response to Geroge, he simply wrote, “declined by Return of Post” across the top of the original letter and dropped it back in the mail.
16 years later, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published.
Why did Cadell pass on one of the most influential novels of the 19th century?
The story, of course, doesn’t end there. Austen went on to write five more full-length novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park were all published by Thomas Egerton, another London publisher, while John Murray earned the rights to her final three works, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion.
For LitHub, Shelley DeWees argues that this glaring oversight is actually no more than a glaring oversight. It would be easy, she says, to attribute this slight to the public perception of women who wrote in the late 1700s; the profession was still for men, and to be a woman who positioned herself as “intellectually superior” to male counterparts didn’t make for an easy-to-market novel.
Cadell & Davies: champions of women’s fiction
But Cadell had a remarkable track record for publishing the work of other revolutionary women writers: He was something of a pioneer in the “women’s fiction” category. In DeWees’s words:
Charlotte Turner Smith, for instance, was one of Cadell’s brightest stars. As the unknown wife of a debtors’ prison inmate, she enjoyed an immense success with her Elegiac Sonnets in 1784. It was published at a rival firm, but Cadell, seemingly smelling opportunity, snatched her away from the competition and printed her next three novel triumphs—Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle, was one of Jane Austen’s favorites—followed by a whirlwind of poetry whose distinct style influenced an entire generation of Romantic-era successors, Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth among them. Cadell also published Catharine Macaulay’s seminal political pamphlet, Loose Remarks on Certain Positions (in the first year of his tenure as Millar’s successor, no less—a commendably quick step forward). Then came Hannah More’s Inflexible Captive, The Excursion by Frances Brooke, Helen Maria Williams’s Edwin and Eltruda, and, in 1782, Fanny Burney’s Cecelia, for which Cadell awarded the authoress £250. The literary market was steadily widening for ladies who wished to see their names in print, and by the time he retired in 1793, Thomas Cadell the Elder represented a great many of the best of them.
What might have been if Pride and Prejudice had been published in 1797, 14 years before Jane Austen burst onto the literary scene? Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, sold out in its first print run; if Austen had made a splash before the turn of the century, who knows how many books we would have?
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