Rare first edition of 'Emma' up for auction


A RARE first edition of Jane Austen’s Emmasent by the author to the Irish writer Maria Edgeworth is to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London today.

The book, containing Edgeworth’s ownership signature on the title page, is unique in being the only copy of the novel given by the English author to a fellow writer, and has a guide price of between £70,000 and £100,000 (€84,000 and €120,000).

Published in 1815, the novel charts the failed matchmaking exploits of its eponymous heroine Emma Woodhouse, and was the last book Austen published before her death in 1817 at the age of 42.

Jane Austen’s admiration for her older Irish contemporary, who was a considerably more successful writer at the time, has been well documented.

In 1814, she wrote to her niece Anna Austen: “I have made up my mind to like no novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, yours and my own.”

Edgeworth, one of the foremost intellectuals of the time, grew up under the tutelage of her polymath father on the family estate in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford.

Her chief contribution to the literary canon was the novel, Castle Rackrent, a biting satire on Anglo-Irish landlords and their mismanagement of estates.

Published anonymously in 1800, the book caused a sensation, coinciding with the heated Act of Union debates in the soon-to-be defunct Irish parliament.

The book is credited with being the first “historical” novel in attempting to accurately portray the social customs of the time, in contrast to many of its melodramatic contemporaries.

It also used the concept of an unreliable narrator, which was to become one of the hallmarks of the modernist movement.

On receiving her copy of Emma from Austen in 1815, Edgeworth wrote to her aunt: “The authoress of Pride and Prejudicehas been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma.”

Whether Edgeworth returned the English writer’s admiration remains a matter of debate.

Sotheby’s literature expert Peter Selley said no part of the original manuscript of Emma is known to have survived and first editions of the book in the original publisher’s bindings are rare.

However, he said the item’s link to Edgeworth and “the rich associations between the two families” makes it unique.