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How Austen became a household name

To mark the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen on 18 July 1817, the State Library has acquired a suite of rare 1st editions of the author’s writings collated by Scots born, Oxford scholar Robert William Chapman (1881–1960) and credited as establishing Jane Austen’s undisputed literary status in the twentieth century.

This beautiful seven volume set, with original blue marbled paper bindings, paper labels and splendid reproductions of early 19th-century illustrations, is the only complete series of these important scholarly texts held in any Australian state or university library.  The set also includes Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others.

1923 edited of Jane Austen's works by R.W. Chapman and published by Clarendon press in Oxford

The Novels of Jane Austen: Text Based on the Collation of the Early Editions (1923), together with Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others (1932), Oxford, Clarendon Press. 

It may surprise many people to know that the writings of Jane Austen (1775-1817), one of the world’s best known and widely read novelists today, actually brought the author little fame during her lifetime. Now the subject of intense scholarly study and the centre of a diverse fan culture, the reception history of the work of Jane Austen has followed a path from modest fame to wild popularity.

Like many women writers of her day, Austen chose to publish anonymously and only a few of her contemporary readers knew the writer’s true identity. Though her works were considered fashionable by members of high society, they received few reviews at the time of their publication, and were not best-sellers.

Despite Austen’s works being re-published throughout the nineteenth century and remaining in print ever since, between 1821 and 1870 her ‘reading public’ was ‘minute’ compared with the known audience for Charles Dickens and his contemporaries.

The State Library’s David Scott Mitchell collection holds Richard Bentley’s Standard Novels series (1832-1833) of Austen’s works, the edition most likely to have been read by nineteenth century Australian audiences.

Publication of the first significant Austen biography, ‘A Memoir of Jane Austen’, written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1869, introduced Austen to a wider public, dramatically increasing her popularity and critical standing. But it was R.W. Chapman’s early twentieth century collation of Austen’s writings, claimed to be the first scholarly examination of the work of any British novelist that truly propelled the author’s entrenchment within the modern literary academy.

It’s thought that it was Chapman’s wife, Katharine Marion Metcalfe (1887–1978), a young tutor at Oxford’s Somerville College, who first drew her husband’s attention to the years of careless re-printings of Jane Austen’s works. Initially, the couple planned to produce a jointly-edited complete works but this project was cut short by the First World War, in which Chapman served, and Mrs Chapman’s duties of raising a family.

For this seminal work, Chapman collated all the editions published in Austen’s lifetime as well as previously unpublished manuscripts, establishing an authoritative text that retains the punctuation, the spelling, and division into volumes of the originals. In addition, at the end of each work Chapman supplied detailed explanatory notes on textual matters and appendixes on characters or subjects such as modes of address, or carriages and travel, as needed. Published in a limited edition in 1923, with the companion two-volume set of the author’s letters in 1932, these texts have remained the basis for all subsequent modern editions of Jane Austen's works.

R.W. Chapman’s collation of the writings of Jane Austen is significant as an acknowledged milestone in their reception history – preceding the rapid expansion of their reception by the broader reading public in the mid-late twentieth century, and resulting in the cult status enjoyed by Austen works to this day.

- Margot Riley