James Edward Austen-Leigh, in his Memoir of Jane Austen, 1871, recounts his aunt Jane’s comments before she began writing Emma:
“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
Indeed, in many ways, the eponymous heroine of Jane Austen’s novel is a rather privileged and spoilt young woman who does enjoy meddling in other people’s lives, considering matchmaking, “…the greatest amusement in the world”. However, as Janet Todd points out, the novel is also a witty insight into the tedium of early 19th century village life and “…how to make it bearable.”
It was exactly this topic of tedium which some of the first readers of the work objected to. Austen sent a complimentary copy of the work to the writer Maria Edgeworth. Edgeworth read only the first volume and proceeded to complain that, “There was no story in it…” Another review rather blandly called the book, “…amusing, inoffensive and well principled.” There was no second edition of the work produced within Jane Austen’s lifetime.
Other readers, such as the Countess of Morley, did appreciate Austen’s gentle humour and the subtleties within Emma.
“I am already become intimate with the Woodhouse family, and feel they will not amuse and interest me less than the Bennetts… I can give them no higher praise.” - The Countess of Morley in a letter to Jane Austen
Of course, Jane Austen had become well-known and respected long before the publication of Emma, as the title-page of the work shows, reading, “BY THE AUTHOR OF “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” Austen’s work was especially loved by the Prince Regent, later George IV, who invited her, via one of his physicians who was attending to Austen’s brother, to visit his library at Carlton House. Apparently, the prince kept a set of Austen’s novels, “in every one of his residences.” Mr Clarke, the prince’s librarian, duly showed Austen around the library, and finally requested that she dedicate her next work to the prince. As Emma was in the press at the time, the dedication had to be speedily added on.
2000 copies of the work were printed in 1816, and 1250 were sold within the first year. This copy was remarkable for the fact that it is in the original boards issued with the volumes, rather than having been rebound by an owner (as was customary at the time). An excellent copy of a wonderfully subtle and entertaining work that went on to fetch a world record price of £48,050 (premium inclusive).