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Jane Austen Gets the Thumbs Down

2 September, 2007

David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, decided to strike back when a number of publishers rejected his novel. Using a pseudonym, he sent the opening chapter and plot synopsis of Pride and Prejudice to major British publishers and literary agents. He titled his offering First Impressions, Austen’s original title for Pride and Prejudice. Lassman tinkered with the story a little, but did not change the famous opening line: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

No one accepted his manuscript and only one person recognized the borrowing. Penguin Books, which republished Pride and Prejudice last year, wrote to him that the work was an ‘original and interesting read’ but not right for the company.

Alex Bowler, assistant editor at Jonathan Cape, recognized what he was reading. He wrote to Lassman as follows. ‘I suggest you reach for your copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I’d guess lives in close proximity to your typewriter, and make sure that your opening pages don’t too closely mimic that book’s opening—there is, after all, such a thing as plagiarism, and I’d hate for you to get in any kind of trouble with Jane Austen’s estate. All the best, and thanks for a truly exceptional submission.’

Lassman suggests that his experiment shows that if Austen were living today, she too would have trouble finding a publisher. His view does not take into account how literary styles have changed in the nearly 200 years since Pride and Prejudice was published (1813).

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