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Jane Austen imitations rejected by publishers

Feature by Lizzie Guilfoyle

IF A prank by an aspiring author is anything to go by, then three of Jane Austen’s novels would not have been published today.

David Lassman, director of the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath, sent his “new” manuscripts to 18 publishers or literary agents. They were, however, anything but new. The opening chapters were, in fact, word-for-word copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Only the titles and character’s names had been changed.

And despite storylines of feisty heroines and handsome heroes in Regency England, the nom de plume Alison Laydee (Austen originally wrote under the pseudonym ‘A Lady’) and the author’s return address the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, only one of the 18 recipients saw the manuscripts for what they were – a hoax. The others, it seems, rejected them outright.

Of First Impressions, Austen’s original title for Pride and Prejudice, literary agency Christopher Little which represents JK Rowling, said it was “not confident of placing this material with a publisher.”

And although Penguin, which publishes all Austen’s works as Penguin Classics, conceded that “It seems like a really original and interesting read”, they rejected it nonetheless.

However, speaking in their defence a Penguin spokesman said, “We don’t take anything that is not agency-led so I doubt the person would even have read it.”

While Neil Blair for Christopher Little explained, “Our internal notes did recognise similarities with existing works and indeed there were even discussions about plagiarism. We chose the less controversial approach and one that was designed to end the chain of communication.”

Not fooled though, was Alex Bowler, assistant editor at Jonathan Cape who replied, “ Thank you for sending us the first two chapters of First Impressions; my first impressions were of disbelief and mild annoyance, along, of course, with a moment’s laughter.

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 the book’s opening.”

But with rejections also from Random House, Hodder and Stroughton, Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins, Lassman admitted to being “staggered”. And he said, “Here is one of our greatest writers, and yet only one recognised these as Austen’s work. Their letters were at best mildly apologetic and at worst completely indifferent and rejecting.”

All of which led him to the conclusion that new writers have a hard time getting noticed.