There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the titled characters in Austen’s fiction. Occasionally, one will hear someone claim that Austen focused her stories on ‘the aristocracy’. That’s a mistaken, or at least a misplaced, characterization. Austen’s books actually provide little mention of the aristocracy. We’ve tended to overrate the level of wealth and status depicted in Austen’s fiction.
From a modern perspective, the fine distinctions between 19th century English social classes can seem difficult to grasp.
The major categories that organized the upper echelons of Britain’s social hierarchy in this era were royalty, aristocracy, nobility, and gentry. These words are not synonyms. The term royalty signals the royal family—so, the reigning monarch, and his or her immediate family, children, and grandchildren. Before 2015, in Great Britain, royal male children took precedence over females in the line of succession to the throne. But in the absence of a royal male heir, a royal female heir could reign as queen, as often happened in the past.
Royalty in Austen’s Work
Austen certainly knew her royal history. She made snarky jokes about previous kings and queens and their heavy drama in her short, humorous juvenile work, The History of England. For example, here’s her assessment of King Henry VI—“I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense—Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian.” It’s a joke, but she’s ridiculing the king’s reasonableness and intelligence.
But, in her finished works of fiction, Austen rarely even acknowledges the existence of royalty, with one signal exception: the dedication to her 1816 novel, Emma. While Emma was in press, Austen received an invitation to dedicate her next work to the Prince Regent. He was said to be an avowed fan of her fiction. But an invitation from royalty wasn’t something to be taken as a gentle, offhand suggestion. It was a virtual command.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Prince Regent
So, who was the Prince Regent? In the years during which Austen’s novels were published, Britain’s prince regent was Prince George Augustus Frederick, the eldest child of King George III and Queen Charlotte. The Prince Regent gives his name to the period: The Regency. Being a regent means ruling in the stead of an absent or incapacitated monarch.
Britain’s King George III was declared mentally incapacitated. His son, the Prince of Wales, took over as regent, from 1811 to 1820. Then, after King George III died in 1820, the Prince Regent ascended to the throne to become King George IV. The Prince Regent and King George IV are the same person, ruling in two different capacities, across almost two decades.
During Austen’s lifetime, he was known as the Prince of Wales and then as the Prince Regent, mockingly nicknamed ‘Prinny’. He was a controversial figure, due to his reputation for arrogance and wastefulness. He was also an apparent avid reader of new fiction. The Prince Regent was one of the first purchasers of Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, as a researcher discovered, from new archival evidence, in 2018.
Dedication to Prince Regent
The Prince Regent was apparently reading Austen’s fiction from the very beginning, in 1811. Four years later, he learned through the grapevine the name of the author of these anonymously published novels, probably from gossip spread by Austen’s proud brother, Henry Austen. That resulted in the royal librarian hosting Jane Austen for a visit, although she didn’t meet the Prince Regent. But the Regent’s invitation to dedicate her next novel to him grew out of that visit with the librarian.
Austen wrote the dedication to Emma in this way: “To His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s permission, most respectfully dedicated, by His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant, The Author.” Most critics today read this dedication as so formulaic and cliched as to be positively lukewarm. In fact, one critic calls it almost an ‘anti-dedication’.
The tone of the dedication is perfectly polite, of course, but its repetition is over the top. Austen gets three repetitions of the honorific ‘Royal Highness’ into her dedication in a mere 29 words! That’s a fifth of the entire dedication! Even if she hadn’t said in private letter that she hated the Prince Regent—her direct quote in that letter, in defense of the Princess of Wales, is “I hate her husband”—it would be obvious that this was underwhelming as an expression of enthusiasm.
The larger point here is this: Other than one compulsory, quasi-dedication to the Prince Regent, prefixed to Emma, Austen’s published novels make scant reference to royalty. They feature no royal characters at all. Again, royal here would usually be taken to mean the royal family: kings and queens, their children, their grandchildren, and spouses.
Common Questions about Jane Austen, Social Hierarchy, and the Dedication to the Prince Regent
In the years during which Austen’s novels were published, Britain’s Prince Regent was Prince George Augustus Frederick, eldest child of King George III and Queen Charlotte.
Prince George Augustus Frederick was the eldest child of King George III and Queen Charlotte. During Austen’s lifetime, he was known as the Prince of Wales and then as the Prince Regent, mockingly nicknamed ‘Prinny’.
While Emma was in press, Jane Austen received an invitation to dedicate her next work to the Prince Regent. Austen wrote the dedication to Emma in this way: “To His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s permission, most respectfully dedicated, by His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant, The Author.”