Three extremely rare first edition Jane Austen novels will be auctioned on Wednesday, with the top bid estimated at around $80,000.

Jane Austen – one of the greats, so great that she is hardly considered a writer so much as an industry, a corporation, a content machine for Netflix, with her countless millions of admirers known as Janeites who guarantee that her books will be read for as long as there is language – wrote six completed novels, four published in her lifetime. She died in 1817 at 42.

The lots at the Dunbar Sloane online auction of antiquarian books this week are her first novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811), and her two final novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published posthumously as a set. They were her first to bear her name; Sense and Sensibility‘s author is listed only as “by a Lady”. The books are from deceased estates in Nelson and Hawkes Bay.

“Money”, wrote Jane Austen, “can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it.” Yes but it certainly helps to have a lot of it to land a copy of Sense and Sensibility. Only 750 copies were printed of her debut novel. The starting bid is $30,000, and the auction house estimate it as going for between $40,000-$80,000. The two posthumously published novels have a starting bid of $24,000, and Dunbar Sloane anticipate that final bids will soar to $30,000-$50,000.

Anthony Gallagher from the Wellington offices of Dunbar Sloane said that interest has been received from a bidder in Christchurch, and two others in London and Germany. The price is dependent on condition and provenance.

The most expensive Austen book ever sold at auction was a first edition of Emma, which went for £375,000 in the UK last year.

Other items at the auction include an undertakers receipt for the return of Richard Seddon’s body to New Zealand, and an 1860 Latin edition of the life of St Justin, edited by a fellow called Braunius!

Bidding for the Austen books in New Zealand will begin on Wednesday morning. There are a number of other interesting items at the auction – two issues of Te Manukura (Te Reo O Nga Morehu): The Maori People’s Newspaper from 1923, an original 1906 undertakers receipt for the return of Richard Seddon’s body to New Zealand, and an 1860 Latin  edition of the life of St Justin, martyr, edited by a fellow called Braunius! (misspelled as Braunias in the catalogue; I wonder why) – but the star, the main attraction, are lots 0267 and 0268, the Austen books.

Jane Austen, described as a teenager by a malicious neighbour as “the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly I ever remember”; Jane Austen, drubbed by her contemporary, Thomas Carlyle, as the author of “dismal trash” and “dishwashings”; Jane Austen, industrious and determined, going about her work despite English food (“Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb”, she wrote in a letter), despite the interruptions of her eldest brother when he was a clergyman in his forties (“walking about the House & banging the doors”), and despite the long silence after she wrote the first drafts of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey by the time she was 25 – she then wrote almost nothing for 10 years, after her parents abruptly decided to leave their home in Steventon and moved to Bath. She resumed her work at 34.

A recent medical paper points to a fatal Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer, as the cause of her early death. A niece recorded seeing her Aunt Jane walking outdoors, “with head a little to one side, and sometimes a very small cushion pressed against her cheek, if she were suffering from face-ache, as she not unfrequently did in later life”.

Short life, immortal reputation. Bidding will open on Wednesday morning for her first editions, the contemporary physical evidence from her own lifetime of her genius.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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