© Jane Austen's House Museum
Jane Austen gave this book to her niece Jane Anna Elizabeth in 1801, inscribing a dedication on the inside cover.
Elegant Extracts was an extremely popular anthology of prose writings by well-known authors, collected by Vicesimus Knox and first published in 1783. Knox followed this in 1789 with a companion anthology of poetry, which included verses by Austen’s favourite poet, William Cowper. Both the prose and poetry Elegant Extracts were abridged and reprinted many times; this one is an edition of the prose volume.
In Emma we hear that Harriet’s suitor, the farmer Robert Martin, reads from Elegant Extracts to his family. Emma is contemptuous of Robert Martin’s intellect, but the information Austen provides about his reading matter suggests that we should admire him for his commitment to self-improvement. Emma, by contrast, draws up a ‘great many lists’ of books she intends to read, but never gets round to doing so (ch. 5).