Although she only lived to 42, Jane Austen wrote some of the most widely read and adapted novels of all-time. However, recent research shows that she earned far less than her contemporaries during her lifetime.
According to documents published by the Bank of England on August 2, Austen’s third published novel, Mansfield Park, sold out its first printing in six months but earned the author just £310, or $26,759 in today’s currency. Even by the standards of the day, the amount was low. By comparison, Maria Edgeworth, a contemporary of Austen’s, received £2,100 for her novel Patronage, which few people without PhDs in old books have heard of.
Furthermore, Sense and Sensibility earned the author just £140. The research provides an interesting look at how Austen was valued in her time but doesn’t do much to explain why she would have been paid so little. The Financial Times notes that even compared to those making their living as full-time adult fiction writers in the U.K. today, Austen’s earnings were pretty paltry: over a lifetime, Austen would have earned just over £45,000, while the average for full-time fiction writers is £37,000 a year. Now I’m pining for an Austen novel about a broke but spirited writer embarrassingly forced into a cottage of reduced circumstances but outshining wealthier contemporaries through the sheer brilliance of her wry drawing-room observations.