Illustration for article titled Despite Being a Best-Selling Author, Jane Austen Was Paid Very Little
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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.

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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.

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DISCUSSION

Jane Austen’s career was badly managed, in part by her brother, at a time when there was just the bare sliver of social change allowing “respectable” women to write (thank Frances Burney in large part for that). She published anonymously, as “a lady” and “the author of Sense and Sensibility” etc., in part because being an author could call negative attention to a woman. She tried to get books published by sending them to publishers, and she obviously took herself seriously, but she was rejected, and a manuscript was purchased but went unpublished and she had to buy it back—she was trying but up against bullshit. It also really sounds like her family—upon whom she was financially dependent—was not interested in her being an author first/good woman second. And her popularity was a slow burn, too. People liked Sense and Sensibility, they liked Pride and Prejudice (it’s worth noting that Mansfield Park was not a success, largely because it was far too political and critical of the slave trade—it’s also the least fun of the books—so she made what she made from that book in part because of her previous but just-building popularity). She wouldn’t really become JANE AUSTEN until after her death (oddly, her family identified her as the author of her books on her tombstone, and had her interred in Winchester Cathedral, creating this space for posthumous fame when she didn’t have it in life). Her sister Cassandra knew that the fame was coming and destroyed anything incriminating in her letters (damn you Cassandra ;-) ). But our sense of the great Jane Austen just didn’t register. And comparing her to a working-poor author in today’s terms just doesn’t make sense. She wasn’t making her living off of books; she was putting her energy into her books when she could grab some time from family demands.