A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History.
Three volumes. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2015. 1373 pp.
Talented writers had always been able to earn a living from their work, but they typically did so by relying upon royal patrons to support them. By the time of Renaissance Europe, however, printed books were becoming common enough, and cheap enough, so large numbers of readers could purchase them, and writers might generate a significant income. While many sorts of books garnered large sales, the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of a new form of book-length narrative that eventually became the specialty of many successful writers—the novel.
Initially, people striving to support themselves by writing novels faced many challenges, as illustrated by the career of English writer Daniel Defoe (1659–1731), whose Robinson Crusoe (1719) is sometimes regarded as the first novel. After some failed business ventures, and political pamphlets that led to his arrest and imprisonment for libel, an aging Defoe turned to writing fiction, though the conventions of the day required him to present his works as the nonfictional autobiographies of their protagonists. With few mechanisms for publicizing works, books of the era featured lengthy titles that functioned as advertisements aimed at prospective customers; hence, the full title of Defoe's breakthrough novel was The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Un-Inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With An Account How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver'd by Pirates.
When the book proved enormously popular, leading to at least five additional editions in the year it was published, one might imagine that Defoe earned a fortune; in actuality, however, authors then only earned money when they first sold a book, so to capitalize on the book's success, Defoe needed to hastily write a sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), with unfortunate results. As his pen raced across the page, Defoe suddenly decided to kill off Crusoe's companion Friday, and while he soon realized he had made a mistake, he had no time to go back and revise his manuscript. Instead, he elevated a minor character, Friday's father, to serve as Friday's replacement, an awkward substitution that failed to satisfy readers who had bonded with Defoe's original duo. Then, unable to produce any further adventures of Crusoe and Friday, Defoe desperately sought additional income with a volume of moralizing essays purported written by Crusoe, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720), that attracted few readers and brought an end to Defoe's efforts to further exploit his most famous creation. Instead, Defoe turned to writing the life stories of other fictional characters, including the popular Moll Flanders (1722), but he always felt obliged to write at a breakneck pace; one month after the highly publicized execution of criminal Jonathan Wild (ca. 1682–1725), for example, Defoe had already churned out and published a fictional autobiography, Jonathan Wild (1725), that few people other than literary scholars read today. Defoe ultimately returned to writing nonfiction before ongoing financial difficulties drove him into obscurity and poverty by the time of his death in 1731.
If Defoe's sad life illustrated the pitfalls of being a full-time eighteenth-century novelist, another writer, Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), showed that it could be an attractive part-time profession. By the time he published his first novel, Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Richardson was already a successful printer, so he was under no pressure to write hurriedly to pay his bills. His book was written as a series of letters from a maid who resists the amorous advances of her employer until he finally marries her, and while its success inspired Richardson to quickly offer readers a second volume of her letters, describing the events after her marriage, he then spent several years working on his second epistolary novel, Clarissa (1749), usually acknowledged as the longest novel in the English language. Less fortunate than Pamela, its title character refuses to marry a young aristocrat, is raped by the scorned suitor, and dies after succumbing to depression and disease, shocking and saddening the many readers who had eagerly followed her saga while it sequentially unfolded in seven volumes. As an established printer, Richardson also had the business savvy and clout to avoid the problems that afflicted Defoe; so, when he learned that Irish printers were preparing an illegal edition of his third novel The History of Charles Grandison (1753), he hastily contracted with other printers to get the authentic edition published first, so the pirates could not profit from his work. Responding to complaints that his previous books had focused only on virtuous women, the hero of this novel is a morally upright man, sometimes characterized as Richardson's response to the roguish protagonists of another rising novelist, Henry Fielding (1707–1754), best known for his The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). At the age of sixty-four, Richardson then retired from writing.
As other writers began to write novels, they generally emulated Richardson by working in other professions and writing in their spare time; thus, Fielding was a magistrate; Tobias Smollett (1721–1771), a physician; Laurence Sterne (1713–1968), a clergyman; Horace Walpole (1717–1797) and Matthew Lewis (1775–1818), members of Parliament; and Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), a lawyer. One of the first American novelists, Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810), had also begun his career as a lawyer, but later garnered supplemental income by editing two magazines while writing his novels. But there were also novelists like Oliver Goldsmith (1730–1774), who unsuccessfully pursued several careers before resolving to emulate Defoe and support himself entirely as a writer. This meant that he was obliged to work rapidly on many undistinguished projects that are now forgotten, though he contrived to spend more time on the works he is now remembered for, such as the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and the poem "The Deserted Village" (1770). Some suspect, though, that the stress of incessant writing may have contributed to Goldsmith's early death at the age of forty-four.
These men were joined by a number of women, since writing novels then represented one of the few ways that a woman could earn a substantial income, though generally these female novelists were also supported by their families or spouses. The most successful of these was Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823), whose husband provided her with a comfortable life, though she used money from her novels to finance their extensive vacations; a later novelist, Jane Austen (1775–1817), lived with her family for her entire life. But other female novelists contrived to support themselves: Fanny Burney (1752–1840) initially spurned suitors and instead accepted a position at the court of King George III (1738–1820), whose wife admired her novels, though she later married and resigned her position; and although a young Mary Shelley (1797–1851) had no financial worries while she was married to aristocratic poet Percy Blythe Shelley (1792–1822), she was obliged after his death to write novels to make money.
Indeed, by the time Shelley emerged in the early nineteenth century, writing novels was finally becoming a reliable full-time profession: thanks to increasing demand, more regular business practices, growing numbers of public libraries, and connections to international markets, the money to be earned from popular books was greater than ever. Furthermore, novels were now openly presented as works of fiction, with authors' names prominently displayed on their covers, and popular novelists could earn additional income by going on lecture tours, reading excerpts from their novels and offering their thoughts on the issues of the day. The British Charles Dickens (1812–1870) was the first of these celebrity novelists, emulated most notably by a later American, Mark Twain (1835–1910). Major novelists were also prospering in France, Germany, Russia, and other nations. Yet writing novels as a career had downsides as well as rewards, as described in one novel, New Grub Street (1891), by professional novelist George Gissing (1857–1903). While a cynical writer named Jasper Milvain achieves success by pursuing and marrying a wealthy widow, a more idealistic novelist, Edwin Reardon, has a sadder life; unable to earn enough money from his craft, he loses his wife, his health, and ultimately his life. Certainly, with hordes of people now competing to become popular novelists, and with the chances of enormous profits smaller than ever, this is not a career choice that wise counselors can recommend; however, for a lucky few with talent and determination, being a novelist has indeed brought fame and fortune, and despite the odds, many others will continue seeking to follow in their distinguished footsteps.
Armstrong, Nancy. 1987. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press.
Deane, Bradley. 2003. The Making of the Victorian Novelist: Anxieties of Authorship in the Mass Marketplace. New York: Routledge.
Richetti, John J. 1999. The English Novel in History, 1700–1780. London and New York: Routledge.
Rogers, Mary F. 1991. Novels, Novelists, and Readers: Toward a Phenomenological Sociology of Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Sutherland, John. 2011. Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives. London: Profile.
Watt, Ian. 2001. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Second American edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Sequels, Not Equals
From Sterne, Laurence. 1859. Letter to Robert Dodsley. In The Life and Letters of Laurence Sterne. By Lewis Samuel Benjamin (as Lewis Melville).1911. London: S. Paul & Company.
In this letter to a publisher, novelist Laurence Sterne proposes to subsidize the publication of the first two volumes of his novel Tristam Shandy(1759-1767), displaying a good awareness of the realities of the book publishing business, and he concludes with some comments about some changes he made to the book to make it more "saleable."
From Gissing, George. 1891. New Grub Street. Volume II. London: Smith, Elder, & Company
In this excerpt from his novel, author George Gissing describes the agony experienced by one of his characters, a novelist, as he struggles to complete another novel.
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