I told him that our friend Goldsmith had said to me, that he had come too late into the world, for that Pope and other poets had taken up the places in the Temple of Fame; so that, as but a few at any period can possess poetical reputation, a man of genius can now hardly acquire it. JOHNSON. 'That is one of the most sensible things I have ever heard of Goldsmith. It is difficult to get literary fame, and it is every day growing more difficult.'
James Boswell, The Life of Johnson -- 14 April 1775
In junior high school, a girl in my English class gave a report on Little Women's author Louisa May Alcott, in which she said that Louisa's family had given the young scribbler a set of pencils for her birthday when she was a teenager. The family's gift carried a message. Start writing for money, to help the Alcott finances.
Now my junior high school classmate's research may have been faulty. (It appears, from reading biographies of Alcott, that the standard story is that one day at the age of fifteen, after witnessing some domestic crisis, she went out to her favorite wild place in the woods or fields near her house and vowed "I'll become rich and famous by and by -- I'll write, sew, teach, something -- anything to help the family, see if I don't!" See Alcott in her Own Time, edited by Daniel Shealy.) Regardless, that day in eighth grade marked the first time I had ever heard the idea of anyone's turning to writing for an income. Even then it seemed as absurd an idea as sewing would have been.
But the idea has puzzled me ever since, because I have seen slight evidences here and there to confirm that other people, before the modern era, also surmised that they could earn money writing. Writing books, literary books, not going out and getting a job at a newspaper or magazine and earning money that way. Surely, deciding to write art for money can't ever have been possible. Surely it's the editor who has always decided if you'll publish and earn, not you.
But here are a few tales I can verify: Benjamin Disraeli, a generation earlier than Louisa May Alcott and of a completely different sphere and country, did turn to writing to earn money after plunging himself into serious debt. "He had failed to acquire wealth or power, but he might still acquire fame -- and some much-needed cash -- by the use of his pen" (Robert Blake's Disraeli, St. Martin's Press, 1967). A generation before Disraeli, Jane Austen's father, having read her novels, thought they were worthy of publication. He also believed she should "earn her keep" if she intended to remain unmarried. Her brother agreed (Jane Austen: A Life, by David Nokes). They made inquiries at London publishing firms as to how much it would cost to print Jane's books as, later, Charlotte Bronte would do with regard to her own. Charlotte found out that printing Jane Eyre would swallow up L31,three-quarters of a governess' yearly salary (see The Brontes by Juliet Barker).
Choose another famed nineteenth-century English author: George Eliot. Her men friends submitted her work to the most prestigious magazine of the day, Blackwood's, for her -- they were accepted -- and she enjoyed "long employment as a reviewer," plus work as a translator of up-and-coming books in German. She worried about forwarding her career by "leaning upon a man," but protested to her sister, at the age of thirty-five, that "I cannot bring myself to run the risk of a refusal from an editor" (Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot). Eventually that risk must have been nil, for she went on to produce such gigantisms as Middlemarch, which I doubt any writer would have the valor to set down if publication were not at least half guaranteed. Only Tolstoy would, perhaps.
The confusions of money, submissions, earnings, and fame in the nineteenth century literary world trip up and tangle each other. After Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility made Jane Austen famous, she remarked with relish that she "had written herself into L250" in royalties, not to mention having attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales as a patron. But later her publisher would not buy the copyright of Mansfield Park because he thought the book "too serious" -- he would take it only on commission, meaning she would bear the costs of printing like any newcomer. To sell the copyright to one's novel must have been a joy, the equivalent of a phone call announcing acceptance today. It was also a simple transaction. One sold the copyright forever, but one also made no promises to "market" the book as if it were a small business venture in itself, and the sale may have brought in serious money. Pride and Prejudice earned Austen L110; twenty years earlier, The Mysteries of Udolpho earned Mrs. Radcliffe L500. These sums put a governess' salary, which Charlotte Bronte would have had to raid ruthlessly to offer Jane Eyre to the public at her own expense, into some perspective.