Deborah Yaffe

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Austen's pewter

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 12 2019 01:00PM

Jane Austen, her brother Henry would have us believe, didn’t care about making money. “She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination,” Henry Austen wrote in 1817, in the biographical note appended to the posthumously published first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. “Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.”


Austen herself was franker about her financial ambitions. “People are more ready to borrow & praise than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight four months after the publication of Mansfield Park. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” (Letter #114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence)


Conventional wisdom holds that poor Jane Austen earned barely a pittance from her work (Egad! She sold the copyright of perennial bestseller Pride and Prejudice for a mere £110!), and sometimes it does seem as if everyone has made money off her work except Austen herself. What Janeite – after perusing the groaning shelves of Austen paperbacks, streaming yet another filmed Austen adaptation, or buying the latest Austen-themed tote bag, fridge magnet, or coloring book -- hasn’t sighed over the unfairness of it all?


New research using Bank of England archives shows that the picture is a bit more complicated, however. In a piece published online earlier this month, independent scholar John Avery Jones, a retired judge, concluded that Austen earned a lifetime total of £631 pounds before tax, or £575 after tax, which he calculates is the equivalent of £45,000 (about $54,600) in today’s money.


Jones’ ingenious research draws on indexes of stock sales and prices, as well as contemporary income tax rates. Unlike earlier scholars, who based their calculations of Austen’s earnings on estimates of her proceeds from book sales, Jones looks at how much she was able to invest in “the Navy Fives” -- government securities sold to the Regency public at a discount, rather like today’s savings bonds.


Jane Austen’s career as a published writer lasted only six years, from the 1811 appearance of Sense and Sensibility until her death in 1817, and Jones’ calculations seem to cover the income only from the four books published during that span. Pro-rated across six years, Jones’ number works out to a yearly income of $9,100. It’s not a lot, certainly – and, as Jones notes, some of her contemporaries earned more from their writing.


But it’s enough to be proud of – and we know that Austen was. “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold,” she wrote to her brother Frank in September 1813 (Letter #86). “I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.”


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