Living as an Author in the Romantic Period: a K-SAA ‘What Are You Reading?’ Special: Part 1
We’ve been delighted to have so many wonderful contributors to our ‘What Are You Reading?’ series on the K-SAA Blog. Today, we present a post by Dr Matthew Sangster to mark the publication of his monograph Living as an Author in the Romantic Period.
Part of the Palgrave series Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print, the book uses previously-underutilised archives to show that during the Romantic period, authorship operated principally as a relatively restricted social system, rather than a profession or mode of artistic practice.
Described by critics as ‘field-changing’ and ‘a compelling revision of the standard account of the advent of professional authorship in the early nineteenth century’, Sangster’s work is an exciting exploration of authors’ practices in the Romantic period, examining subjects such as literary networks, periodical culture, political coteries, and much more.
In the book, Sangster talks about the high cost of literary volumes in the Romantic period and explains how such prices would limit the audience to a ‘small and elite’ readership (p. 51). Below, he briefly explores how this fact influences the study overall, and what some of the consequences were for different groups of authors (especially the less privileged who needed to earn a living). Check back tomorrow when we put more questions to the author about his book, as well as asking about some of the most important critical studies he’s read. K-SAA members and friends may also be interested in the forthcoming event: ‘Glasgow Romantic Studies Book Celebration’ on 22 April – free, online and open to all.
In many respects, the high cost of literary volumes and their ‘small and elite’ readerships were the starting points for this project. I’d been reading William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period and had been surprised by the very low print runs for many books we’d now consider major works of the early nineteenth century. The number of copies produced generally didn’t seem sufficient to provide authors with any kind of liveable income. Once I started my PhD and began to work with primary sources, particularly the John Murray and Longman Archives, the evidence there seemed to confirm this. There were a few prominent exceptions, but most publishers’ payments to literary authors were modest until the technologically-facilitated growth of audiences and periodicals during the 1820s and 1830s.
There was a lot of authorly grumbling about remuneration – in 1835, for example, William Wordsworth complained to Thomas Moore that over forty years of publishing he had earned ‘not above £1000’. The surviving evidence in the Longman Archive indicates that this probably isn’t too inaccurate in terms of direct payments for his poetry. Obviously, Wordsworth and his household couldn’t live on £25 or so a year, so this leads us to ask how he supported himself (through inheritances, patronage and eventually his well-paid position as Distributor of Stamps) and what he sought to gain from writing poetry (the new kind of sharpened aesthetic satisfaction that he theorised, but also the forms of social recognition that allowed him to secure his income). While Wordsworth distained those ‘who will converse with us as gravely about a taste for Poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing’, his career was quite heavily contingent on persuading such tastemakers of his value and then working to alter their sense of what poetry should do. This was something he could only do due to his relatively privileged social position and the networks of support that he built up.
As the book explores, the idea that you could make a living by writing was present in the culture by the late eighteenth century, but was in most cases a chimera, and one that could be extremely dangerous. In his perceptive miscellany Calamities of Authors (1812), Isaac D’Israeli contended that
It will be found that the most successful Author can obtain no equivalent for the labours of his life […] Authors themselves never discover this melancholy truth till they have yielded to an impulse, and adopted a profession, too late in life to resist the one, or abandon the other. Whoever labours without hope, a painful state to which Authors are at length reduced, may surely be placed among the most injured class in the community. Most Authors close their lives in apathy or despair, and too many live by means which few of them would not blush to describe.
My book demonstrates that this characterisation was largely accurate. Studying the applications to the Royal Literary Fund between 1790 and 1830 shows that most authors who tried to live by the pen failed to translate rhetorics of value into a comfortable reality. Of nearly 700 authors who applied to the Fund in this period, 247 are now in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, so those who struggled include many writers with valuable and enduring legacies.
The limited market for literary works meant that building a successful authorial career was heavily contingent on access to other kinds of income. Someone like Robert Bloomfield, who in The Farmer’s Boy achieved one of the genuine popular successes of the period, was unable to sustain his success on a personal level because of preconceptions among relatively privileged audiences about what he was capable of. When Bloomfield was granted an annuity by the Duke of Grafton, the sum considered appropriate was £15; by contrast, the Wedgwood brothers gave Coleridge £150 a year to help realise his potential. Coleridge’s reputation among the eminent meant he received paid invitations to lecture, the position at Malta, the chance to have a play staged at Drury Lane, and £100 a year from the Royal Society of Literature during the 1820s (this last for doing very little). This is not to say that Coleridge was undeserving, but it is important to highlight that his appeal to and relationships with an elite readership who he could approach on relatively equal terms meant that his talents were recognised in manners denied to writers like Bloomfield, or Charlotte Smith, or Felicia Hemans. Profiting from writing was far more straightforward if you were a gentleman of promise who could write to make a name supported by other incomes than if you were someone like the gothic novelist Eliza Parsons, struggling to bring up a large family in unfavourable circumstances, or the prolific but misfortunate Robert Heron, who failed to parlay acknowledged talent into a secure situation.
While literary writing in the Romantic period was beginning to gesture towards the kind of open, democratic values we now like to associate with it, in practice, it was a field that was tightly mediated both by economic realities and by vested interests. When we consider the works of Romantic-period authors, therefore, we should not only think about what they appear to be saying, but also take into consideration how their writers placed (or failed to place) themselves in positions where it might be affordable or profitable to speak in literary registers.
Matthew Sangster is a Senior Lecturer in Romantic Studies, Fantasy and Cultural History at the University of Glasgow, UK. He has published widely on Enlightenment libraries, literary institutions, Romantic metropolitanism, media culture and the affordances of Fantasy. @MJRSangster