Virginia Woolf, not looking terribly exercised about her income. Credit: Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The way we were: writers take stock

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
November 14, 2018
1899. Arnold Bennett writes in his journal and, as was his habit at the end of every year, sums up his working life:

“This year I have written 335,340 words, grand total: 228 articles and stories (including four instalments of a serial called Gates of Wrath of 30,000 words—7,500 words each) have actually been published. Also my book of plays—Polite Farces. I have written six or eight short stories not yet published or sold. Also the greater part of a 55,000-word serial—Love and Life for Tillotson, which begins publication about April next year. Also the whole draft (80,000 words) of my Staffordshire novel Anna Tellwright. My total earnings were £592 3s. 1d [the equivalent of about £63,000 today], of which sum I have yet to receive £72 10s.”

1930. Virginia Woolf notes in her diary:

“When we make up our six months accounts, we found I had made about £3,020 [£180,000] last year—the salary of a civil servant; a surprise to me, who was content with £200 [£12,000] for so many years. But I shall drop very heavily I think. The Waves won’t sell more than 2,000 copies.”

1946. George Orwell tells the literary magazine, Horizon, how much money a writer needs to live on:

“At the present purchasing value of money, I think £10 [£400] a week after payment of income tax is a minimum for a married man, and perhaps £6 a week for an unmarried man. The best income for a writer, I should say is about £1,000 [£40,000] a year. With that he can live in reasonable comfort, free from duns and the necessity to do hack-work, without having the feeling that he has definitely moved into the privileged class.”

1949. Raymond Chandler in La Jolla, California, writes to a friend:

“I have no idea what income I can count on. I am cutting my own throat by using up my time and energies doing things that have nothing to do with writing. But I can’t make any stable arrangements until I know where and how I am going to live. I don’t see how any writer except a writer of best-sellers, which I am not likely to be, can exist other than in the most modest way without either Hollywood money or a steady stream of serials in the big magazines. If I write a book a year I can probably depend on an income of $25,000 [the equivalent of £210,000], but that wouldn’t pay my way here. Gosh, when I think what that income would have bought when I was a schoolboy in England. A mansion standing in large grounds, three or four servants, a full-time gardener and coachman, a couple of fine horses for the Victoria and the Brougham, and so on.”