Essays and Notable Articles

How Will I Live? Fame, Money, Day Jobs, and Fiction Writing.

By posted at 6:00 am on April 16, 2015 15

In 1782, the year she turned 30, Frances Burney was a single, successful chick-lit author with not one, but two bestsellers to her name. Fans pointed and stared at her when she went out to public places. They stood up and made a fuss when she entered rooms. They routinely addressed her as “Evelina” or “Cecilia” — which is sort of like the 18th-century equivalent of going up to Helen Fielding and calling her “Bridget.” She was only 26 when her first novel was published. Reviews were good, sales were even better, and since the book was published anonymously, all of London was scrambling to find out who’d written this delightful romp in which a beautiful if incredibly naïve young woman comes to the big city for the first time, buys some new clothes, and gets swarmed by suitors both true and faux.

coverOnce the mystery was solved — once everyone figured out that this year’s It Novel, Evelina: Or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World, had been written by the relatively uneducated middle-class daughter of a music teacher — Fanny began living the dream. Suddenly, she was A-list, awash in cool parties and blind script deals. In January of 1779, Richard Brinsley Sheridan – essentially the Judd Apatow of his time — encouraged her to write a comedy, agreeing that he would take any play of hers sight unseen for the Drury Lane.

And she wasn’t just a one-book wonder.

covercoverThe day before her 30th birthday, she published her second novel — Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress — in which another beautiful if incredibly naïve young woman comes to the big city for the first time, buys some new clothes, and gets swarmed by suitors both true and faux. Teeming with parties, socialites, new hats, degenerate gamblers, and languid metrosexuals, Cecilia was twice as long as Fanny’s first book, three times more complicated, and — much to everyone’s surprise — it was an even bigger and more spectacular commercial success. Everywhere Fanny went that year, people wanted to talk to her about it. Princesses were reading it. Dowager duchesses. Milliners. Bishops. Members of Parliament. In October of 1782, while she was in Brighton with her BFF Hester Thrale, as relayed in Margaret Anne Doody’s biography Frances Burney, she wrote to her favorite sister, Susanna:

You would suppose me something dropt from the Skies. Even if Richardson or Fielding could rise from the Grave, I should bid fair for supplanting them in the popular Eye, for being a fair female, I am accounted quelque chose extraordinaire.

And she was.

She was something extraordinary.

At that particular point in world history — since Jane Austen was only 7 years old — she was the most successful female novelist currently alive on the planet.

coverBut of course her glittering fame and success didn’t last. Eight years later, by December of 1790, she was wasting away and near death from some nonspecific “feverish illness” of the sort spinsters were particularly wont to get back then. Opium was prescribed. And, as Burney noted in her Journals and Letters, “three glasses of wine in the day.” She was still writing, but she was writing blank-verse tragedies with exhausting and ridiculous titles like Edwy and Elvira. And it’s not like people were lining up to read these blank-verse tragedies.

So what happened in those eight missing years to make a well-reviewed, commercially successful author fall so far so fast? Heartbreak? Rehab? Addiction to designer shoes?


She took the wrong day job.

There’s been a flutter of articles in the past several months on the sheer impossibility of earning a living wage from writing fiction. This is a quandary that plagues all artists: male, female, old, young. In L.A., where many writers are union-repped and writing for a screen of some sort, real numbers are bandied about quite bluntly ­– both in conversation and on Deadline Hollywood — but in the more refined sectors of the print economy, the main question no one wants to ask but everyone wants answered is quite simple: How are you supporting yourself? Is there a husband? A day job? A trust fund? If you write literary fiction, do you teach? If you’re in your 20s, do your parents pay your rent? At the end of March, The New York Times Book Review took on the subject in its Bookends column, asking, “Do money woes spur creativity, or do they stifle it?” Back in January, the novelist Ann Bauer wrote a piece in Salon owning up to the fact that her solution is a husband with good money and medical benefits. In December, Nell Zink addressed the question in the Paris Review blog and came down firmly in favor of nonliterary day jobs: “My main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think.” Also in December, Liz Entman Harper published a roundtable in The Morning News in which she gathered seven writers who “have to keep one foot firmly outside of the literary world to get by.” Old standbys like teaching and journalism were represented, but other participants included a lawyer, a professor of psychiatry, a full-time United Methodist pastor, and a private investigator. They commiserated on the stresses and strain of working two shifts, but also pointed out the occasional benefits of cross-pollination between “jobby-job” and writing. One even posited that actually liking your job may be the secret sauce that makes the whole thing work. In the words of Christine Montross, “If you’re in a job that you hate and that drains you, I imagine it would be harder to find the energy or stamina to write in the off hours.”

Which brings me back to my 18th-century case in point.

The year was 1786. England’s most successful female novelist was 34 and unmarried. Lacking a Hollywood shark of an agent, she had sold her first novel outright for £20. Her father, a successful author in his own right, negotiated for her on her second, and it went for much higher — £250. But plays were how writers made real money back then, and the comedy Fanny wrote at Sheridan’s behest was never produced because her father/agent got cold feet about the impropriety of a lady writing for the stage. The cruel irony of this is that in the Downton Abbey sense of the word, Fanny wasn’t a lady. Her father wasn’t a gentlweman who lived off earned family income. He worked for a living — teaching music to society girls and writing — and so when Fanny’s fame and a friend’s connection brought her the “honor” of a royal appointment as Second Keeper of the Robes in the court of Queen Charlotte, it was virtually impossible for her to say no to the income and prestige it would bring her family. The plus of Fanny’s unusual day job — at least by the Nell Zink standard — was that it didn’t require her to think or write. And it came with a place to stay — an actual palace/castle. But it was poorly chosen because Burney hated it and the hours were insanely long: roughly 6am to midnight, day in and day out. Sure, there was health care — smelling salts, “the bark,” etc — but no vacation days, no weekends off. Nothing to do while the King was going mad.

Because, you know, back then it wasn’t considered appropriate to start composing your tell-all memoir while you were still on the celebrity payroll.

Arguably, the money was a draw. Two hundred a year, plus a footman and a maid. The servants make this difficult to calculate in modern-day dollars, although in Jane Austen dollars it’s not enough to marry on. I suspect that it was good not great — probably something vaguely comparable to what I used to make back in the late ’90s when I was a struggling, 20-something Hollywood assistant who accidentally stumbled upon the Everyman’s Library edition of The Diary of Fanny Burney in the stacks of the Beverly Hills Public Library. At the time, I had just moved from Chicago to L.A. with two suitcases and half a Seinfeld spec, and virtually all of my non-working hours were spent obsessing on my career prospects. Would I still be answering the phone at 30? Would I ever be able to make the leap from beleaguered, put-upon Hollywood assistant to beleaguered, put-upon Hollywood writer? Having read two of Burney’s novels as an English major at Columbia, I knew a little about her life and work, but that fateful day when I stumbled upon her diary, I didn’t see it as an artifact from a bygone era. I simply thought to myself, “Here is someone who has also tried to be a writer. I wonder how things worked out for her.” And of course in the most basic way ­– the way that mattered most to me at 27 — they worked out spectacularly well: Frances Burney had the exact kind of success most 20-something writers crave — i.e., the kind where you are singled out as a force to be reckoned with before you are 30.

But then what?

covercovercoverAt 30, Jane Austen was an utter failure. A blocked writer with virtually no income of her own, she was living at her brother Frank’s house in Southampton with his new bride, her widowed mother, her older sister Cassandra, and an equally impoverished family friend. When she was 21, her father had queried a publisher about the first draft of Pride and Prejudice — then called First Impressions — but they refused to read it. At 27, she sold her novel Northanger Abbey, expecting this to launch her writing career — but her joy was short-lived: the publisher advertised the book but never put it out. The year before she had been offered a very tempting, well-paid day job — the job of being Mrs. Harris Bigg-Withers — but she couldn’t bring herself to accept. Either because she didn’t love the man — or because in the era before birth control that particular day job was incompatible with writing. She was 33 when it finally happened, the blessed event that would be the making of Jane Austen as a writer. It wasn’t a burst of literary inspiration — a plot, a character, her invention of a newfangled free indirect style. It was a piece of real estate — a house provided rent-free by her brother Edward. In the summer of 1809, after eight years of peripatetic living arrangements that were unproductive for her writing, Jane Austen settled down in this house and began to rewrite and revise the manuscripts of her younger years into the masterworks we know today as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. For her, there was no waking up at 6am to help the Queen get dressed.

And Frances Burney? After five years of her disastrous, soul-crushing day job — after five years of walking backwards and answering to a bell — the glittering young author who had once been compared to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding and deemed “quelque chose extraordinaire” was no longer quite so extraordinary. She eventually rallied and made a comeback with her third novel, but her fourth is practically unreadable, and, as a fan, I can’t help but wonder what book Burney would have written in her mid-30s if she hadn’t taken that awful day job. Would she have found a way to hone her craft, perfect her talent for dialogue, and achieve the sort of literary immortality achieved one generation later by a clergyman’s daughter named Jane? Writers have always asked this question: how will I live? And the answers have never been easy. In October of 1790, Frances Burney was leaving St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle when she ran into an old friend who was also a writer. James Boswell urged her to return to writing, posthaste. “I am extremely glad to see you,” Burney reports him saying. ”But very sorry to see you here! My dear ma’am, why do you stay? — it won’t do! ma’am! You must resign!” Eager to hear about another old acquaintance, Burney asked him about Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. “It will come out next week,” Boswell replied. “’Tis the first book in the world! — except my own!” Bubbling over with excitement about his Life of Johnson, he took a proof sheet out of his pocket to read aloud to her some choice quotes — but Fanny’s boss was watching at the window and the Queen was approaching from the terrace. She had no choice. Her day job was calling. She had to get back to work.

Previously: Working the Double Shift

Image Credit: Flickr/Tracy O.

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15 Responses to “How Will I Live? Fame, Money, Day Jobs, and Fiction Writing.”

  1. Rachel
    at 10:15 am on April 16, 2015

    I LOVED THIS. Somehow I have never read Frances Burney but I need to start, immediately. (By which I mean, as soon as I get home from my day job.)

  2. Ella A
    at 11:27 am on April 16, 2015

    I hate my day job. It has damaged my health, and the only reason I stay with it is that I am paying down my debt and paying off a small house in the middle of nowhere so that I will be as debt free as possible in a couple of years. After that, if I can get my book revenue to the point where I can afford my bills and insurance, I will cut the cord on that job. I would rather work at a bookstore or a coffee shop a few days a week and make minimum wage just to get out of the house than continue in the high stress environment I am currently in.

    There are ways to get out of the rat race. You just have to redefine what you want out of life.

  3. Michael Coorlim
    at 4:35 pm on April 16, 2015

    I had the good fortune (?) to have been unemployed and homeless when I started writing professionally. Eventually I was making enough off of my royalties that it was a better use of my time to write more books than it was to keep looking for a day job.

  4. Maria Speidel
    at 5:48 pm on April 16, 2015

    Love this! And glad to know I am not the only one who looks to the 18th century to answers. Sometimes it seems they were a lot more upfront about money than we are today.

  5. Friday Finds for Writers |
    at 6:00 am on April 17, 2015

    […] In which Gina Fattore goes back to the eighteenth century to discuss “How Will I Live? Fame, Money, Day Jobs, and Fiction Writing.” […]

  6. SD Curran
    at 7:03 am on April 17, 2015

    In my mid-twenties I wrote very little. I was working at a place I utterly hated. It was only when I started my current job as a professor when my writing soared. Do I love my job? I teach science-fiction, and I’m a science-fiction writer. You figure it out =)

  7. Claire Bloom
    at 11:40 am on April 17, 2015

    As an audiobook director, I recently had the privilege of directing “Evelina.” My narrator and I discussed Fanny Burney and her influence on Jane Austen, delighting in seeing the embryos of some of our favourite Austen characters played out on the page and wondering why she never achieved the lasting success she deserved.
    This article answered our questions. And I get it, in a very personal way! .After years and years of day jobs that were, at best, “okay,” I finally found one that sits squarely in the center of my best skill sets. The result? A surge of energy and inspiration. I’m writing more and better than ever.

  8. Gina
    at 2:20 pm on April 17, 2015

    Love all these comments! Thank you all for reading. Nice to know I am not alone in my love of the 18th century. And that there is going to be an audiobook of Evelina.

  9. Sal Traina
    at 8:45 am on April 20, 2015

    Dear Ms. Fattore,

    Your piece really strikes home with me. I wrote my first novel in 1991. Five more and a slew of short stories, essays, and articles followed in its wake, with little recognition or reward to show for it. But I always had a day job (just as Zink suggested, rarely requiring me to think or write), and one thing that has accrued from my lack of success is that I’ve gotten better at my craft.

    In any case, great essay. Thanks.

    Sal Traina

  10. Eve Howard
    at 12:27 pm on April 22, 2015

    There is a lot missing from this analysis. Frances was discouraged from writing plays because they were considered inappropriate for a lady. Her father was the biggest participant in her self censorship. Her plays and her books also, were virtually sexless, until the crowning glory of her creative output, Camilla, was published. She wrote it during the first years of her marriage to the French general. She was forty when she married. Think of that. And to a Frenchman. Jane Austen mentions Camilla in her preface to Northanger Abbey. It was never “just a novel” , not with characters like the heroic Eugenia. Camilla is an extraordinary book and Burney’s masterpiece. I’m amazed some wonderful director like Kubrick never made it into a film.
    And how can one mention this magnificent woman without referencing her mascectomy, endured in her late forties or early fifties, and from which she survived until the age of 88! As I understand it, she was constantly revising her novels.
    Yes, the Wanderer is a difficult and odd book, but she only wrote four books, so believe me, her devoted fans do not complain about having this forth one to read. Dickens always gets the credit for exposing the plight of the poor and the disadvantaged. What the heroine “LS” goes through as a working seamstress is worthy of Victor Hugo pathos or Dickensian reality. And this isn’t the first time, the poor are considered in Burney’s books.
    Let’s give credit where credit is due to this great lady of literature. And may all your paths also lead to Eliza Haywood and Maria Edgeworth.

  11. Shelley
    at 11:26 am on April 28, 2015

    Never heard that version of Austen’s life before. Very interesting.

    Poor Fanny. But “soul-crushing day job” is not what most people have today.

    It’s just called work. It’s called normal life. It’s what we need to live so we can write things that are connected to other people’s lives. And the jobs we get are usually way better than what a whole lot of other people do all day.

  12. Alex
    at 9:16 pm on April 29, 2015

    Does anybody who has published a book believe that it has helped them get better jobs?

  13. Crispy Pages
    at 8:37 pm on May 5, 2015

    Virginia Woolf raised similar concerns in “A Room of One’s Own,” which she summarized that a ‘woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Fortunately I am a well paid social worker (unheard of!) and I do have a room of my own to write. But there have been times in my life when I had neither, but I made writing happen.

    And as far as The New York Times Book Review asking, “Do money woes spur creativity, or do they stifle it?” — less drama, including financial drama, helps. Certainly money woes weed out the wannabe writers.

  14. Writing Full Time: Should I Quit My Day Job? | The Art of Stories
    at 10:06 am on June 11, 2015

    […] How Will I live? Fame, Money, Day Jobs and Fiction Writing | The Millions […]

  15. Brittany
    at 3:44 pm on February 8, 2016

    I love seeing Fanny Burney anywhere, but especially here. I wrote my undergrad thesis on her novels.

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