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.
Once 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.
The 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.
But 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?
At 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: Unsplash/Giorgio Trovato.