Jane Austen’s income: insights from the Bank of England archives

John Avery Jones

This guest post is the first of an occasional series of guest posts by external researchers who have used the Bank of England’s archives for their work on subjects outside traditional central banking topics.

How much did Jane Austen earn from her writing in her lifetime? The answer helps us gauge her standard of living and how her income compared to other contemporary authors. The problem is that we know what she invested her earnings in, but not what she paid for that investment. Using data from the Bank of England Archive, I estimate how much she paid, and can then back out an estimate of her income. Based on this work, I calculate that her income from Mansfield Park was a fairly modest £310 (about £22,000 at today’s prices), substantially less for example than the £2,100 earned by Maria Edgeworth for Patronage which is probably not read now outside English literature departments.

Existing approaches

There are a couple of ways of estimating Austen’s earnings from her writings. One is derived from Jane Austen’s brother Henry. He was a banker who negotiated on her behalf with her second publisher, Murray. He claimed that she had earned more than the £450 that Murray was offering for the copyrights of Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park from the last two alone. Since the Sense and Sensibility was known to have made £140 this implies that the latter made at least £310. But Henry was negotiating and might have been exaggerating to help his sister. It was probably in his character to have done so, as scholar Clare Tomalin describes him as a character who ‘hesitates between possible brides and possible careers, and shows himself to be more agreeable than reliable’.

Another source is Robert William Chapman, the most authoritative writer on Jane Austen. Writing in the 1930 London Mercury he concluded that, based on likely print numbers. There is no difficulty in believing that the total yield of [Mansfield Park] was as much as £320.1

An alternative approach stems from the ingenious attempt by American professor, Jan Fergus, who worked out the income from sales of her books less the cost of printing and paper using information from a contemporary publisher because Jane Austen’s first publisher’s (Egerton) records have not survived. As she self-published all her novels, except for Pride and Prejudice of which she sold the copyright for £110, this gave an estimate of the income from Mansfield Park of £389 less an unknown amount for advertising and additional trade discounts. If one takes £50, which is what Murray charged for advertising Emma, this would bring it down to £339, although her actual conclusion was something between £310 and £347.

Using the Bank of England archives

My approach is a more direct one-based on records which document Jane Austen’s investments of the proceeds. The starting point is a manuscript left by Jane Austen headed Profits of my Novels, over & above the £600 in the Navy Fives, the total of which is £84.13s. If we knew the cost of her Navy Fives then we would know her income — after taking income tax into account. Jane Austen bought Bank of England Annuities, always known as Navy Fives, with a face value of £600. The entry from the ledgers is shown below.

What we don’t know is how much she paid for them. Some authors have assumed she paid par, which is unfortunately encouraged by Jane Austen in her novels always converting capital into income at 5%. But assuming that she bought it at par on the Stock Exchange is obviously unrealistic for an undated Government security.

Navy Fives were undated securities issued by the Bank of England from 1784 and became a popular investment during the Napoleonic War. The quoted price on the Stock Exchange varied from day to day often substantially. For example, around the time in which we are interested, in December 1814 £100 nominal was quoted at a high of 97.13 (yielding 5.1%), and a low of 83.75 (yielding 5.9%) in August 1815. So establishing when she bought them is key.

The Bank of England archives has Stock Index Ledgers for the holders of Navy Fives. A likely date for the purchase was late 1815 to early 1816; this turned out to be wrong, but fortunately the relevant ledger covering 1814 to 1822 showed the purchase on 18 July 1815.

Not only did this bring up the information about the date of purchase but also the fact that there were two purchases, one being earlier. Another search provided the date of the earlier purchase as 15 July 1813.

The next problem was the cost. Surprisingly this is not shown in the Stock Book Transfers but would have been in another record that has not survived. Given the dates of purchase, the price range on those dates was available both in The Times archive and Wetenhall’s semi-official Course of the Exchange. The quotations were around 85 for the first purchase on 15 July 1813, and 837/8 to 847/8 for the second purchase on 18 July 1815—definitely not par. This gives the cost within only a small range of about £257 for the first and £253 for the second purchase.

By the time of the first purchase we know that she had earned £110 for the sale of the copyright of Pride and Prejudice and £140 from Sense and Sensibility, totalling £250, so the £257 for the first purchase is close to this. By the time of the second purchase she had received the bulk of her earnings from Mansfield Park. So was the £253 her earnings from Mansfield Park? Not quite. We also need to consider income tax…

Estimating the Tax Bill

One needs to make a few assumptions to calculate this tax but fortunately the then rules were simpler than today. There was no personal allowance, but instead an exemption for the first £50 of income with a taper up to £150; above that the 10% rate applied. The rules for expenses were strictly construed with no possibility of apportioning mixed expenses such as candles and coal for lighting and heating, so we can ignore expenses. The two unknowns were whether she started her profession as author in 1803 when she sold the copyright of Susan (later repurchased and published as Northanger Abbey) for £10 although the publisher never produced it in spite of advertising it as being ‘in the press’. If that was the start of her profession for tax purposes, which seems a reasonable argument, by the time we are interested in she was taxable on the basis of the income of the preceding tax year, so that the income from Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility received in November 1812 and March 1813 would have been taxed in 1813-14. The Mansfield Park income was mostly received by March 1815 and would have been taxable in 1815-16.

The other unknown was whether self-publishing (technically publishing on commission under which the author took all the risk and paid the publisher 10% of the sales) was a profession of authoress (taxed on the basis of the income of the preceding year) or a trade of publishing (taxed on the basis of the average of the three preceding years), or conceivably partly one and partly the other. Since publishing on commission was a recognised, though not the main way for an author to make an income, categorisation as a profession seems more likely, particularly given the negative associations with trade, which were not in general shared by Jane Austen’s characters, such as Mr Darcy who was initially put off by Elizabeth Bennet’s uncle Mr Gardener being in trade but changed his mind; those like Mr Darcy’s sisters who remain prejudiced show the contrast.

Putting everything together

Based on these assumptions, and taking into account such details as that she did not keep anything back for tax on the first receipt which was presumably funded by Henry’s bank, and assuming that she spent the income from the Navy Fives, the income from Mansfield Park would be £310. This is precisely Henry Austen’s figure; perhaps he was not exaggerating on this occasion. On that basis the total tax she paid (before its abolition in 1816) would be about £56. Alternatively if she commenced her profession at the later time the income would be £337, which is almost identical to Professor Fergus’s figure. (On the different assumption that she carried on a trade, which would necessarily have been set up at the time of the receipts from Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the tax would be lower and so would reduce the estimate of earnings from Mansfield Park to £297.)

Her total income from writing in her lifetime was a mixture of taxable receipts and receipts after the abolition of income tax in 1816. These amount, on my estimate, to around £631 before tax (while tax was in force), or £575 after tax, which would be equivalent to just over £45,000 at today’s prices.

1 RW Chapman, ‘Jane Austen and her Publishers’, London Mercury 22 (1930), 337 at 338.

John Avery Jones is an independent researcher, a retired Visiting Professor at the LSE and a retired judge of the Upper Tribunal (Tax and Chancery Chamber).

3 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s income: insights from the Bank of England archives

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful piece of research. Thank you so much. Not everyone receives the true rewards of his or her (aka is able to monetise) talents in his or her lifetime.

  2. Absolutely fascinating. I find that Jane Austen can still captivate people even more than 200 years after she passed away. She is a National Treasure God bless her memory. The painting is beautiful. Can you advise where I could purchase a copy? Whether it is or not a representation of Jane is not important the image could be of her in Steventon or Chawton.

  3. I am afraid I have trouble understanding this sort of thing, so I do appreciate this article. Does this mean that at her death she would have had an income of about 30 pounds a year?

Comments are closed.