Throughout the early 1940s George Orwell had a regular column in Tribune (a left-wing publication which is still in existence). On March 3rd 1944, he welcomed back The Cornhill Magazine which hadn't been printed for the past four years (presumably because of wartime restrictions on paper). As an impecunious professional writer he homed in on the notes about what authors were paid in the early years of the magazine in the 1860s.

One fact that these bring out is the size and wealth of the Victorian reading public, and the vast sums earned by literary men in those days. The first number of the Cornhill sold 120,000 copies. It paid Trollope 2,000 for a serial — he had demanded 3,000 — and commissioned another from George Eliot at 10,000.

These really are enormous sums of money. To put it into perspective, in 1860 when the Cornhill was founded a coal miner could earn, and just about keep body and soul together on, 40 to 50 a year. An army 2nd Lieutenant's annual pay was around 200 (though of course he would also have had a private income on top of that.)

Orwell went on: "Except for the tiny few who managed to crash into the film world, these sums would be quite unthinkable nowadays. You would have to be a top-notcher even to get into the 2,000 class. As for 10,000, to get that for a single book you would have to be Edgar Rice Burroughs. A novel nowadays is considered to have done well if it brings its author 500 — a sum which a successful lawyer can earn in a single day."

The Cornhill finally ceased publication in 1975, and probably wouldn't have paid writers anything like 2,000 even then. After all, in those days could still buy a bungalow in Cornwall with a big garden and views of the sea for 3,000.

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Last modified 3 December 2012