In true romantic and post-romantic fashion, Housman claims in his autobiography, The Unexpected Years, that remaining true to his art meant that he achieved a good reputation but so small an income that he always had to share lodgings with his sister and was never able to consider marriage and a family. — Photograph by George P. Landow.
My doubts of my ability to make a living, either by illustration or writing, had had plenty of confirmation during the first ten years of my life in London. My first scanty earnings had been for the job which John Sparkes got me the revision of Vere Foster's and Poynter's drawing-books; and after that, the designing of small devices for commercial firms connected with the printing trade. Between the year 1887, when I finished my training at South Kensington, and 1893, I earned 277l. 153p. 6d., an average of less than £50 a year. During the two decades following (from my twenty-eighth to my forty-seventh year) I made incomes of the following amounts: 146l 135p. 6d.; 156l. 93s. 0d.; 130l 73p. 6l.; 223l 93s. 9d. These are fairly, but not quite consecutive. In other years I did better; in the year of An Englishwoman's Love-letters I made 2,072l 145p. 1d.; but even with that mighty windfall for the worst book I ever wrote, my average for those twenty years was only £365. Yet for the last fifteen of those years I was fairly well known both as author and illustrator, with one book to my discredit which had almost ranked as a best-seller, and partauthorship of a play Prunella which has been a continual source of income ever since. In the second year of the War I made Prunella l85 ps. 10d.; in the third, 165l 2s. 2d. Since the War I have had an income amply sufficient for a bachelor, sharing house with a relation who is also selfsupporting.
It is not usual, I suppose, for an author to give so detailed a return of his income for the information of the general public; but I do so for two reasons first because my indifference to a paying popularity has, I believe, in the long run helped and not hindered my output of the things which seemed to me most worth doing; and secondly because my small income has not prevented me from living a happy life. It is true that such an income made it impossible for me to marry, had I wished it, in the class to which I was supposed to belong; I could not, until I was well over forty, have run the risk of a family. But as the not impossible 'She' never came within the horizon of my waking dreams, that deprivation was more theoretical than real. Nevertheless there remains a large disproportion between the respectable reputation which I began to acquire in my early thirties, and the monetary return I got from it. And I wonder whether other authors my superiors in quality, and my equals in the favour of the critics have had similar experiences: whether an author who does not aim at popularity must always have a hard time, unless his needs are as modest, and as unmatrimonial as were mine.
Housman, Laurence. The Unexpected Years. London, 1936.
Last modified 17 November 2012