5 Classic Women Authors on Writing and Money

Virginia Woolf

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf ponders: “Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect does poverty have on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”

Indeed, what are the challenges pertaining to writing and money, especially in the case of women authors? Here, several classic authors illuminate the challenges, in their own words.

These questions linger, and raise others—not the least of which is, have women in the arts progressed as much as it seems we should have since the time of Virginia Woolf, or indeed, the time of George Sand or Louisa May Alcott?

Woolf’s central thesis was that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.” Leaving “fiction” out of the equation, and replacing it with any sort of writing or art-making, the puzzle is unsolved to this day.

Here are five  classic women authors and their thoughts about money at various points in their careers, starting with Alcott at an early point in hers, before the rewards really started rolling in.

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Small payments do add up

Louisa May Alcott 1862


“Things look promising for the new year. F. $20 for the little tales, and wrote two every month. G. $25 for the “Bells;” L. $100 for the two “Proverb” stories. L. takes all I’ll send; and F. seems satisfied.

So my plan will work well, and I shall make my  $1,000 this year in spite of sickness and worry. Praise the Lord and keep busy, say I. I am pretty well, and keep so busy I haven’t time to be sick…I often think as I go larking round, independent, with more work that I can do, and half-a-dozen publishers asking for tales, of the old times when I went meekly from door to door peddling my first poor little stories, and feeling so rich for $10.

…Keep all the money I send; pay up every bill; get comforts and enjoy yourselves. Let’s be merry while we may, and lay up a bit for a rainy day.”

Louisa May Alcott, from a letter to her mother, January 1868

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Money gained, lost, and gained again

Edna Ferber U.S. stamp


“Throughout the years of my writing life I had been thrifty and lavish at the same time. The thrift consisted of three very simple rules which I have observed all my life. I never bought anything for which I could not pay cash on the spot. I never borrowed a penny or owed a penny.

I tried to put by at least something of each sum earned. I had seen the misery and fear that improvidence could cause. I wanted none of it.

Novels, plays, motion pictures, serializations, foreign rights had brought me enormous returns; at least, they seemed enormous to me. Part of this money I had, from time to time, invested as best I knew how, without speculation and without any desire to make money on the money itself.

I knew that I could earn a living as long as I kept my health; I was strong, ambitious, I loved my work. I had tried to keep my life as simple as possible within the realm of comfort.”

— Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure, 1939

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Money can’t buy happiness

L.M. Montgomery-age 61 -1935


“Last night I sat down and computed the number of dollars I have made by my pen since that day in Halifax twenty five years ago when I got my first check—five dollars for a story. The result totals up to about one hundred thousand dollars. Not such a bad total, considering the equipment I started out with—my pen and a knack of expression.

If Pages had not been rogues I should have had at least fifty thousand more. But it’s not so bad. It’s a pity it doesn’t mean happiness. But perhaps my children will reap the happiness from it that I cannot have.

And perhaps they would be better off, and more ambitious and successful if they had to scramble along and struggle as I did. That seems often to be the way in this mad world.”

L.M. Montgomery, from her journals,  February, 1921

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I live by my day’s work

George Sand

“I have not a sou in the world. I live by my day’s work as does the proletariat; when I can no longer do my day’s work, I shall be packed up for the other world, and then I shall have no more need of anything.

…No, I have not what you call worries about money; my revenues are very small, but they are sure…Unless I have extraordinary reverses, I shall have enough to feed me and warm me until the end of my days. My  heirs are or will be rich (for it is I who am the poor one of the family…).

As for gaining money by my pen, that is an aspiration that I have never had, recognizing that I was radically incapable of it.”

— George Sand, from a letter to Gustave Flaubert, 1867

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No longer poor, not yet rich

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852


“You ask with regard to the remuneration which I have received for my work here in America. Having been poor all my life and expecting to be poor the rest of it, the idea of making money by a book which I wrote just because I couldn’t help it, never occurred to me.

I was therefore an agreeable surprise to receive ten thousand dollars as the first-fruits of three month’s sale. I presume as much more is now due.”

— Harriet Beecher Stowe, from a letter, 1853

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Excerpted and adapted from The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas

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