You are invited to the final paper of the Nineteenth Century Research Group this Wednesday 10th April, 4pm (for a 4.15pm start), in MB1019. Refreshments will be provided. We hope that you’ll be able to join us for our last meeting of the academic year, for the following paper by Dr Richard Salmon (University of Leeds):

Transforming the Art of Fiction:  Walter Besant, Henry James and the Society of Authors 




Founded in 1884 by the novelist and historian Walter Besant (1836-1901), the Incorporated Society of Authors went on to become the most successful and long-lasting professional association organized by and for the benefit of authors in Britain. Established in the belief that collective action was necessary in order to defend authors’ ‘trade interests’ and to express a long-held grievance against exploitative publishers and inadequate laws of copyright, the Society of Authors presents a valuable case-study of the wider transformation of the arts in modern professional society. Though Besant’s influence on the early development of the Society is well-documented, the conception of professional identity which shaped his activity during its first two decades remains under-explored.

This paper considers two distinct, but interrelated, aspects of Besant’s work for the Society of Authors during its early years. Firstly, it examines the various models of professional association and their functions, envisaged by Besant and other leading members of the Society, ranging from the pragmatic to the utopian. How did members of the Society conceive of its role in providing professional services in relation to the wider field of the literary market? Secondly, the paper explores the Society’s professional ethos in relation to the emerging genre of the literary manual – or ‘how to’ guide to professional authorship -, a connection which in 1884 sparked a memorable debate on the ‘art of fiction’ between Besant and his fellow novelist, Henry James. In what ways was this well-known late-Victorian debate on the aesthetic and moral dimensions of the novel shaped by the formation of collective professional identities for authors?


Dr Richard Salmon is a Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature in the School of English, University of Leeds. He is the author of Henry James and The Culture of Publicity (1997), William Makepeace Thackeray (2005), and The Formation of the Victorian Literary Profession (2013). He has recently edited The Reverberator for the Cambridge Edition of the Complete Fiction of Henry James (2018), and is currently developing a new collaborative project on literary professionalism and the early history of the Society of Authors.