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Welcome to the History of the Society of Authors, 1884-1914 research project blog!

2024 marks the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Society of Authors and over the next ten months we will be posting blogs from all the members of the project team about their research on the project. Starting us off in style Richard Salmon gives us an overview of the project and its major themes.

Richard Salmon, The Society of Authors, 1884-1914

Posted 08.01.2024

The Research Project

In 2020, a team of researchers from the University of Leeds, Kings College London, and the School of Advanced Study (University of London) was awarded a Research Project Grant by the Leverhulme Trust to support a four-year project exploring the origins and early history of the Society of Authors (SoA), the most successful professional association for writers established in the United Kingdom (in continuous existence from its foundation to the present day). The Society of Authors, 1884-1914: Professional Association and Literary Property will lead to the publication of a collaborative critical study of the SoA within the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, a doctoral thesis focusing on the Society’s membership case-work within this period, and a digital archive hosted by the project website (https://historysoa.com). The project aims to shed light on the formation and activities of the SoA as a professional body, on its contribution to the history of intellectual property and copyright reform, and on the ways that it engaged with, and helped to shape, the careers of its membership body.


The first recorded meeting of the incipient Society took place in Kensington, London in September 1883, at the instigation of the novelist Walter Besant (1836-1901), but its settled name and legal status was confirmed during the following year. The first three decades of the SoA’s existence, from 1884 to 1914, were an extraordinarily turbulent formative period, during which it became a national literary institution and a prominent voice in debates which shaped the development of the literary profession and the publishing industry at a pivotal historical juncture, not only in Britain but internationally. During this thirty-year period, the membership of the Society grew from a small group of Besant’s associates who attended its first meeting to around 2,500 subscribing members by the beginning of the First World War. Roughly speaking, the period explored in this project encompasses the first two generations of the Society’s management and active membership, with the death of Besant in June 1901 providing a visible dividing line between them. The historical boundaries of the project allow us to trace the development of the SoA beyond its late-Victorian ‘founding fathers’ into the early twentieth century. Besides Besant, prominent figures from the first generation of active members include Hall Caine, Edmund Gosse, and Rider Haggard, whilst George Bernard Shaw, Mary Augusta Ward, and Sidney Webb were amongst the most influential voices of the post-1900 period. Some figures appointed to largely honorific roles on the founding of the Society belonged to an earlier generation: Alfred Lord Tennyson, for example, was the SoA’s first President (1884-1892) and Wilkie Collins one of its inaugural Vice-Presidents. This intergenerational mix offers fertile ground for examining a period widely acknowledged as transitional by literary historians. Although most ordinary members did not play an active role in its administration or public campaigns, the Society’s membership body included many of the most popular and enduring literary figures of the period - names such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Sarah Grand, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, E. Nesbit, May Sinclair, H.G. Wells, and Oscar Wilde – not to mention a host of prominent authors in other genres and disciplines.  

The project set out to address three overarching research themes:

  1. Professional Association

The SoA has proved to be the most enduring professional society for authors founded during the nineteenth century in Britain, but it was not the first attempt to establish an association of this kind, nor the only professional body formed within the broader literary and publishing industry towards the end of the century. The formation of the Society should be seen in the wider context of the history of professionalization in modern societies. By the late nineteenth century, this wider historical process was already evident to some contemporary observers. The philosopher Herbert Spencer published a series of articles on ‘Professional Institutions’ in the Contemporary Review in 1895-6, which cited the SoA as one amongst many examples of ‘professional evolution’ (Spencer was himself elected a member of the Society in 1894). Yet authorship has often been regarded (both then and now) as an occupation that is not readily amenable to professional organization and that does not strictly adhere to accepted sociological definitions of ‘professional’ groups.  The Society was sometimes characterized in its early publications as a ‘trade union’ for authors, a status which it officially acquired much later when it became a non-affiliated member of the Trade Union Congress in the 1970s. The Society’s concern with protecting members’ legal rights in relation to publishing contracts and copyright law gave it some of the functions of a combination of labour, and it is not coincidental that several of its most influential members during the early twentieth century were also committed members of the Fabian Society (also founded in 1884). It is well-known, however, that the founding committee members of the SoA, led by Besant, were affiliated to the Savile Club, a London gentleman’s club which catered specifically for ‘literary men’ and excluded women from membership. The hierarchical structure of the Society was, to some degree, modelled on typical features of a gentleman’s club - though when in 1891 the Management Committee authorized the establishment of an affiliated but more exclusive ‘Authors’ Club’, it implicitly marked the distinction between a private members’ club and the more open professional society.

The SoA was shaped in multiple and conflicting ways by these various institutional models. Over the thirty-year period of study, the governance and hierarchical structure of the Society led to concerns about a lack of democratic representation and to calls for constitutional reform. How leading members of the Society envisaged its core mission as a professional body was also reflected in the kinds of services which it offered to members, from providing ‘literary advice’ on manuscripts to aspirant authors, to establishing an affiliated literary agency (the Authors’ Syndicate founded in 1892) for commercially successful authors, and a Pension Fund to support older members in need of financial security.  

  1. Literary Property

During this period, the SoA’s most visible activity in support of its members was through its public campaigns in defence of ‘literary property’, which aimed to educate authors about their legal rights under existing contract and copyright law, to expose and condemn instances of exploitation of vulnerable authors by publishers and other ‘middlemen’, and to urge reform of publishing practices and copyright law. Besant’s tireless, often polemical interventions within proprietorial disputes between authors and publishers is probably the most familiar aspect of the Society’s work during the late nineteenth century. Yet the SoA’s role in the broader history of ‘intellectual property’ and copyright reform remains under-appreciated, given its record of activism during the crucial years leading up to, and following, the Berne Convention of 1886 on international copyright, the passage of the US Copyright Act of 1891, and the British Imperial Copyright Act of 1911. This project will build on existing scholarship by examining a range of archive and published sources related to the Society’s work in support of copyright protection that have hitherto been neglected or unknown. Our research draws on correspondence files and Minute Books documenting the unseen work undertaken by the Management Committee and the Secretary of the Society on behalf of ordinary members (usually against publishers and journal editors). The project also emphasizes the international scope of the Society’s work by examining its role in fostering networks of transatlantic collaboration on the defence of authors’ rights.  

  1. Membership

As suggested above, the SoA’s membership body included authors of many different types, from high-status men of letters to popular novelists, dramatists, travel writers, journalists, writers on science, education, and the arts, and a host of more obscure aspirant or semi-professional authors. The Society’s definition of authorship was by no means restricted to narrowly defined ‘literary’ genres, and by the end of the 1890s membership had even been extended to book illustrators and musical composers (Arthur Rackham and Gustav Holst were amongst those who joined the SoA during this period). The stated minimum criterion for membership was authorship of at least one published book, though some flexibility was applied in determining the equivalent of book publication for authors who specialized in periodical writing or in other media. This criterion led to a distinction between full members (originally termed ‘Fellows’) and ‘Associate’ members, the latter category being generally reserved for writers who wished to pursue a literary career but had not yet established a sufficient professional profile. Through membership case-studies, drawing on correspondence and legal files in the archive, the project will examine a broad spectrum of members with the aim of discovering how the Society operated in practice to provide professional support for a representative cross-section of authors. Case-studies will focus on different categories of membership and on different genres of authorship, while also seeking to address differences of gender, cultural distinction, and socio-economic status. The project aspires to build a detailed qualitative picture of how the SoA helped to shape the professional lives of late-Victorian and Edwardian authors. At the same time, by analyzing the membership body as a whole, using published lists of members and archive records, it is possible to produce valuable quantitative data on its demographic composition.

Research Context and Archives

Previous historical accounts of the origins and early development of the SoA were written by its own officials: George Herbert Thring’s unpublished ‘History of the Society’ (c. 1933) offers a detailed chronicle drawing on his lengthy tenure as Secretary, and Victor Bonham-Carter’s published history Authors By Profession (two volumes 1978 and 1984) provides a broader and more episodic narrative, extending into the late twentieth century. Since the 1960s, academic study of the Society’s early history has focused on its role within the cultural and economic changes of the late-nineteenth century literary market, including such topics as the demise of the three-volume novel and the rise of the literary agent. Understandably, much of this critical work has focused on the founding figure of Walter Besant, whose organizational and promotional zeal did most to launch the SoA and maintain its public profile. But as much as Besant was central to its conception and early development, he was not the whole of the Society, even within his lifetime. Little attention has been paid to the views of other active members of the Management Committee; to the work of sub-committees; to debates in Council and Annual General Meetings; and to opinions voiced in the periodical press, including within the Society’s house journal The Author (first published in May 1890). However narrow the demographic composition of its committee membership was during much of this period, the SoA was not a monolithic institution. Speaking at the Annual Dinner in 1895, the Chairman Sir Martin Conway joked about the Society’s reputation for ‘quarrelling amongst ourselves’: ‘squabbling is said to be a sign of life, and I am sure that the Authors’ Society, throughout the whole course of its not too long existence, has been engaged in one long series of squabbles’. It is these ‘squabbles’, or conflicting views on the direction of the SoA, that are a source of interest for researchers examining its archive now. One of the distinctive features of the project, then, will be its broad focus on collective institutional history, moving beyond the narrower question of Besant’s heroic or flawed professional ideals.

The major part of the SoA’s archive, comprising over 600 manuscript volumes of correspondence, legal case-work and members’ files, was donated to the British Library for research purposes in 1969. Some remaining archive material, including committee Minute Books and membership records, was kept by the Society and is stored in its current offices in Bedford Row, Bloomsbury. Significant collections of related correspondence and print ephemera are also held in other research libraries across the UK and the US (notably including the archive of the Authors’ Syndicate in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas). Moreover, the Society produced a large volume of published material in the form of a monthly journal, books, pamphlets, annual reports, and journal articles, and was itself widely reported in the periodical press. While some of its official publications are accessible through digital repositories (such as Hathi Trust), much of this print record has remained hard to access and under-examined. In particular, The Author – the official ‘organ’ of the SoA, which continues in print to this day - offers a wealth of information about the range of views and activities within the Society, and more broadly on the changing field of professional authorship. The creation of the project website and digital archive brings together most of the Society’s institutional publications from the period 1884-1914 for the first time. It is hoped that this will become a valuable resource for students and researchers of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century literature and book history. Access to archive and published material held in the current offices of the SoA has been granted with the support of its Chief Executive, Nicola Solomon, which is gratefully acknowledged by the project team.