Laura Keynes reflects on the life of a nineteenth century hack…

Any young freelancer trying to carve their niche may do worse than read accounts of what it was like trying to make ends meet as a journalist in London during the early 1800s. The first recommendation is not, as might be expected, Thackeray’s History of Pendennis but William Hazlitt’s essay On the Want of Money. Hazlitt lived the tedious reality of the hack writer’s straitened circumstances. He vividly describes ‘that uncertain precarious mode of existence’ in which money is either wanting or spent, so familiar to those ‘who write for bread and are paid by the sheet’. Every freelancer knows well that ‘intermediate state of difficulty and suspense between the last guinea or shilling and the next that we have the good luck to encounter’, that gap so full of ‘anxieties, misgivings, mortifications, meannesses, and deplorable embarrassments of every description’. Such mortifications characterised life on Grub-street for the early modern freelancer.

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