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‘Not without a cheque’

Virginia Woolf photographed by George Charles Beresford

The young Virginia Woolf, photographed by George Charles Beresford, who died on 21 February 1938 - so this has been out of copyright since 1 January 2009

“To my terror I was rung up from Paris, and leapt to the conclusion, as they say, that it was some kind of catastrophe," the writer Virginia Woolf reported to her sister Vanessa Bell, who was in Paris, on 2 October 1937. "But it was only Chabrun offering fabulous sums for a short story..."

And why does the Freelance repeat this snippet from our lockdown reading? Because Virginia goes on to give some very sound, if poorly-punctuated, advice: "I shant put pen to paper without a cheque."

A "cheque", as older readers will recall, was a kind of BACS transfer, in which the relevant reference numbers were conveyed on a piece of paper.

The editors of Woolf's Letters record that in response to that message from Jacques Virginia wrote "The Shooting Party", which was published in Harper's Bazaar in March 1938.

Sadly, the Letters do not report what the "fabulous sum" was, so we haven't been able to add to the Woolf rates in the Rate for the Job.

And, possibly more sadly yet, on 10 October 1937 Virginia wrote to Vanessa that "We hear that Chabrun, my agent, is a suspected character. No hope of payment for my story I'm afraid." So it seems probable that her first instinct was correct. We have not yet discovered of what the agent was suspected or whether she was paid. [Addendum: see below.]

We do know that in August 1937 Virginia was offered £200 to write a 1500-word story, also for Harper's Bazaar. (She had other stories in Harper's at this time, including "The Duchess and the Jeweller".) According to the Bank of England, that would be £13,900 adjusted for inflation to the year 2020 - or about £9300 per 1000 words.

While we're mining the archives, we shall mention a classic quotation with which Virgina Woolf was very likely familiar. We know that in 1937 she started, but did not finish, a piece for the Times Literary Supplement on the dictionarist Samuel Johnson, who on 5 April 1776 declared: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

3 January 2022

Many thanks to Humphrey Evans for pointing us to this 2102 article by Jessica Weisberg in the New Yorker on Jacques Chambrun's shenanigans. He "embezzled thirty thousand dollars from W Somerset Maugham by secretly negotiating the world rights to his books. When Ben Hecht ghost-wrote Marilyn Monroe's memoir [eventually published as My story], Chambrun sold a scandalous passage to a London tabloid for a thousand pounds with neither Monroe nor Hecht's permission..." The miscreant agent somehow managed to stay in business into the 1950s: "In 1956, when he had no clients left, Chambrun started 16, a celebrity magazine for teen-age girls..."

We now see that, not untypically, Chambrun's name is mis-spelled in Woolf's Letters.

Humphrey also points us to a fascinating paper by Kate Krueger Henderson on the complex relationship between "The Duchess and the Jeweller", writer, agent and editor - and on anti-semitism, and to some extent class, in the story and its revision.