Tuesday 27 October 2015

A Brief History of Writers’ Misery by Janie Hampton

Many people aspire to it, but the job of writing is not easy, and never has been. ‘The most seductive, the most deceiving, the most dangerous of professions,’ said the Victorian biographer John Morley of writing. 

Juvenal warned in the first century AD that ‘An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts.’
William Caxton 1422-91

William Caxton's celebrated the invention of printing by publishing The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, the 15th century equivalent of The Little E-Book of Text Messages. Publishers soon cottoned on that people really wanted something a bit more lively and an early best-seller was Merry Tales of the Madmen of Gotham.  Martin Luther was not keen on the opportunity given to non-religious books: ‘The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this fever of writing; everyone must be an author; some out of vanity to acquire celebrity; others for the sake of lucre and gain.’

Dr Johnson was quite clear on the matter: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’
Dr Johnson 1709-84

Even Gustave Flaubert said, ‘To practise art in order to earn money, flatter the public, spin facetious or dismal yarns for reputation or cash – that is the most ignoble of professions.’

Louis XIV didn’t like books, ‘I see no point in reading’; and Jean Jacques Rousseau agreed, ‘For they only teach people to talk about what they do not understand’. When Edward Gibbon finished writing The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire in 1776, he knelt on bended knee and presented a copy to HRH the Duke of Gloucester. ‘Another damned, thick, square book!’ said The Duke. ‘Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh Mr. Gibbon?’

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1771-1845) was a barrister, a Whig politician and so prolific an author that Sydney Smith said of him, 'He not only overflows with learning, but stands in the slop. He is like a book in breeches. He has occasional flashes of silence, that make his conversation perfectly delightful.’
Elizabeth Montagu 1718-1800

Mrs Elizabeth Montagu was immensely rich, well educated and loved parties – she once gave a breakfast in her feather-lined boudoir to 700 guests. After she became bored of card-playing, she only invited people who liked books, such as Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds and Horace Walpole. Rousseau was not amused by these early Book Reading Groups which encouraged women: ‘Every blue stocking will remain a spinster as long as there are sensible men on earth.’

Mary Russell Mitford  1787-1855 
Women writers have never had it easy, even from each other. Mary Russell Mitford wrote in 1815 that before her success, Jane Austen was ‘the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly ever and was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen.’ After her success poor Jane ‘stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn, piece of wood. She is still a poker - but a poker of whom everyone is afraid.’
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806–1861 

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in 1861, Edward Fitzgerald, the translator of  Omar Khayyam, wrote to a friend ‘Mrs Browning’s death is rather a relief to me. A woman of Great Genius I know, but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and the children; and perhaps the Poor. Except in such things as Little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better.’  The letter was read by Robert Browning 28 years later. Understandably upset, he wrote a poem to the now dead Fitzgerald, threatening to spit at him with the lips that had once kissed his beloved wife.
Lucile-Aurore Dupin, alias George Sand, 1804–1876, was described by Nietzsche as ‘a great cow full of ink.’ 

Amanda McKittrick Ros 1860–1939

Supporting the argument against women writers, the American critic George Jean Nathan believed that ‘perhaps the saddest lot than can befall mortal man is to be the husband of a lady poet.’ Sadly, Amanda McKittrick Ros, the wife of a stationmaster in County Antrim, did not help. Mark Twain considered her 1897 novel Irene Iddesleigh ‘one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.’ The novelist Barry Pain failed to notice she had no sense of humour when he reviewed it as ‘a thing that happens once in a million years’, and mockingly termed it ‘the book of the century.’Mrs Ros took such a dislike to him that in her next book the whole introduction was devoted to Pain’s appalling character and defective personality. She then made a point of tracking down her critics and loved to see if she could ‘wring from the critic-crabs their biting little bits of buggery.’

Eric Blair alias George Orwell 1903-50
Maybe writing is bad for us. 

George Orwell died only four years after announcing: 
‘Writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, 
like a long bout of some painful illness.’



Clare Mulley said...

'He is like a book in breeches' - I love it, although we women filled those breeches well enough, however exhausting it is at times. Thanks for this.

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