William Makepeace Thackeray was one of Charlotte Brontë’s literary heroes. In 1848 she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him, after much admiring the recently released Vanity Fair (1848).
She wrote in the preface to that edition that Thackeray was ‘the first social regenerator of the day’, adding, ‘His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer- cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb.’
In a letter of thanks in reply to Brontë’s publisher, Thackeray wrote that the dedication was ‘the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life.’ Unfortunately however, it was also a source of embarrassment and gossip. Unbeknown to Brontë, Thackeray, in an echo of Mr Rochester, had a mentally-ill wife who had been locked away in an institution and who Thackeray was unable to divorce. Rumours abounded after the dedication that Currer Bell had been a governess in Thackeray’s household and had written the fiction inspired by real life.
Despite this uneasy undertone Brontë was still keen to meet the much-admired Thackeray and when she visited London in December 1849 was happy to have an introduction afforded by her publisher, George Smith. This first meeting was at a dinner and Brontë had expected so much from Thackeray she was a little unnerved to find he was just an ordinary gentleman.
At dinner, Miss Bronte was placed opposite him. ‘And,’ said Thackeray, ‘I had the miserable humiliation of seeing her ideal of me disappearing, as everything went into my mouth, and nothing came out of it, until, at last, as I took my fifth potato, she leaned across, with clasped hands and tearful eyes, and breathed imploringly, ‘Oh, Mr. Thackeray! Don’t!’
Whether or not this is a true reflection of the meeting is hard to know, but I can’t help hoping it’s true as the awkwardness depicted by the mindless potato-over-eating Thackeray is quite an image to enjoy.
The pair’s second meeting was no less unsuccessful. Thackeray invited Brontë to a dinner party for lady writers at his house in June 1850. Again Brontë was crippled by shyness and barely spoke, the other guests were reportedly disdainful of her brooding, quiet manner and her outmoded dress. Thackeray’s daughter Anne, said of the dinner ‘It was a gloomy and silent evening. Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation, which never began at all.’
At one point one of the ladies attempted to brighten things up by addressing Brontë directly, asking her how she liked London. An interminable pause followed before Brontë uttered ‘Yes; and no,’ and the conversation ended.
Brontë ended up leaving the gathering early and Thackeray, embarrassed by the abject failure of the evening, quietly sloped off to his club, leaving his other guests to entertain themselves.
And so it seems the adage is true, never meet your heroes. Both Brontë and Thackeray, so sparkling and alive on the page, struggled to live up to the pressures of performing in society. Perhaps this can give all us mere mortals some succour that talent can exist behind even the most unlikely exterior.
Writing often seems like a tortuous process, we tend to picture novelists hopped up on coffee, hunched over their laptops staring into space while their creative muse torments and then deserts them. However some writers subvert that image by churning out a book in the time it takes most people to get round to writing their shopping list.
Whether entering a drug-fuelled fugue state to get the words down, or simply creating a really, really long piece of paper on which to type, the following 10 writers have written a bestselling book in super quick time:
1. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming: 2 months
Ian Fleming was on holiday in Jamaica in January 1952 and, growing bored of spear-fishing and over-thinking his impending marriage, he decided he needed something to occupy his idle hands. Fleming sat down at the typewriter and began to write, dashing off 2,000 words every morning, until by 18 March the manuscript was finished. Fleming had no faith in his ‘adolescent tripe’ but fortunately for Bond fans everywhere, publishers thought differently and Casino Royale was published in April 1953, introducing the public to James Bond and marking the start a 14-book series.
Fleming stuck to his writing routine and most of his later Bond books were also written in under two months. When Birdsong writer, Sebastian Faulks took on Fleming’s mantle to pen Bond continuation novel Devil May Care in 2008 he too decided to adopt the speed-writing technique. Faulks’ previous book Human Traces had taken him 5 years to complete, so copying Fleming’s strict 2,000 word a day method was quite a departure.
2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 6 weeks
William Faulkner wrote his fifth novel As I Lay Dying over the course of six weeks while he worked the night shift at a power plant. Faulkner would start writing at midnight and finish as 4 a.m. the words tumbling neatly into place. So confident was he in his writing technique that he claimed he never changed one word from his first draft, despite the fact that the 59 chapters are narrated by 15 different characters.
3. King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard: 6 weeks
Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’ Mines in just 6 weeks after his brother bet him he could not write a book as good as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Haggard proved his brother wrong as his novel became an instant bestseller and inspired many others to pen books in the new ‘lost world’ genre. Despite the speed at which it was written, King Solomon’s Mines retains an aura of reality as Haggard had lived and travelled in Africa for many years and as a consequence had ample source material in his memory banks.
King Solomon’s Mines was a huge success (although not as much as his next book She (1887) which went on to sell over 83 million copies) and part of its popularity can perhaps be traced back to the astoundingly good early reviews. Some 20 gushing reviews of the book were published anonymously in the press on publication in 1885 and it was only many years later that it emerged that they had all been written by Haggard’s good friend, Andrew Lang.
4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 6 weeks
Charles Dickens was a prolific writer and he was used to keeping to tight deadlines because his books were published weekly in serial form in Victorian magazines, however he excelled himself with A Christmas Carol, completing the work in about 6 weeks. Dickens started writing the story in October and worked intensely, occasionally taking breaks at night for a stroll through the streets of London, before finishing it at the end of November. The book was an immediate festive success and has since spawned numerous stage plays, movies and musicals, proving the enduring popularity of Mr Scrooge.
5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac: 3 weeks
Although Kerouac spent a number of years formulating the ideas for On the Road, both in his head and in his journals, the complete draft was typed out in a manic three weeks. Kerouac liked to type fast and hated to be interrupted to change the paper in his typewriter, so before he started typing out his work he taped together numerous sheets of paper to create a continuous roll 120-feet long. This original manuscript is today preserved at the University of Indiana.
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 3 weeks
Anthony Burgess’s brilliantly dark dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange was written in 1962. Burgess liked to claim he wrote it in just three weeks, motivated only by money. The novel was hugely influential, a fact which was magnified by Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. Burgess himself did not approve of Kubrick’s film (he was especially annoyed that Kubrick ignored his final chapter) and referred to it dismissively as ‘Clockwork Marmalade’.
Although Burgess was best known for A Clockwork Orange he wrote a great number of other works over his career, ranging from nonfiction to plays, essays, poems and biographies. Burgess came to writing late in life after originally working as a teacher. At the age of 40 Burgess was given just one year to live after being diagnosed with a brain tumour so he began writing to try and leave some money for his wife. The diagnosis turned out to be wrong and Burgess continued to live and write until a different cancer (this time of the lung) really did finish him off aged 76.
7. The Maigret series by Georges Simenon: 11 days
Belgian writer Georges Simenon was extremely prolific, penning over 500 novels during his career, but he was best-known for his beloved detective Maigret. Simenon was an incredibly fast writer and could produce 6 to 8,000 words in one day and on average he would complete a novel in just 11 days. To continue to be so prolific Simenon stuck to a strict writing schedule, fuelled by pots of coffee, numerous tobacco pipes and wearing the same shirt for the entire period it took to compose the latest book.
Simenon became so famous for his speedy writing technique that when Alfred Hitchcock phoned him for a chat only to be rebuffed by his assistant as he was in the middle of writing a novel, Hitchcock was said to have quipped ‘Let him finish. I’ll hang on.’
8. Rasselas by Samuel Johnson: 1 week
After the death of his mother, lexicographer Samuel Johnson needed to pay for funeral expenses, and in order to do so he did what every good writer would do – he wrote a book. Johnson sat and wrote every night for a week (no doubt taking the odd break to weep over his lost mother) until he had a completed novel. The resulting book Rasselas was Johnson’s only novel but proved to be successful enough to pay for his mother’s funeral.
Johnson’s life’s work was the compilation of A Dictionary of the English Language which listed some 40,000 words and took a rather more lengthy 8 years to complete. Although a great work for some puzzling reason Johnson’s dictionary contained no words beginning with the letter ‘X’. Under ‘X’ Johnson wrote: ‘X is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.’ He had a point as X-rays weren’t discovered until 1895 and Xanadu wasn’t released until 1980 …
9. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 3 days
Stevenson had long had the idea of writing a story based on the idea of a split personality but had been unable to find the right setting. Legend has it that Stevenson, desperately ill with tuberculosis and drugged out of his mind on medicinal cocaine fell into a drug-addled sleep in which the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came to him. On waking he sat at his desk and in 3 feverish days wrote out the first draft. His wife, Fanny, on reading the completed manuscript thought it was drivel and threw it into the fire, causing poor Stevenson to spend another feverish 3 days re-writing the manuscript once again. Thankfully this version was kept from the flames and went on to be a great success, finally allowing Stevenson to pay off his debts.
Original manuscripts by authors are usually highly-prized and are often gifted to national libraries or universities associated with the novelist, however unfortunately over half of Stevenson’s manuscripts have been lost. Descendants of Stevenson in need of some cash after World War I, sold most of his manuscripts including Treasure Island and The Black Arrow which have sadly never resurfaced.
10. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne: 2.5 days
When John Boyne came up with the idea of his holocaust-based story The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas he was so inspired he sat down and wrote it out, barely stopping for food, drink or sleep. At the end of two and a half days Boyne was done. The Irish novelist had already written a number of other books but took a rather more sedate four weeks to complete those first drafts, however he said that with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas the story just poured out of him. The book has since been made into a multi-award winning film.
Literature is littered with orphans. The classic plot trope of the poor parentless child has appeared in numerous books across the eras, untethering our fictional heroes and allowing them to muster their resilience and overcome their tragic start.
For a bit of fun I thought I would collate some literary orphans of note here and record the dismal fate of their parents:
in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Walter and Bertha Shirley died when Anne was just three months old after contracting typhoid fever. Verdict: Disease
in Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling (1997–2007)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Harry’s parents Lily and James Potter were murdered by the evil dark wizard Voldemort using the Avada Kedavra curse when Harry was just a baby. Verdict: Murder
in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Mary’s parents died in India from cholera when Mary was 10 but as they were generally too busy to pay much attention to her she was brought up by her maid and did not miss them. Verdict: Disease.
in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Oliver’s mother died in childbirth at the workhouse and his father died in Rome before he was born, leaving his mother destitute. Verdict: Childbirth/disease.
in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Becky’s mother was an actress and opera singer who died (of unknown causes) when Becky was very young. Her father was an abusive alcoholic artist who died from delirium tremens (sudden alcohol withdrawal) when Becky was a teenager. Verdict: Unknown/alcoholism
in Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Jane’s father Lieutenant Fairfax dies ‘in action abroad’ and her mother from consumption when Jane is just three years old. Verdict: War and disease.
in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Jane’s parents died from typhus which her father caught while helping the poor. Verdict: Disease.
in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Mowgli’s parents were killed (and quite possibly eaten) by a tiger. Verdict: Misadventure.
in James Bond series by Ian Fleming (1953–1966)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: James’s parents died when he was 11 years old in a mountaineering accident in Chamonix. Verdict: Misadventure.
When researching this piece I came across numerous other literary orphans (such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Pip in Great Expectations, Pauline, Posey and Petrova in Ballet Shoes to name but a few) where the circumstance of their parent’s death was glossed over to such a degree it was impossible to decipher their cause of death. Indeed even in the books I included most of the parental deaths were alluded to in passing, only really in Harry Potter does the whole tragic scene (which is so central to the story) eventually get played out.
The device of making the main character an orphan immediately creates adversity and sympathy for them, often providing a motivation for their actions. Being an orphan also excludes a child from the usual family responsibilities, giving them the excuse to set off on exciting adventures and to live outside the norm.
My entirely unscientific analysis of fictional orphans leads me to conclude that the most common cause of death for literary parents is disease, a rather simple (and historically all too common) way of quickly dispatching superfluous parents.
Do you have a favourite literary orphan? If so please tell me about them below.
To celebrate the publication of my latest book The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms I am embarking on a blog tour! From November 1 to 10 I will be sharing extracts from the book so please do drop by all the featured blogs and take a look. See below for the details of all the blogs taking part:
The built-environment often reflects the especial history of an area, with local luminaries, ancient landmarks and builder’s names often revealed in the street names.
More recently town planners have been indulging their love of literature by including references to fictional places, characters or authors that have become associated with the region. Below are some examples of real streets named after literary locations or characters:
‘Sherlock Mews’ – This small mews can be found just off Baker Street in London (where Holmes was said to reside at 221B – itself a fictional address) and was named in honour of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth.
‘Bash Street’ – This street in the West Marketgait area of Dundee, Scotland was named after famous British comic The Beano’s beloved Bash Street Kids in 2014, as DC Thompson, publishers of The Beano are based there in the city.
‘Gandalf’, ‘Boromir’, ‘Saruman’, ‘Aragorn’ and many more – In Geldrop in the Netherlands a whole modern estate has streets named after characters from J. R. R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
‘Shakespeare’ – In Ontario, Canada (just up the road from Stratford – itself named after Stratford-upon-Avon) was named after the bard in 1852, supposedly after someone there said they liked his plays and suggested it as a new name for the small settlement previously known as Bell’s Corner.
‘Huckleberry Finn Drive’ – The famous Mark Twain character is immortalised in this winding road just off Mark Twain Boulevard in Orlando, Florida.
‘Little Dorrit Court’ – A number of streets around Southwark in south London are named after Charles Dickens’s characters. ‘Little Dorrit Court’ is off Borough High Street which was near where the Marshalsea Prison once stood, where the novel is set. Southwark also boasts a ‘Quilp Street’ (who would want to live there?) and a ‘Copperfield Street’.
‘Rickon Street’ – A new estate in Boise, Idaho allowed one of the planners to add in some street names after her favourite Game of Thrones characters. Not only did she honour the youngest Stark child but she also memorialised the entire Baratheon clan in naming ‘Baratheon Avenue’.
‘Crusoe Mews’ – This small street in Stoke Newington, north London is named after famous resident Daniel Defoe’s celebrated literary creation, Robinson Crusoe (if you’d like to know more about Daniel Defoe and where he lived in Stoke Newington this excellent blog is full of fascinating information).
Do you know of any other literary street names or places? If so please share below.
It is with great excitement that I announce my next book: The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms.
Here is a taster of what to expect:
The English language is rich with eponyms – words that are named after an individual – some better known than others. This book features 150 of the most interesting and enlightening specimens, delving into the origins of the words and describing the fascinating people after whom they were named.
Eponyms are derived from numerous sources. Some are named in honour of a style icon, inventor or explorer, such as pompadour, Kalashnikov and Cadillac. Others have their roots in Greek or Roman mythology, such as panic and tantalise. A number of eponyms, however, are far from celebratory and were created to indicate a rather less positive association – into this category can be filed boycott, Molotov cocktail and sadist.
Encompassing eponyms from medicine, botany, invention, science, fashion, food and literature this book uncovers the intriguing tales of discovery, mythology, innovation and infamy behind the eponyms we use every day. The Real McCoy is the perfect addition to any wordsmith’s bookshelf.
It was my great pleasure to speak to Georgina Godwin for Sunday Brunch on Monocle 24 to share some library facts and stories from A Library Miscellany. You can take a listen here (my bit is from 25 mins 55 secs).
I am very excited to announce that I shall be embarking on a blog tour for the release of A Library Miscellany in February 2018.
What is a blog tour? Good question. I had not heard of them myself until I saw a poster for a fellow author’s tour on Twitter and it piqued my interest. I went and had a look and discovered it was a chance to share a fresh extract or guest blog on a different book blog each day for a week or more. It sounded like such a fun idea and a great way to share a new book with a fresh audience so I immediately set to work organising one for A Library Miscellany.
Most blog tours take place for fiction so I tried to identify bloggers who also had an interest in non-fiction and I got such a lovely response. My tour will take in nine stops encompassing a wonderful selection of bloggers who have kindly agreed to host an extract or guest blog about the world’s wonderful libraries, their treasures and the people behind the collections. See below for the poster showing all the stops on the tour:
I hope you will enjoy following the tour and getting a glimpse inside A Library Miscellany.
What can be found in the Vatican’s Secret Archive? How many books did Charles Darwin’s library aboard the Beagle hold? Which library is home to a colony of bats?
Bursting with potted histories, quirky facts and enlightening lists, this book explores every aspect of the library, celebrating not only these remarkable institutions but also the individuals behind their awe-inspiring collections.
From the ancient library at Alexandria to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, A Library Miscellany explores institutions both old and new, from the university library to that of the humble village. It opens the door to unusual collections such as herbaria, art libraries, magic libraries and even the library of smells, and charts the difficulties of cataloguing subversive, heretical, libellous or obscene books.
Packed with unusual facts and statistics, this is the perfect volume for library enthusiasts, bibliophiles and readers everywhere.
A Library Miscellany will be published in February 2018 by the wonderful Bodleian Library Publishing. Please pre-order your copy here.