As I was throwing out some old papers from the attic the other day I found a tattered dusty old manilla envelope which I dropped onto the pile to be thrown out. At the last moment, I picked it up again it, opened it up and discovered inside the manuscript of a book I wrote around 1975 (which I’m shocked to discover is now 40 years ago).
The book was one of my earliest efforts and was an account of the trial of Lord Cochrane, a dashing naval captain of the Napoleonic era, said by some to be the prototype for Horatio Hornblower. Cochrane was convicted of conspiracy to defraud the London stock exchange but vehemently protested his innocence.
My book never did find a publisher. But my re-discovery of it made me stop and think for quite another reason. I had typed the manuscript on a manual typewriter so the 200-pages I held in my hand was the only copy in existence. And I had come within a whisker of simply dropping the old envelope into the waste paper basket without a second thought.
My discovery brought back to me the fragility of all writing before the personal computer. In the 1960s and 1970s it was normal to have a unique copy of anything from a short story to a full length novel of 100,000 words or more. There was photocopying, but it tended to be expensive – I seem to recall the local library charging 5p a sheet. At that rate, a 200-page manuscript like mine would cost £10 to copy – more like £100 in today’s money. There were also carbon copies but these were fiddly, blurry and every time you made a correction on the top copy you had to correct the carbons too.
The result was that writers often lived dangerously – with only one copy of their treasured manuscript. This vulnerability made me think of those writers who had, for one reason or another, lost their work completely as a result of having only a single copy. There is a surprisingly long list.
When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the first draft of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde he showed it to his wife who was horrified by the subject matter. Either she, or Stevenson himself, burnt it. He later wrote a new version which, presumably, was toned down considerably.
T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) left his Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the buffet at Reading station when his train came in. He phoned the station from Oxford when he arrived, but the case with the manuscript was gone and was never found. He had to write it all over again.
Dylan Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood not once, but three times: first in London, then in America, and then again in London. The third time it was found, by his friend Doug Cleverdon, in a pub. Sadly Thomas died a few days later anyway.
Ernest Hemingway put all the manuscripts of his early novels in a suitcase and entrusted it to his wife, Hadley. On a train journey to Switzerland, the case was lost or stolen.
The worst case of all – I can hardly bear to read this – was Thomas Carlyle. He lent the manuscript of his great history, The French Revolution, to his friend John Stuart Mill for feedback. Mill’s serving maid mistook the manuscript for scrap paper and used it to light the fire. Poor Mill had to go and knock at his friend’s door late at night and tell him what had happened. Carlyle rewrote it all from scratch.
Thanks goodness for solid state memory – I hope.