Monday saw the release of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first book, The Narrative of John Smith. This was the book Conan Doyle wrote and happily sent off to a publisher. He waited. And waited. There was no glorious acceptance to be had, however, and no crushing rejection either because the manuscript had been lost in the post. Lost in the post!
Writers are lucky these days. When we send our masterpieces to our editors, we have backup copies at our fingertips. We have at least two copies on our computer in case one file is damaged. We have a file on a memory stick hidden in a different room to foil burglars who might take a fancy to our computers. We have a copy stored with Dropbox in case our house burns to the ground and we need to access our work from the nearest hotel.
(I’ll pause for a moment while you all double check those backups…)
Conan Doyle didn’t have this luxury, however. He’d painstakingly written his masterpiece in longhand and he had to turn round and write it again from memory. I can’t even begin to imagine doing that. Conan Doyle was a young man, still in his twenties, so maybe he had more stamina than me, but, really, it’s the stuff of nightmares.
When he’d rewritten it, he wasn’t terribly pleased with the result. Perhaps he’d honed his craft in the interim. Perhaps the initial idea, once so bright in his mind, had faded. Perhaps he believed that anything with such a dull title wasn’t a great idea after all. I gather he drew on passages for later works but, other than that, he kept it safely hidden from the world.
He’s said to have joked: "My shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again - in print.”
I can identify with this ‘horror’. Years ago, having had many short stories published, I decided it would be a really neat idea to write a novel. The result? Self-indulgent dross. Really, I would die from embarrassment if any of these old efforts saw the light of day.
If someone found one of my old manuscripts and decided the world needed to see it, I’d want to commit murder. Writing is too private, too personal for that. I’d feel violated, as if someone had rifled through my underwear and found things they shouldn’t. They wouldn’t find the sexy, lacy, matching stuff bought for a hot date, or the neat, sensible stuff worn for doctor’s appointments or the possibility of getting hit by a truck. Oh, no. They’d find the underwear that’s been washed too many times, boasts more holes than lace, and forgot how to fit decades ago. In short, they’d find the stuff that should have been thrown out years ago, stuff I wouldn’t (willingly) be caught dead in.
I have no doubt that The Narrative of John Smith will sell well. Fans of Conan Doyle will be fascinated to see the early words from the genius that brought us Sherlock Holmes. And let’s face it, Conan Doyle is hardly in a position to complain or care one way or the other.
Me? Yes, of course I’ll be reading it. I will, however, feel as if I’m violating someone’s privacy. I’ll be a guilty reader. I’ll be waiting for Conan Doyle to creep up behind me, smack me over the head and say: “How dare you? Did I say you could read that? Did I?”
Is it me? Or is there something you’d hate people to see? Something you’d hate people to see even if you’d been dead for eighty years?