What do you do when you discover that the book you’ve been working on for four years has just been published - by another writer who’d been researching it for twelve?
It seems writing is as much a test of character as of creativity. When John Stuart Mill decided that he was would never finish writing his history of the French Revolution, on hearing that Thomas Carlyle was working on a similar project, he generously gave Carlyle his entire collection of books on the subject – there were no lending libraries in those days.
So when Carlyle finished The French Revolution in 1835, he lent the one and only manuscript – there were no photocopiers either – to Mill to read. Mill’s housemaid, thinking it was scrap, burned it. What did Carlyle do? He sat down and wrote it again, and then – how's this for trust? – sent it to Mill to review. (Presumably he'd changed his housemaid by then.) It turned out to be Carlyle’s greatest work. Then he founded the London Library.
When Charles Dickens wanted to write a novel set against the background of the Revolution, he relied heavily on Carlyle’s book and reading list, which by then he was able to borrow from the Library.
It’s an interesting thought that if there’d been no Mill, Carlyle might not have written The French Revolution, without which there might not have been A Tale of Two Cities – and, worse, no London Library. Today, if you search the Library catalogue under “French Revolution” you get 575 responses.
The Victorian painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, faced a different test. When Lizzie Siddall, his model, lover and, later, wife, overdosed on laudanum, he was distraught. Before she was buried in Highgate cemetery, he touchingly laid the manuscript of an unpublished book of his poems in the coffin beside her, implying that “Without you my poems are worthless”. But when, some years later, Rosetti decided he would like to publish the poems, rather than write all them out again, he had Lizzie’s coffin exhumed, took out his poems and buried her again, remarking that she was still as beautiful as he remembered. As always, Dorothy Parker put it succinctly:
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Buried all of his libretti,
Thought the matter over – then
Went and dug them up again.
What am I going to do about the book? I wish I knew.