I am aware of my good luck in having an unusually literate readership—“fit audience though few”, as Milton wrote concerning his own blog—but I wonder how many of you have read Criminal Queens: Powerful Women as the Playthings of Love? It’s a trick question, of course. Nobody has read Criminal Queens, because nobody ever actually wrote it. It is the imaginary title of an imaginary potboiler written by Lady Matilda Carbury in Trollope’s great novel The Way We Live Now. She is a distressed gentlewoman with a number of the usual Victorian impedimenta—tradesmen at the door with overdue bills, a daughter needing to be married off, a wastrel son with a serious gambling addiction. She has to do a little writing on the side “to make ends meet”.
Well, Trollope knew all about that sort of thing. “Of all novelists in any country, Trollope best understands the role of money,” wrote W. H. Auden. “Compared with him even Balzac is a romantic." That became apparent, if it had not done so earlier, with the publication of Trollope’s famous Autobiography in 1883. It is perhaps fortunate that it was published posthumously, for it savaged his reputation even before the first edition had sold out. For in it Trollope “ruined literature,” as one reviewer put it.
Trollope had ruined literature by taking so very commercial an attitude toward it. Writing is like the grocery business, he explained. Sell a sufficient weight of tea each day, and prosper. The Victorians could handle this kind of thinking in almost all areas of life, but they still clung to a Romantic notion of artistic “inspiration”. Fiddlesticks, said Trollope. Inspiration, shinspiration. He rose early each morning and wrote, watching the clock, maintaining a rate of 250 words per quarter hour until the cook rang for breakfast. He then put his writing gear back in its box, ate his coddled eggs, and devoted the rest of the day to more serious matters, such as the Post Office (for which he worked) and fox hunting (his passion).
He kept meticulous financial records, from which he deduced certain principles of literary cost effectiveness. His readers didn’t much like Ireland; so he quit writing novels set in Ireland. They seemed to love the old cathedral towns of southern England; so he took them as a specialty. Over a lengthy career he netted about £130,000 before breakfast (maybe fifteen million dollars in today’s money), with which he was able to buy some really good hunting horses. He laid it all out in statistical tables in his autobiography. He ruined literature by making writing profitable.
I, on the other hand, have just rescued literature. I found this out by accident late last week. I still have a mailbox in my old departmental office. I pass through and empty it occasionally. It’s mainly textbook catalogues and other items of the sub-junk category. What I’ll call my real correspondents use my home address. Very rarely there is a piece of “real” mail in the box, and such was the case last Thursday or Friday. There was a real letter in an envelope to which an actual forty-four cent stamp had been affixed. The elegant printed return address was that of a university press with whom I published, some twenty years ago, one of the seminal books of the last several decades—to wit, Classical Imitation and Interpretation in Chaucer’s “Troilus”.
I am sure it is unnecessary to tell you that I did not dash this thing off before breakfast at a rate of 250 words per quarter hour. No, it was the fruit of long hours of labor, mainly in the Classics Reading Room of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. As to the actual writing of it, it took about a year. On an extraordinary day, when the inspiration was positively crackling, I might achieve five hundred words; but on many days there were fewer words, and on some none at all. Hence I was hoping that my royalty statement—for such, I deduced, the envelope must contain—would allow me to purchase at least one small hunting horse, or at the very least a colt.
With trembling hand I opened the envelope, carefully using a cardboard advertisement as a letter opener. I then unfolded the statement and cast my eyes upon it. These things are always a little confusing, but I finally had to conclude that my total earnings for the period between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011 was--$0.00! However, the statement was not all noughts. There were also some crosses. It turns out that the account carried a “Balance Forward from Prior Statement.” That balance was minus $1.86. I am sure you have from time to time come across a book of which you thought: “They’d have to pay me to read that book.” Well, I wrote one like that! I had made history. I had achieved negative sales. I had saved literature.