A Horror Story from the Letters of Thomas Carlyle

by |January 27, 2010

A tale writers tell to frighten one another…

JOHN STUART MILL had borrowed that first volume of my poor French Revolution (pieces of it more than once) that he might have it all before him, and write down some observations on it, which perhaps I might print as notes. I was busy meanwhile with Volume Second; toiling along like a Slave, but with the heart of a free Roman: indeed, I know not how it was, I had not felt so clear and independent, sure of myself and of my task for many long years.

Well, one night about three weeks ago, we sat at tea, and Mill’s short rap was heard at the door: Jane rose to welcome him; but he stood there unresponsive, pale, the very picture of despair; said, half-articulately gasping, that she must go down and speak to Mrs. Taylor. . . . After some considerable additional gasping, I learned from Mill this fact: that my poor Manuscript, all except some four tattered leaves, was annihilated! He had left it out (too carelessly); it had been taken for waste-paper: and so five months of as tough labour as I could remember of, were as good as vanished, gone like a whiff of smoke.

—There never in my life had come upon me any other accident of such moment; but this I could not but feel to be a sore one. The thing was lost, and perhaps worse; for I had not only forgotten the structure of it, but the spirit it was written with was past; only the general impression seemed to remain, and the recollection that I was on the whole well satisfied with that, and could now hardly hope to equal it.

Mill, whom I had to comfort and speak peace to, remained injudiciously enough till almost midnight, and my poor Dame and I had to sit talking of indifferent matters; and could not till then get our lament freely uttered. She was very good to me; and the thing did not beat us.

I felt in general that I was as a little schoolboy, who had laboriously written out his Copy as he could, and was showing it not without satisfaction to the Master: but lo! the Master had suddenly torn it, saying: `No, boy, thou must go and write it better.’ What could I do but sorrowing go and try to obey? That night was a hard one; something from time to time tying me tight as it were all round the region of the heart, and strange dreams haunting me: however, I was not without good thoughts too that came like healing life into me; and I got it somewhat reasonably crushed down, not abolished, yet subjected to me with the resolution and prophecy of abolishing.

Next morning accordingly I wrote to Fraser (who had advertised the Book as `preparing for publication’) that it was all gone back; that he must not speak of it to anyone (till it was made good again); finally that he must send me some better paper, and also a Biographie Universelle, for I was determined to risk ten pounds more upon it. Poor Fraser was very assiduous: I got Bookshelves put up (for the whole House was with Books), where the flowing Biographie (not Fraser’s, however, which was countermanded, but Mill’s), with much else stands all ready, much readier than before: and so, having first finished out the piece I was actually upon, I began again at the beginning.

Early the day after tomorrow (after a hard and quite novel kind of battle) I count on having the First Chapter on paper a second time, no worse than it was, though considerably different.’

Letters of Thomas Carlyle.

This tale was re-told in the TV comedy series Blackadder – though names and dates were changed.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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