On the 6th March 1835, the philosopher, John Stuart Mill with some trepidation knocked at the door of his friend Thomas Carlyle. The door opened to reveal an agitated and distraught Mill. He had with him four charred pages. This was all that was left of Carlyle’s first handwritten manuscript of the epic and poetic history of The French Revolution that he had lent to Mill to read – although it was only the first volume this still amounted to about 100,000 words. The maid had mistaken the pages for waste paper and thrown the lot on the fire. Both Thomas and his wife Jane peered over the brink of nervous collapse. Mill was forgiven even though the loss was seemingly irrecoverable and Carlyle set to work on the second volume of the history. He completed it a year later in March 1836, going back to the first volume anew. He finished at 10pm on 12th January 1837, he wrote ‘ready both to weep and to pray’. The French Revolution was an enduring success, loved and loathed by many to date. Carlyle’s career continued apace.
Going back is amongst the most difficult things for a runner to do. The momentum that they build up over their weeks, months, or years of training is their greatest weakness. Ignoring obstacles, or even the possibility of their existence, the runner’s propulsion drives them onwards towards a real or imagined finish line. Once fixated upon it, it may as well have been engraved in the granite in their minds if you try to convince them to cut back or be more realistic with their expectations. You roll the dice; you get injured and find that you have not landed on a ladder, but a long and slithering snake. You can slide down back to the shallows, or in anger you can toss the board aside and forget your disappointment with some other, less fulfilling, activity.
Recovering ground is difficult on so many levels. You are not only forced to acknowledge that you are suffering the indignity of sliding down a snake, there is also the promised boredom of revisiting the same milestones during your training on the slow climb back up. This second, third, or eighth journey shows you a familiar, but there is a shadow upon it. This time round you feel fear. You know that as you crawl back (months later) to where you were, that this was your limit – your absolute limit. This is the point where the whole miserable fucking process is likely to begin again. You set out in trepidation and await the verdict.
Despite his reputation today, D. H. Lawrence was not particularly well known or widely respected in his own lifetime, not that is until the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928. Up until then, novels like Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women in Love were read by relatively few (very few in the case of The Rainbow). Despite continuous and pressing financial worries that plagued him, Lawrence never published anything until he was satisfied with it. This is not a writer who wants to check for typos and plot points – not an easily distracted worker, like Shakespeare. Throughout his career Lawrence always demonstrated an astonishing determination not to let go of a novel until he was sure that it was right. No, not ‘right’, perfect. Lady Chatterley’s Lover exists in three separate and complete versions (all quite different), but it was the third that Lawrence published in Florence to avoid the insulting strictures of censorship that his earlier work had encountered in Britain (his publisher’s offices had been raided for copies of The Rainbow). Sons and Lovers was written no less than four times, originally entitled Paul Morel. The stamina, determination and commitment to an artistic vision that we see in Lawrence are things witnessed surely less than once in any generation.
Both men, in their different ways, demonstrate a kind of doggedness in their ability to go back to the beginning and start again. This ability amazes me. I will let you into a secret, I am here, and I am doing this. You know I am; look, you can see me doing it. I should actually be working on a 100,000-word manuscript that I have already written. All I need to do is to get my head down and correct it, titivate it, rewrite a few bits of it so it can go back to the academic press so they might publish it. I can apply for promotion, I can move on to another project. I would never have to think about, or explain, The Epic of Gilgamesh ever again. What I should actually be doing right now is going back. I just can’t.
Have you heard of the 1867 novel The Poor Man and the Lady? It is a ‘striking socialist novel’; at least that is what Hardy called it in his self-penned biography (not autobiography, it is published under his second wife’s name). That is almost all we know about it. Only a handful of people have read it: Hardy’s friend and mentor, Horace Moule (who thought it rather coarse), and a handful of publishers all of whom rejected it. The book was put away, forgotten about, eventually to be burned. But out of the ashes of The Poor Man and the Lady an entire career was born. Once the novel was put aside, Hardy set to work on a much more market-friendly sensation novel begun in 1869, published two years later (Desperate Remedies). This was not the right kind of work for Hardy; he had not yet worked out how to knit melodrama and realism in the subtle manner that he would in novels like The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Next to be published was Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). This is a slender and lightly comic novel with a rural setting that shows Hardy’s roots as a novelist reaching deep into the earth of his upbringing in the West Country. The first paragraph is instantly recognisable as a mature Hardy’s first steps.
To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall.
A phoenix did not rise from the ashes of The Poor Man and the Lady; it was an entire writer’s career. His life as a novelist was begun. The Poor Man and the Lady reached forward in time, remnants of it are found in Hardy’s poetry, and it was worked into a novella ‘An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress’; it also became the source for his most infamous novel, Jude the Obscure. This fact is not to be underestimated in the context of his career as a writer. It is often heard around people that do not know much about Hardy that Jude was his last novel, and he was so incensed by the critical response to it that out of pique he refused to write another. Neither assumption is true. The Well-Beloved, which had started its life as a short serial in 1892 was completely reworked and published as a novel two years after Jude in 1897. Also, Jude was, by far, Hardy’s greatest financial success. He became a monied and a lettered man and for the first time in his life was free to choose what he might do. He had always wanted to be a poet, and that is just what he became. The Poor Man and the Lady became Jude, and Jude was what enabled Hardy the novelist to become Hardy the poet. In refusing to go back, Hardy’s career drew its structure from his ‘failure’. Had his first novel not been consumed by the flames, then he may not have felt the need to revisit the themes of injustice and class inequality that became the mainstay of his long and productive writing life.
Going back, turning back and admitting defeat, that you cannot finish your planned route, that you have to stop your training, retrace your footsteps home, to Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation – surely the four ugliest and least-poetic words in any language – you feel like Sisyphus letting go of the boulder at the top of the hill only to watch it tumble all the way back down.
You could just do it all again, like Carlyle, and you may find that next time you make it, but to what? That mileage that you did not achieve last time? Then what? More mileage until you injure yourself? Your injury emerged out of your behaviour and your physiology, if neither of these things change, why would you believe that the outcome would be significantly different to the first time round? If you are like Lawrence, you will do it again and again until you get it right. I tried this for most of my adult life, though I found that I do not have an ounce of the stamina that he did.
Scar tissue heals most weakly. It repairs quickly, like physiological superglue, and it lies brittly in wait for the next strains of tension so that they can tear. (That sentence works just as well with ‘psychological’ in the middle of it). Dogged determination is all very well if you have both superhuman stamina and strength to keep you going. Few do.
Hesitating to use the metaphor in a blog so clearly about the love of the natural world, you could instead recycle the experience. Like Hardy, you could put away that particular game and do something else. Same genre, different form.
If running that way has not worked for you then do not stop. Recycle your knowledge and experience and use that momentum to prepare yourself for something new. Just try doing it a little differently. Who knows, you may even try taking your shoes off…