Did you like James Joyce’s play “A Brilliant Career“? Or Lord Byron’s memoirs? And what about “The Poor Man and the Lady” by Thomas Hardy? Well, there is no way you could have read them, because as a matter of fact these books, among many more, do not exist anymore. It is exciting to think that unread novels and written work by these masters of Literature existed, as it is equally sad to come to terms with the idea that they may be forever lost.
Particularly, some authors willingly decided to throw away their work either as a consequence of being dissatisfied with the outcome or of being rejected by readers, critics and publishing houses. James Joyce was in fact 18 when he first wrote this play (not a novel, but a first of this kind for Joyce) and it appears as a very detailed account, according to comments of those who had the honour to read it. Ironically, it was called “A Brilliant Career” and even more ironically, burning it seemed to have brought its author just that!
Another good example of lost literary work is “The Poor Man and the Lady“, by Thomas Hardy. The 1860s and 1870s saw Hardy struggling for success, and more specifically, it was in 1867 that he attempted to have his first work published more than once. Apparently, up to five publishing houses had rejected his first novel when he decided to set it on fire. He would then publish a couple of novels anonymously before reaching fame with “A Pair of Blue Eyes” in 1873, his first work to be released under his real name. But what is left of his first ever novel? Nothing. Parts of it served as inspiration to the poem of the same name “The Poor Man and the Lady” and to the novella “An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress” which saw the light of day in 1878. Curiously, fire was somewhat of a main character in Thomas Hardy’s career: twenty years later a copy of “Jude the Obscure” was burnt by an outraged bishop and after Hardy’s death most of his notes, letters and diaries have been burnt in accordance to his will.
Other cases seem to highlight deeper issues than what one might simply see as insecurities. “The Temple at Thatch” was in fact burnt at a time where Evelyn Waugh was more than just disappointed. It was his very first attempt at writing a novel and after working on it for a year, a friend gave him such unfavourable opinion that not only did he decide to get rid of it, but also contemplated suicide. Harold Acton’s frank opinion came at a time when Waugh had long felt the pressure of being successful and had just received news that he would not work in Italy as he had previously planned. According to a few of his letters, the plot centered on a young man who inherits an estate and starts performing black magic in the only building left there, a folly.
It seems that, with just a few of the many examples of authors burning their first work, one of the main reasons for their reaction was the outcome of experiencing pressure from others or from themselves. The sensitivity of the great authors, since they convey a consciously reworked message, these great thinkers and filters of external reality, is not so foreign to reality itself. They have had to deal with insecurity and a sense of inadequacy which would then turn them into memorable authors: they were, perhaps, already different from other contemporary authors. Maybe they thought they were not good enough, but they were actually going to raise the bar.