Friday, September 25, 2009

'Dejected but not hopeless', or, Are you absolutely sure you want to be a writer??

Over the last week I've had two emails marking literary anniversaries and quoting bright stars in the literary firmament. September 18 was the 300th anniversary of Samuel Johnson's birth, September 23 the 120th anniversary of Wilkie Collins' death.

A member of VICTORIA, a longstanding Victorian Studies email discussion list I've belonged to for many years, posted this on September 23:

On this day 120 years ago 23 September 1889 Wilkie Collins died. He wrote his last letter just two days earlier to his doctor. "I am dying old friend. WC." and on the other side of the paper "They are driving me mad forbidding the [hypodermic]. Come for God's sake. I am too wretched to write."

Five days earlier on September 18, an old friend, an academic and regular reader of this blog, sent me this, and has very kindly given me permission to quote the email he circulated round his department on that day:

Subject: Happy birthday Dr J

Today is Dr Johnson’s 300th birthday. I feel a bit sad that a Department which once boasted a very impressive 18th-century research output, including John Wiltshire’s wonderful work on Johnson, now doesn’t teach him any more. Just thought you would like to know. Don’t break out into congratulatory whoops, though, as Dr J spent most birthdays regretting his sins and vowing to do better the next year. For example, I rather like this one, given that I’ll turn 56 this year:
Sept. 18, 1764, about 6 evening.
This is my fifty-sixth birth-day, the day on which I have concluded fifty five years.

I have outlived many friends. I have felt many sorrows. I have made few improvements. Since my resolution formed last Easter I have made no advancement in knowledge or in goodness; nor do I recollect that I have endeavoured it. I am dejected but not hopeless.

O God for Jesus Christ's Christ's sake have mercy upon me.


R.H. said...


Elisabeth said...

Surely good old Dr J could find at least one advancement of new knowledge or one piece of goodness in six months.
He must have been tough on himself. Of course we cannot judge by today's standards, but this seems exceptionally harsh.
If all writers were to suffer such self loathing, heaven help up.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I know quite a few writers who would be improved by a bit of self-loathing!

Anonymous said...

Ellen (Mrs Henry Wood): "How I wish I could be as I used to be! I am not tired of the work itself [underlined] now, never that, but I have not the strength to do it". Several months before she died, to her publisher. She was a very difficult character to write about, but this letter did provide a key. Lucy Sussex

Anonymous said...

The state of English studies and the jobe market that it goes with is pretty depressing, never mind being a writer. Who'd want to struggle through a PhD now and find an English position somewhere that isn't part-time and untenured. It's the new rust belt.


Suze said...

I visited Dr Johnson's House in London last year and recommend it to anyone who's in that place - you really get a feel for the idiosyncracy of the man and the (live-in) woman curator was a fantastic guide.

Anonymous said...

In today's world, Dr J would be described as depressed. And maybe he was, which is no surprise fiven that he'd already seen off some of his friends - - a reminder of how fortunate we are today with modern medicine. My grandma died at 56 because there were no drugs to save her. At 57, I nearly died from the same affliction - drugs saved me. My friends - touch wood, are all alive. Moi aussi! I still get down though.