This from The Notebooks of Henry James:

“I heard some time ago, that Anthony Trollope had a theory that a boy might be brought up to be a novelist as to any other trade. He brought up – or attempted to bring up – his own son on this principle, and the young man became a sheep-farmer, in Australia.”

January 22nd 1879

This made me laugh and I never thought I’d say that about Henry James. For some reason it also reminded me of attending a careers evening at my old school some time ago. It had coincided with me feeling rather dispirited about my writing life but I went because I had said I would and I thought it might do me good. It was a surreal experience but the main thing I came away with was that I spent more time talking to the parents who were there than the children and my impression was that the parents were curious and somewhat wistful on their own account about the writing life but eager for me to deter their children from pursuing it. The main reason being the difficulty and unlikelihood of them ever making much money at it.

Coming back to the Henry James quotation I wonder how Trollope raised his son? What would be the ideal upbringing for a child who you wanted to become a novelist. A traumatic childhood? That’s a cliché, surely but then there is the much repeated expression that happiness ‘writes white.’ In the scheme of things there must be as many novelists with perfectly happy childhoods as unhappy.  However what I would say is that every family has its silences, its secrets and its sorrows. Those still deep pools that we stand at the edge of and wonder about. Maybe if you’re a writer you’re compelled to dip your toe in, skim a stone across and see what rises. The stories you end up writing are part solace part explanation.

On the basis that children tend to rebel against parental expectations maybe the simple moral of this tale is that Trollope should have raised his son to be a sheep farmer and then he might have produced a writer!

On the subject of sheep farmers and writing I’m currently reading the most beautiful book The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. I think it’s the book I’ve enjoyed most this year. Here is a man who is both a fantastic writer and a shepherd. One of the many things I like about the book is that it’s not about a man going on a journey, a narrative much overused by unimaginative TV producers. This is instead the story of a man who stayed put (other than a brief stint at Oxford) and did what his father and grandfather had done before him became a shepherd in the Lake District. Writing a compelling book about staying put is, to my mind, a much more difficult thing to do well and James does it very well indeed. I just love the book and don’t want it to end.

Now over to you. What were you raised to be? Did you defy parental expectations?Any suggestions as to how you would raise a child to be a novelist?

11 thoughts on “HOW TO RAISE A NOVELIST

  1. ‘writes white’! ‘writes white’!! Never heard that before and I love it! Definitely feel myself investigating that …
    I love the idea of the sheep farmer in Australia – as far away physically and creatively as the son could manage, I suspect.
    I was brought up to pay court to the artistic god that was my father and not to challenge this patriarchy in any way and especially not creatively. Though my father did want me to become a world authority on something and would use Japanese sword hilts as an example(!).
    So, given what I have chosen to do with my life, maybe I am that archetypal rebel … I had never thought of it like that. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Clive James was the originator of ‘writes white’ but I could be wrong!Japanese sword hilts!!!! The only thing my mother ever suggested I might be was a mounted (on a horse!) policewoman. Of course they were fine when I was doing law and then did go on and on and on when I gave it up. Although more to my poor sisters than me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m going to add The Shepherd’s Life to my reading list, sounds great. In my family you weren’t brought up to be things like writers or artists, you were brought up to do something sensible. I was the first to go to university and always felt different, but here I am – a librarian and a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a fantastic book. I’ve just finished it last night and wish I hadn’t. I hope you enjoy it. My parents were happiest when I was studying law. I didn’t mind the studying but I absolutely hated being an articled clerk and quit as soon as I’d finished then went to work for a small publisher, Gerald Duckworth, packing up their books in the warehouse. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had – a lovely big warehouse, Capital Gold on the radio, very little interference and a work colleague who used to dance round the books with a broom pretending it was Christopher Plummer and he was Julie Andrews. I thought I’d arrived in heaven!

      Liked by 1 person

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