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?