Charlotte Yonge's article on Authorship

This article first appeared The Monthly Packet in September 1892.
It was reprinted in 1893 in Ladies at Work

Charlotte's crisp direct voice and practical message are fresh and relevant today – perhaps some of today's amateur "creative writers" could benefit from reading her!

We sometimes hear of amateur authors. What this means at the present day there is no knowing. In former times it was clear enough. It was the persons who had something to say avid were desirous of saying it to the public at their own cost; nay, who thought it almost derogatory to accept any remuneration. Horace Walpole was the type of these.

But now there is no one who is not willing to obtain, if not appropriate, the profits of the sale that is hoped for as a testimony of success; and there are great numbers of writers, not always dependent on their earnings, but finding them an important addition to their income, and thus becoming more and more professional.

There is really no rule as to whence the impetus comes that leads to success. It is not always the sheer love of the expression of thoughts, or of setting the puppets of one’s imagination to work, though this was so entirely my own case that I long believed it essential to the commencement of original composition that (as Mr. Keble used to say one could not help it. But to dwell on women alone, how different was the motive in each case. Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters, were all instances of the same kind of instinct, of need of expression; but Maria Edgeworth was the exponent of her father’s thoughts, and her earlier works were exercises under his superintendence. Mrs. Trollope, now almost forgotten, but a considerable power in her day, wrote under the most unfavourable circumstances, late in life, for actual maintenance, arid at the bedsides of a dying husband and son. Yet her factory tale was in its way almost as effective a protest against white slavery as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was against black slavery; and Mrs. Beecher Stowe really only began to write by the advice of her mother-in-law, who thought her strength and ability wasted in trying to make puddings and mind three baby children at the same time. It was from no burning partizanship of the negroes that she began the story, but the facts grew on her after the serial was started. Her other books show her to have had real power and imagination. Mrs. Gaskell began as a distraction to her mind after a heavy domestic grief, when her youth was over, and thus learnt the charm and developed the faculty. Breadwinning actuated George Eliot’s earlier work, so likewise Dinah Muloch (Mrs. Craik) and Louisa Alcott, both of whom worked up through mere ‘pot-boilers’ to success. Miss Alcott was found a year or two ago to be the most popular author in America, judging by the amount of sales, but it remains to be proved how far this was an ephemeral matter.

One very unpalatable piece of counsel I would give. Do not try to publish very early in life. Many people have a gift of narration, and when they have plenty of leisure, they are much inclined to use it; and there is no reason against their practising it in home MSS. and competitions, but at the very best, they are really incapable of using it to the fullest effect without some experience. Their knowledge of life cannot help being limited, and if taken from books, their work is imitative. They may have indeed the noble freshness that depicts a character after an ideal standard, but if they make him and his doings impossible, the effect is destroyed. Or else they ramble into the commonplace for want of knowing that the notions, to them pathetic and lovely, are the most hackneyed. The real idea, if there be any good and original germ in it, is wasted by being put forward with inadequate powers, and cannot be used for fear of repetition when after-years have given the faculties needful for carrying it out.

Meantime, it is quite well to write. Translation is excellent practice. I once translated the whole of Manzoni’s ‘Promessi Sposi’ for a very fastidious man to read and enjoy it. When I returned to writing original stories, I found my facility of correct composition greatly improved. Translation, as regards the purse, is not apt to be profitable, and those who expect to depend on it are often sorely disappointed; but if carefully executed, not too literally, yet not too freely, it is excellent training. It has the advantage, too, of drawing the translator out of habits of slip-slop.

Almost all the writers we have enumerated had the training of letter writing in a time when it was disgraceful not to write a grammatical letter, with something positive in it. They did not scratch down a little careless slang, but felt it due to the recipient, who bore the expense of postage, to say something worth having. Thus they learnt the habit of thinking and writing good English, and it occurred to them without effort. Questions are sometimes asked about style. Good grammar and attention to punctuation, with a little common sense and avoiding of repetitions, ambiguities, or abrupt turns, are the secret of style. To read aloud and mark what jars on the ear, or is liable to be misunderstood, is a great help. A real kind, critical listener is the chief benefit, really the chief of all, but even Molière’s old woman is better than nothing. One’s own ear may be awake to blunders, even if the critic be perilously admiring.

And of all things to be avoided is any kind of ready-made facetiousness. Allusions to Scripture, such as ‘fearfully and wonderfully made,’ or ‘the last state of that man is worse than the first,’ are absolutely profane, and can only be excused by supposing the writers ignorant or thoughtless; but there are many others adopted as a sort of cheap liveliness; for instance,  ‘slept the sleep of the just,’ was, we believe, once a clever turn in a French book, but it has come to be used merely for slept soundly, and amuses no one, any more than does, ‘the light fantastic toe’ in a county paper’s account of wedding festivities.

Mr. Besant recommends writing poetry (not always for publication) as a training in rhythmical expression. He is right; it is a help to good prose, and the masters of the art wrote prose that may be actually read as poetry; witness ‘The Rose and the Ring,’ and Dickens’s higher descriptive pages.  But let no one try to publish poetry, even in a parish magazine, without trying it by the rules of measure and metre. ‘Native  wood-notes wild,’ may, by the help of a tolerable ear, and likewise imitation, sound well for some time, especially when they are an unconscious parody of a familiar hymn; but by-and-by comes an unmanageable word or thought, which is crammed  by the head and shoulders into the unfortunate stanza which  has to swallow it. Half our aspirant poets do not know that  verses ought to be capable of being scanned, and as to their  blank verse, it is prose measured off in lengths. To put down  verses as they rise in the mind or fancy, by the ear, is a very  pleasant occupation, and even more, it often relieves the mind  of strong feeling, whether high, meditative, or sorrowful. If so,  it has the soul of poetry, but it cannot have the body without  conforming to rule, any more than a sweet voice and good ear will make a real singer without knowledge of music. Whoever wants to make any real use of poetic talent, should try the compositions by rules, such as are to be found under the head of ‘Prosody’ in an Encyclopaedia, and in one of the National Society’s manuals, ‘On the Art of Teaching English Literature, No. 1; by Canon Warburton.’ The cost is eightpence. It would be no small benefit to editors if all would-be poets would try their verses by the rules here given.

There are books, generally the first works of some really powerful person, written in gaieté de coeur or with real meaning. Such are many books now classics; and later, ‘Peter Simple.’ ‘Harry Lorrequer,’ Southey’s ‘Doctor,’ ‘Pickwick,’ which carry one along by their swing, without much plot. ‘John Inglesant’ may be numbered among these, perhaps, but as a rule a plot is needful, a central aim, to which the characters must work, and which has to produce its fruits. Even a child’s books, in spite of the beloved examples of Frank and Rosamond, needs to drive at something definite, and indeed, in Rosamond, each chapter is a little, well-pointed tale in itself, only all strung on the same heroine.

Another thing required of an author is summed up in a verse of Eccelesiasticus: ‘Be not ignorant of anything in a great matter or a small.’ Verify whatever you may have set down. Then we should not have full moons twice in a month; Orion shining on summer evenings; birdsnesting in September; primroses and poppies in the same nosegay; rattlesnakes in India; tomatoes in Italy before the discovery of America; cygnets shaming the whiteness of their parents; ladies smelling lovely bouquets of sea anemones, or a philanthropic glow-worm, anxious to be of use, lighting the epitaph on a headstone in a consolatory manner; and lucifer matches in the days of John Wesley.

Methods and ways of working vary, and no rule can be laid down. Some can write best by dashing on, and correcting afterwards; others go step by step; some plan out the contents of every chapter, as did Harriet Martineau; some go on as the characters lead them; some can only write when in the vein, others can perform their daily tasks, like Trollope, without dependence on mood. The point is really the pains, the polish, and the conscience of the work; and by conscience there is much implied. There is the resolution to let no need of gain lead to pandering to the popular taste when it is for evil; the determination to deal with nothing but what is purifying, truthful, and elevating; the further withstanding of temptations to irreverence, and the honesty of giving thoroughly good, sound, unscamped work, such as may not swell the flood of worldliness and evil.

Woman can often speak with great effect to her own generation, even if her achievements do not obtain lasting fame, and this should be her aim. I have written hitherto only of her work in fiction; where she can deal with more solid subjects, her pen can be most valuable. Essays like Anne Mozley’s, histories, memoirs, science teachings made comprehensible to the popular or the childish mind, all these are subjects in which women can worthily excel. A good school book is a very profitable article till it is superseded, as it is sure to be in these days of progress.

For now we come to the business side of the matter. Mr. Besant has written excellent advice to authors, and experience for self and friends fully confirms what he says: the first start is a difficulty, but real merit will in time find its level.

Magazines seem, at first sight, the safe region for trying the wings, but they are so overcrowded that rejection often only means that there is no suitable opening. A paper of any superiority is, however, sure to find entrance somewhere, but there is a profusion of writing ‘ower bad for blessing, and ower good for banning’, and a good many refusals generally (though not always) show the MS. to be of this quality at least. The same may be said of offers to publishers. Some decline because their hands are full of other matter of the same kind, or because the subject is not in their own line, so that it is better to try, try again and again.

But on no account let eagerness to gain a hearing induce a novice to undertake to advance a sum for the printing or publishing. Such a plan does not, as a rule, come from the superior and trustworthy houses. They take a book on their own risk or not at all, and there are, unhappily, many eases on record where the aspirant has not only never had any return for the money laid down, but has never seen any more of the production itself.

A person who has no veteran litterateur to advise and direct the first venture, will do best to consult the Authors’ Society. The address is 4, Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the subscription a guinea a year, and there a candid opinion may be obtained as to whether a MS. is worthless or marketable, and likewise, where it may be best and most safely disposed of. There is a fee for having a MS. read, but this is well worth paying to spare hope deferred in the case of a mediocre one, or to assist a worthy one.

When a paper is accepted by a magazine, it is desirable always to be char whether the payment is for first appearance or copyright. This differs in many eases, and it is wiser, except in special instances, to retain the copyright, though at some sacrifice of present gain. If the author arrives at the honour of ‘collected works’ it is very troublesome to have to deal with varied claims of passing publications, and worse still to see their reappearance with no control over them.

Literature, like other avocations open to women, is all the worse for those really dependent on it, because they are under-sold by those to whom remuneration is unimportant, and this out of ignorance and desire to gain a hearing. Therefore, it is right to insist on a fair price, and not to close in haste with any offer for less. Magazines have stated tariffs for the writing in their pages, and this will enable one to estimate the value of his works; but name, fame, and success go for so much that first undistinguished efforts can only bring moderate profits, unless they make a hit.

It is wiser to have agreements looked over before signature by an experienced eye. Such, the Authors’ Society offers, and it is invaluable in preventing errors, and – where the house is not one of the great ones, free from all suspicion – in keeping a check on the publishers. Coleridge and Southey spoke of the ‘thriving bookseller’ as like him

‘who sate like a Cormorant
Perched on the tree of knowledge.’

And the unguarded now and then receive circulars sent forth from varieties of cormorants’ crags, which they would do wisely to consign immediately to the waste-paper basket.

The accredited means of publishing are either selling the copyright at a fair price, which of course is all that the author can ever expect, or – which is the method most in favour for a young untried writer – for the publisher to take the whole risk and half the profits, giving the other half to the author. This involves no loss to the author, and often is very satisfactory in the hands of any one of the higher and more honourable men of the trade. But there is a possibility with others of heavy percentages on sales, and charges for advertisements which mulct the author heavily. Sometimes the publisher offers a royalty – a round sum on a specified number of copies – arid after they are sold, a fixed amount for each copy in proportion to the price; but this is not often done unless the author’s name is a guarantee, or the subject is one certain to command popularity.

Again, the author can publish at his own expense, allowing a percentage to the publisher, and inspecting the accounts, but this is unsafe except where the author’s position is established, or – as sometimes happens in the case of books intended for distribution – where it is to be sold at a price below the ordinary rate.

If none of these methods are open, there is nothing for it but either to decide that literature is not the vocation of the aspirant, or else to persevere till something is accepted, and the horsehair thus let down by which the beetle is to ascend!

Then come the proofs. How delightful are the first, how well they are revised – probably with a pepperbox of commas ready to drop on them, and sheer delight and diversion in printer’s errors! By the bye, printers evidently do not love either colons or semicolons, and many a sentence which ought euphoniously to be divided by the latter, is either made to drag on with an ineffective comma, or cut short off with a full-stop before the sense is concluded. Also, whether by their fault or the writer’s is uncertain, the nominative absolute prevails. ‘A fair evening, the trees all lovely green,’ is no sentence, nor is, ‘A fine lad with a roguish mouth and pug nose.’ Every sentence must have a verb, or it is no sentence at all – a mere absurd interjection.

The book is out! Notices probably come in. They are not apt to be such as once they were – the fuller ones often valuable and instructive in the way of criticism, favourable or adverse. There is little time or space for such work now. One thing I would say: that it seems to mean unworthy thing to solicit a favourable notice. Surely one’s book goes out to stand on its own merits, not to be pushed and puffed. The point is, to learn whether it is good for anything, and what mannerisms are to be avoided. Praise in a review is very delightful, but it must be unsolicited to be worth having. Sometimes people actually sent round in type their favourite sentences for the reviewers to insert! This is a really absurd puff, pretty certain to prejudice the critics.

On one side, it is better not to be too eager for reviews, or to pin one’s feeling on them as Charlotte Brontë did when she cried all night over what was said of Jane Eyre. On the other, it is not wholesome entirely to avoid the sight. George Eliot was not allowed to see unfavourable criticisms, and thus the chances of improvement were missed. Keats’ death, through the ‘Quarterly’ – savage and tartarly – was a myth; and when Mrs. Wood made a malevolent critic slay a book and its author by writing in all the reviews arid papers, she forgot how unlike they all are, and how impossible the feat would be. Depend upon it, a good book will raise its head above censure, or, still worse, neglect, at the first. And when the name is made, come the trials of overmuch work, leading to carelessness and to requests for performances, more with a view to the space in the periodical than to the scope of the tale, often leading to conclusions spoilt by crowding of incidents and want of giving scenes their due development.

One thing more it may be well to say. There is at present a taste for sensation, and a certain conventional distaste for a moral, pure, and religious tone. It is a fatal thing to be led away by it. If for every idle word we speak we (are to give account, how much more for every word we write? Arid setting aside this awful aspect: what is written without the salt of life does not live, or acquire fame. Even remuneration is only ephemeral. Evil is a dead weight, sinking the performance.

It is true that women’s good heroes are apt to be called prigs. But be content to have them so. If you sacrifice your womanly nature in the attempt at the world’s notion of manly dash, you only sacrifice yourself, and mar the performance, unless it is only a very slight sketch from the outside. A woman cannot do a man truthfully from within, any more than one nationality can represent another from within. And if the ideal given is often called a prig, it is because she is incapable of the ‘Carle-hemp’ in part, and also in part, because a certain depth of self-respect and of self-assertion, often bordering on self-conceit, is really a needful weapon of defence in the midst of scenes of temptation. Boys and good poor people find it so. There is much to be said for the so-called prig; but if you find your hero growing into one, frankly own it, or else give him some loveable weakness.


Charlotte Yonge's Authorship appeared in
Ladies at work, papers on paid employment for ladies by experts in the several branches, with an introduction by Lady Jeune.

H. Mary Wilson and R Wilson, from "Hospital Nursing." Ladies at Work: Papers on Paid Employment for Ladies, By Experts in the Several Branches. Ed. Lady Jeune. London: A. D. Innes, 1893.

For a review of this book of papers, see:
Marshall Paley M. (1893)
"Ladies at Work, with an introduction by Lady Jeune"
The Economic Journal, 3, pp. 679-680.

Who was Lady Jeune?
Lady Jeune = Lady St. Helier, Susan Marie Elizabeth Stewart-Mackenzie Jeune, baroness
who seems to have been a energetic and well-connected writer and activist.

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