Monday musings on Australian literature: Unfinished books

Regular readers here will recognise that this post was inspired by my recent posts on Jane Austen’s unfinished novels, The Watsons and Sanditon. They made me think more generally about unfinished novels, and who is interested in them. I thought it might be fun to write about this, referencing Australian literature. But first, lest this sound too esoteric, it’s worth noting that literature is peppered with such books, including Charles Dickens’ The mystery of Edwin Drood, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Edith Wharton’s The buccaneers and F Scott Fitzgerald’s The last tycoon. Wikipedia even has a category for unfinished novels.

Googling the topic revealed an article in The Spectator by critic-and-novelist Philip Hensher titled “Why we love unfinished art”. His focus is visual art, but some of his ideas can be applied more broadly. He lists the main reasons works are unfinished: the creator dies, the patron or commissioner doesn’t pay up (which is more applicable to art and music), or the creator loses interest. Whatever the reason, though, he says:

Since classical times, their appeal has been understood, and artists have had to accept that what they leave unfinished may be exposed to the public, and may even be more admired than their finished productions.

I’m not sure that the last point about being “more admired” applies much to literature – at least not in my experience – but the first point about artists accepting that “what they leave unfinished may be exposed to the public” does. I don’t believe Patrick White accepted it when he asked that his unfinished work not be posthumously published. Nor did English writer Terry Pratchett. Claire Squires, in her article “Should authors’ unfinished works be completed?” in The Conversation, writes that:

it was his wish that any unfinished works remained unpublished, and so he instructed that the hard drive containing his remaining works be crushed by a steamroller.

And so, that’s exactly what happened.

All this begs the question, though, of why we want to read such works? Squires says, referencing Austen, Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald, that

their unfinished texts add to our accumulated knowledge of their writing, their rich imagination, and the development of their thinking.

Patrick White, The hanging gardenThat’s certainly so for me, and for my Jane Austen group. And it’s why, in the end, White’s literary executor Barbara Mobbs gave in to requests that White’s unfinished novel, The hanging garden, be published.

The trickier question, for me anyhow, relates to completions of these works by others. I’m far less interested in these, because it’s the original author’s writing that I want to see, not someone else’s attempt to emulate it and/or guess where the unfinished work was going. However, completion is quite an industry. For example, Tolkien’s son has worked on finishing his father’s works, and Stig Larsson’s executors have commissioned a ghostwriter to create new works using his characters. There’s clearly money in it … but it also serves fans who don’t want to let go.

Some Aussie authors and their unfinished works

  • George Johnston’s A cartload of clay: the third in Johnston’s Meredith trilogy, A cartload of clay was published posthumously, the year after Johnston’s death. Wikipedia quotes reviewer John Lleonart as saying the novel “is a mellow, often distinctly melancholy autobiographical essay. Johnston had intended it to be a novel but the fact that it is structurally incomplete does not detract from it. The absence of a contrived ending is, indeed, a factor in the book’s impact as a human document…” So, it was published as is, and there’s nothing to suggest that Johnston asked for it not to be published.
  • Eve Langley: Langley left behind ten unpublished novels that are housed at Sydney’s Mitchell Library. There have been many attempts to publish them, but permission has been refused by Langley’s daughter. However, in 1999, Lucy Frost published her book Wilde Eve, which is a “memoir” of Langley that she constructed from Langley’s unpublished writings. Bill (The Australian Legend) has written about this book.
  • Henry Handel Richardson’s Myself when young: this memoir, which the Australian Dictionary of Biography says is not reliable, was unfinished at Richardson’s death in 1946, and was published two years later. It apparently ends on her marriage to Professor Robertson, and was fleshed out with notes from her husband’s diaries and an essay on her art. I found no evidence that she did not want it published.
  • Arthur Upfield’s The Lake Frome monster: detective fiction writer Upfield is not the typical author to appear on my blog, but he was an Australian author and has an unfinished novel so is relevant here! It was published posthumously, using the manuscript and copious notes Upfield left “for this purpose”.
  • Patrick White’s The hanging garden: as mentioned above, this unfinished novel by Australia’s – to date – only Nobel Laureate for Literature was published despite White’s request that his unpublished work not be published posthumously. Literary executor Mobbs agreed to its publication to commemorate the centenary of White’s birth, and justified her decision by saying that White had burnt much of his writing before his death, but not this one, suggesting he may not have felt as strongly about it! Well, who knows, but of course the literary world is very pleased to have this work which, the front matter tells us, was “transcribed from Patrick White’s handwritten manuscript and, in the absence of a living author to consult, not edited.” So, it is his work, unadulterated, uncompleted-by-others. I must read my copy soon …

And now I’ll finish with novelist David Francis’ conclusion in his article on The hanging garden, in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

I, for one, am grateful that those 50,000 words have been laid out for us, unadorned, like an almost-ripe bowl of cherries. While it was likely tempting for editors to cover White’s pages with their own red ink, the Venus de Milo does just fine as it was found, without prosthetic arms, and Shubert’s [sic] Unfinished Symphony is pretty splendid as it is.

I know just what he means.

Are you interested in reading unfinished novels – either in their original form or as completed by others?

17 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Unfinished books

  1. You come up with some great topics for MM. Thanks for mentioning my post on Langley. Not only were the bulk of her works unpublished, but the last of them was unfinished due to her estranged husband committing her to an insane asylum and ECT.

    Another work finished by another was Catherine Helen Spence’s autobiography which was completed, some say inaccurately by her companion Jeannie Young.

  2. I remember being very disappointed when I got to ‘the end’ of a Hornblower book only to discover that Forester had died and it remained unfinished. I also read Castle Dor by Daphne du Maurier which had been started by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, it seemed obvious to me where du Maurier took over the task. I think if it’s an author that I really love then I’d prefer the book to remain unfinished.

  3. I don’t think I am much interested in unfinished works of authors. It seems somehow intrusive; especially when I hear about those who go to lengths to ensure that their unfinished manuscripts never see the light of day. I may be in the minority here though. 😉

    • You’re not the only one who thinks that Debbie. There are so many arguments for both sides, but the murky ones are where the author has said they don’t want it to happen. I have been involved in issues like this in my work as an archivist, and I did take the high moral ground and say we should follow their wishes, but …

      However, not all creators feel this way as we know.

  4. Fascinating post. I must admit that I have shied away from unfinished works. With that, your excellent post on Jane Austen’s unfinished have changed convinced me that some are worth a try. I also am very skeptical when another author tries to figure finish someone else’s uncompleted book.

  5. Enjoyed this. It is interesting how many authors stated they wanted their unfinished works not to be published after their death and sure enough it turns up. I didn’t know Billy Budd wasn’t finished. We had to read that book in a small high school in mid-Michigan for grade 12 and we all hated it. We were so bored about it and being the midwest (as it was and is) all we heard about was the religious symbolism at every turn, whether it was there or not. We celebrated when we finished it and were all traumatised by the experience. I’m glad to know now after all these years it wasn’t finished. It would have been longer. Smiling at that one. Still. Your posts are always interesting and so in-depth!!!

    • Haha, Pam, well you’ve convinced me – not that I needed much – not to read Billy Budd! I don’t know how unfinished it was, but it seems like basic ms might have been there. It was then edited by others for publication, which Patrick White’s wasn’t.

  6. I remember being thrilled to bits when the unfinished 10th symphony by Beethoven came on the market, but it was a crushing disappointment. I’ve never played it since, which says it all, really.
    In general I’m in the ‘no, thanks’ camp but I did make an exception for The Hanging Garden because, well, it was PW.
    Another aspect of the ‘dead author’ industry is those series for children that go on forever long after the original author has died. I’m thinking of RL Stine’s Goosebumps series, The Babysitters Club and one about some American twins whose name escapes me. Their sole distinguishing features are that they’re easy to read, have wooden characterisation and entirely predictable plots, so of course they’re easy to emulate. I didn’t know anything about this very lucrative phenomenon until I set the kids at school a project about their favourite author, only to discover for myself that R L Stine had died a long time ago.
    Looking back on it now, I’m surprised that some enterprising Brit didn’t do the same with Enid Blyton!

    • It’s all relative then isn’t it, Lisa! I would read anything by Austen, particularly because we have so little by her and know so relatively little about her. And I will read The hanging garden, because, as you say, it’s PW, though I might feel a bit guilty doing so, knowing what I know.

      I did read Edith Wharton’s The buccaneers, but that was in the 80s – and I was reading anything by her that I could get my hands on. But I wouldn’t read unfinished novels in general, and I wouldn’t chase those continued by others. I read that Sanditon continuation in my early twenties because it came across my cataloguer’s desk at the library. These days, I’d just read what the author had written.

      Funnily, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Beethoven’s unfinished 10th, but I do really like Schubert’s 9th.

      And thanks for all that about children’s books. I had realised that some of those series were not written by the named or original author, but hadn’t realised how prevalent it was. Given all that, it is surprising about Blyton. Maybe it wasn’t seen so much as the thing when she died? Or maybe she said NO in her will and her heirs respected that!

      • Could be… though I can’t quite imagine any author specifying that there were to be no follow-ons because surely (especially Blyton) they would LOL think they were too inimitable to be imitated!

  7. Hi Sue, I too would take the high moral ground, and respect an author’s wishes not to publish their unfinished works. If I was an author, I wouldn’t have Mobbs as my literary executor! If an author doesn’t make the request for their unfinished work not to be published it would be fine. Though, I don’t think I would be in a hurry to read the book.

    • Thanks Meg … I’m only keen for a handful of authors I really love. I’m not a fan of series and reading ongoing characters across books, so I don’t have that desperation to read more about them. Lovers of series though suffer a lot I think when authors die with their characters still functioning! (I cried desperately when I was young and the relevant TV channel screened the last ever Roy Rogers episode. I was devastated. Perhaps that cured me of falling so in love with a series or character!!)

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