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it was his wish that any unfinished works remained unpublished, and so he instructed that the hard drive containing his remaining works be crushed by a steamroller.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