The perverse magic to be found in perseverance

25 January 2018 - 12:04
Think of JK Rowling’s years of struggle and rejection before she wrote Harry Potter.
Think of JK Rowling’s years of struggle and rejection before she wrote Harry Potter.
Image: ED/CM/INPRA

Every so often you hear about someone with a creative dream that after years of effort shows no signs of coming true.

Their more pragmatic friends and relatives gently suggest that perhaps they should try being a graphic novelist in their spare time and spend the principal part of their day doing something that will put food on their table and shoo the wolf from their door, but the culture we live in is a dream factory.

It tells us we should never relinquish our dream, that failure is the fault of not dreaming hard enough, that we can achieve anything at all if we just keep going. It tells us about JK Rowling’s years of struggle and rejection before she wrote Harry Potter.

It doesn’t talk much about the JK Rowlings who wrote and wrote and wrote but never wrote Harry Potter. There are many more of those JK Rowlings than there are of the other kind.

I often think of the writer Eric Siepmann. Have you read the writer Eric Siepmann? No, you haven’t, because when he died of pneumonia in a lonely Dartmoor cottage in the unkind winter of 1970 no one had read Eric Siepmann, despite a career of nearly three decades in which he had produced poetry, plays, novels and short stories both comic and dramatic, as well as essays, reviews, works of philosophy and an autobiography, very little of which was ever published and none of which was well regarded.

If Eric Siepmann were alive today I suspect he would also write long posts on Facebook sharing his thoughts about the water crisis and telling us the details of his day and how his book is coming along.

Eric’s wife Mary had been unflaggingly encouraging throughout their marriage, but the world did not share her view of his talents. Eric himself fought a constant war against disappointment. Many times he may have been tempted to give up and get a job, but he consoled himself with the long view: one day he would be recognised; one day — perhaps even after his death — his work would be appreciated.

Perhaps that may yet be the case but it seems unlikely because Eric Siepmann wasn’t very good. Mary loved him passionately and unstintingly for 26 years — she had been married when they met, but later said she abandoned promiscuity for him — but when he died he left her with no money, no assets, a teenage son and a widow’s pension.

Mary had never finished school and had no professional training; to make ends meet she knitted jerseys and scarves and sold them to friends and at church fetes. She was ageing and in poor health and frequently had no heating and no dinner.

Mary had spent decades trying to teach herself to write but had never finished a manuscript. She tried again, and found a new voice, writing a novel about an ageing woman, destitute after the death of a beloved but erratic husband, who decides to kill herself. No one wanted it. Her agent refused to submit it to any more publishers, so Mary became her own agent.

When she exhausted the English publishers a friend paid for her to visit New York, where she went around knocking on doors and shyly introducing herself. Finally, in 1982, 35 years after she first tried to write a story, Macmillan agreed to publish her novel. She published under the name Mary Wesley. She was 70 years old.

Mary wrote almost non-stop for the next 20 years, publishing ten bestsellers and selling more than three million books. Three became BBC TV movies. Her writing is frequently dark, often funny, and usually involves women behaving badly, which is to say, splendidly. She was especially dedicated to dispelling the idea that sexual freedom was invented in the 1960s, and the notion that desire ends in middle age.

She took great pleasure in sending money in envelopes to destitute fans, remembering how much such an envelope would have meant to her. In her later years she had her own coffin made up to her specifications in red Chinese lacquer from a local Devon craftswoman named Annie Long, and used it as a coffee table.

In her final years she began an autobiography but decided it would be more fun to talk about her life than to write so contacted a biographer, Patrick Marnham. She reflected on “the pleasure of lying in bed for six months, talking about yourself to a very intelligent man. My deepest regret was that I was too old and ill to take him into bed with me.”

Mary Wesley died in 2002, aged 90. She said she hoped to meet Eric in the afterlife, so she could tell him how well they had done in the end.

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