I think probably every novelist has found themselves writing in secret at some time or other.
I certainly have.
In my case I’d announced that I Was Never Going To Write Another Word after my debut masterpiece — quite rightly — failed to find a publisher. My resolve lasted about 6 months. Just long enough to get a job in a Very Serious Institution and perceive the benefits of a monthly salary. So when I took up my pen again, it was very, very privately.
Yet I was startled to discover Libertà Hive member Joanna Maitland has just published a book I didn’t even know she was working on. (More info here.)
Joanna and I are not alone. Why?
Writing in Secret: Reason 1 — Fanny Burney
Fanny Burney was a victim of family disapproval. She had written since she was small. But at 15 she burned everything she’d ever written — plays, poems, songs, stories. Her stepmother apparently thought it was inappropriate for women to write.
And it doesn’t sound as if her father, Charles Burney, was much better. Sheridan (of The Way of the World and The Rivals) was all set to produce her comedy The Witlings on the London stage. But Dr Burney and a so-called family friend, Samuel Crisp, managed to suppress it.
Small wonder, then, that she wrote Evelina in secret. She even disguised her handwriting, because she acted as copyist for her father and the publisher might have recognised it — and then, presumably, thought it incumbent upon him to tell her father.
Fortunately Evelina was a success, so Dr Burney moderated his disapproval. George III had great fun teasing Fanny about it, saying to Mrs Delany, “She never does tell, you know. Her father told me that, himself. He told me. And I shall never forget his face when he spoke of his feelings on first taking up the book.”
Poor Fanny was a bit overwhelmed by the regal teasing. On being challenged — “Your printing! Your publishing! How came it? How happened it? Vot? Vot?” — she cried in desperation, “I thought, Sir, it would look very well in print.” She adds in her diary, “I do really flatter myself that this is the silliest speech that ever I made.”
I feel for her.
Writing in Secret: Reason 2 — John Le Carré
Your employer might sack you if he finds you moonlighting as a writer, especially if you might be giving away his secrets; and most particularly of all, if your employer is the British Secret Services.
John le Carré, so the story goes, was the archetypal “insider” who wrote a story based on his experience at work, The Spy who Came in From the Cold, and was therefore dismissed.
By his own account, he was an intelligence officer, not a spy, and anyway, the bosses knew, and approved it before publication. In an article he wrote for The Guardian in April 2013, he sets it out. He was, he agrees, writing in “extreme privacy”, but it was under “intense, unshared personal stress”, not in fear of the sack.
Writing in Secret: Reason 3 — Losing Face
So le Carré’s account brings me neatly to my penultimate point: writers write in secret for personal as much as practical reasons. In le Carré’s case the reasons sound pretty bleak.
In mine, yes, it was partly that I didn’t want my employers to think I was less than serious about my job.
But there was also a sense of not being sure where my writing was going. So no way was I going to admit to anyone that I’d started off on that uncharted journey again, until and unless I got somewhere.
Writing in Secret: Reason 4 — Fuel
And writing in secret is really, really creative. It’s like the early stages of a love affair: intense, exciting; fraught with anxiety and infinite possibilities. You hug the secret to you and go back to it in the long cold watches of the night, uncaring of all discomforts or common sense. Hooked, in other words. And, by golly, the words flow.