In 1834, Thomas Carlyle, encouraged by his friend John Stuart Mill, embarked upon The French Revolution: A History. A year later, the first volume, The Bastille, was sent to Mill so that he could make notes on the manuscript. However, a servant either at Mill’s or at his mistress Harriet Taylor’s house apparently mistook it for waste paper and put it on the fire. Only four tattered leaves were saved from annihilation.
Despite suffering from what sounds like a heart attack on hearing the news, and spending that same night continuously dreaming of death, Carlyle resolutely set about writing a new first volume the next day. Six months later, he had completed “the ugliest task ever set”, and by 1837 the two-volume work was finished: a project which Carlyle claimed had come “as near to choking the life out of me as any task I should like to undertake for some years to come”.
Dr Ruth Scurr’s introduction to Continuum’s new edition of the history helps us to relive the weeping, praying and exhaustion that Carlyle experienced as he produced what Scurr calls one of the finest examples of English prose ever.
Fast-forward 170 years to another weeping author, Stephenie Meyer, famous for penning the Twilight Saga — the addictive and sickeningly romantic vampire series that is perhaps not one of the finest examples of English prose but nonetheless is prose that has sold more than 100 million books. Her pain has the opposite source: rather than suffering from the lack of a manuscript, she found that too many copies existed and for all to see on the internet. Meyer was in the middle of writing Midnight Sun, a companion to Twilight from the vampire Edward Cullen’s point of view, when the partial draft was leaked online. She has abandoned the project out of frustration that the uncompleted and uncorrected version has been read by her fans without her permission. She also feared that if she tried to write it in her current frame of mind she would end up killing off all the characters.
Meyer was justifiably angry that people across the world had shared an item that didn’t legally belong to them. But possession is a fuzzy concept when it comes to the internet.
Many internet users stick to the squatter’s rights defence that possession is nine-tenths of the law — if it’s in your hands, then it’s yours. This is quite a crafty justification, because in the virtual world you can’t physically get your hands on anything.
The internet has transformed publishing so that dilemmas like Carlyle’s now seem impossible. Most authors write their books on a computer, save their work to hard disk, back it up, and email it to close friends or the publishers. And Carlyle’s spirit can rest easy in the knowledge that even if every existing copy of his book were to go up in flames, he would still have the e-book. Unfortunately, as Meyer found out, the advantages of new technology have corresponding disadvantages, greater opportunities for privacy violation being one.
But both these authors — despite having lived very different lives and written very different books — actually suffered from the same old problem in the end: human carelessness, whereby a maid accidentally burns your magnum opus, or a friend stupidly forwards an email to the wrong person. No technology can cater for that.