Don's Diary

July 18, 1997

"Don't do it," a colleague with many booksbehind him tells me. I try to recall my supervisor's enthusiasm for making a book from my PhD.


Readers' reports from academic publishers are not so enthusiastic. Gentle suggestions of a "new version" feel like rejection. With my short-term contract about to expire, what would the blurb say?


I.B. Tauris, a mainstream editor, accepts Never Marry a Girl With a Dead Father: Hysteria in the 19th Century Novel. I am so pleased, I take the Tube in the wrong direction.


It is part of being civilised, I think, to fear the people and things we love. This is part of my thesis about hysteria: that it is not just a weird pathology but an ordinary part of life. At least, it is part of my life - as my book (and impending marriage) generate, by turns, awe, panic, respect, protest, desire, and denial.


Marriage. (Even though my father is 15 years' dead, my husband faces down the warning implicit in the title of my planned book.) September

I open my thesis gingerly, to go through each chapter with a pencil, marking paragraphs and sentences. But then I read through whole chapters without picking up a pencil. When the publisher's catalogue arrives with the frontispiece of my book on its cover I am even more reluctant to ring my editor. The urge to phone my supervisor is strong. My book is about hysteria and how women seek others through whom to articulate themselves. I have to mistrust my conviction that my supervisor could write it better than I can.


In my eagerness to publish I never really considered the skills and patience I would need. However good my editor is, she is not my companionable supervisor. It is not her job to care for my intellectual growth or to buoy me through the ups and downs of a long project. Her concern is that I send a final draft in time for editing.


The first draft falls short. I know this because my editor makes detailed, sometimes harsh, comments. I am in danger, she tells me, of writing for my peer group and of patronising everyone else. The whole thing needs rewriting. Why, she wants to know, does this particular sentence - exclamation mark - appear in the middle of that particular paragraph? And how exactly, she asks in a neat pencil note, does the first chapter fit with the introduction?

January 1997

Her reaction to my pregnancy is guarded. Her hope, scrawled on the back of a postcard, is that the months remaining will be trouble free and that I will complete the draft before the birth. I hope so too. Apart from checkups and scans this leaves three-and-a-half months in front of my computer. Is this a second chance? Now I can sort out what I really think about my subject - the way relations between characters become hysterical in 19th-century novels - without putting academic requirements first.


Feeling chastened. My editor tells me that it is my ideas - rather than glosses on Freud, Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Charlotte Bront , and Florence Nightingale - that people pay to read. What, she asks bluntly, is my view on the relation between women's suffering and feminism, on the value of psychoanalytic treatment, and on why people read classic novels? Having stepped aside from academic formalities I face my concerns squarely. This is scary.


Cut away fatty bits and bring ambitions down to size. What is left? It has taken three drafts to find out. I am discovering craft. I am learning fast: how to write sentences that stand up and paragraphs than run on; how to assume enough that I do not bore readers, without assuming so much I lose them; how to lighten the text of the thesis without making the book spongy; how to avoid psychoanalytic-speak; and how to cease stuffing each chapter with every idea I had ever heard. Why has it taken so long to see that if I do not want my main ideas to be squashed, the rest have to go?


I feel proud of my ballooning abdomen but it is galling when people phone and it is the pregnancy, not my book, they ask after. I finish the last draft 24 hours before my (delayed) labour begins. These final weeks have been tense, tears every other day, the book and the baby running neck and neck. More than once I give up on finishing, suspecting it might be blocking the baby.


The baby (William) is lovely. Pangs of birth make a little more sense now. Hope the book is as nice.

Helen Hayward, Lecturer in English at Birkbeck College until September 1996.

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