Hazel McHaffie

Emily Dickinson

Posthumous acclaim

Whenever I prepare for a lot of travelling the thought of my death flashes across my brain. Not in a morbid way, you understand, but just as a possibility. As someone once told me in my teens, always make sure you’re wearing decent undies when you go out in case you end up in a hospital or a morgue. (Well, I did have a very sheltered upbringing!) Anyway, I’ve just returned from four days hurtling along the Scottish, Welsh and English roads, grateful to God, the elements, and other drivers for my survival.

But during this latest epic journey it also crossed my mind that I hadn’t left instructions as to the disposal of two and a half as-yet-unpublished novels. Goodness, what might I have missed out on if I’d ended my days crushed between an articulated Tesco lorry and a Skoda in a remote Welsh village with an unpronounceable name?

After all, many now-famous writers have had their works published ages after their deaths. Did you know, for example, that fewer than a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime? Her younger sister discovered a treasure-trove of her work after Emily’s death; but it took another 50 years before the critics recognised her talent. That’s like dying today, and waiting till my grandchildren are my age to be acclaimed. And a collection of unpublished essays and stories by Mark Twain appeared almost a hundred years after his death. Makes my couple of years’ wait seem insignificant, doesn’t it? Add to them, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, JRR Tolkien, Sylvia Plath … well, it all goes to show you don’t need an all-singing, all-dancing live author appearing on the Book Festival circuit to create a bestseller.

Indeed, plenty of the best-known names have only achieved real recognition posthumously (Jane Austen and Franz Kafka to name two of the most famous). And in some cases this was without the consent of the author (Kafka, Mark Twain); other people valued their work more highly than their personal wish to have it destroyed. Other authors have received prestigious awards after their death (Siobhan Dowd won the Carnegie medal only last week).

So the moral of my tale?
1. Stop worrying about delays in publishing and take heart from other authors who seemed to write faster than their publishers could (or would?) publish. Ernest Hemingway left five manuscripts which were published after his death; Catherine Cookson who published almost a hundred novels anyway, left nine behind when she died.
2. Keep writing, but make sure those beneficiaries named in my will know the facts about posthumous publication. And my publisher.

In writing about death, I’ve quite cheered myself up!

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