by Paul Johnson in The Spectator
I gave up writing novels in my mid-twenties, when I was halfway through my third, convinced I had not enough talent for fiction. Sometimes I wish I had persisted. There is one particular reason. The point is made neatly by W. Somerset Maugham in Cakes and Ale:
These remarks need qualification. I’m not sure that the essay can be used for such a purpose. Hazlitt, a great essayist, wrote an extended essay — short book length — to exorcise the torturing spirit of his landlady’s awful (but to him divine) daughter, Sarah, and it did not work: merely got him into fresh, public trouble. It is true that Lamb, an even better essayist, occasionally used the form to rid himself of shaming memories: for instance, not sufficiently appreciating the kindness of his humble aunt who brought him culinary titbits when he was a charity boy at the Charterhouse, and in that delicate essay ‘Poor Relations’. But I have published, I calculate, about 800 essays without using one for exorcism. It works in poetry, especially to expunge the pangs of loss — witness Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ and Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, and most of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ — indeed nearly all Housman’s verse was exorcism. It can be made to work, I suppose, in non-fiction. I suspect there is exorcism in some of Ruskin’s prose, and Carlyle’s.
But fiction is the ideal medium for killing painful memories. The most excruciating emotional torture in Thackeray’s life — prolonged, too — was his hopeless passion for Mrs Brookfield, ending in heartbreak, bitterness and bad temper on the part of her unpleasant husband. But he cured himself by putting it all into Henry Esmond. Gustave Flaubert wanted to forget about his ten-year on-off affair with Louise Collet. So he wrote Madame Bovary, which did the trick and also proved to be by far his best novel because, unlike Salambo and Bouvet et Pécuchet, he had lived it. I think Anthony Trollope tried to deal with his illicit and unspoken love for the American girl Kate, not once but several times — she flickered in and out of at least three novels — but the fact that he had to repeat the dose shows it didn’t work, any more than did Aldous Huxley’s attempt to expel Nancy Cunard from his memory in Antic Hay.